Reforms Are Needed For Democracy To Work

Reforms Are Needed For Democracy To Work

In the year 1988—the year parliamentary democracy returned to the country after dark 11 years of military rule— Pakistani populace was enthusiastic about political change from a military dictatorship headed by a rough army general to the soft touch of a young lady (Benazir Bhutto) presiding over the political system. The new political leader—both ruling PPP and its head, Benazir Bhutto, itself was coming under the influence of neo-liberal political and economic philosophy that was swaying the western world led by Washington and London, especially. In the west, the days of social welfare state and the state and big industrialists taking care of down trodden were ending.

The era of privatization, less regulated free market and increased influence of big money was commencing in Western societies. Benazir Bhutto spent most her exile years in London—London which was beaming with Thatcherism that was taking Great Britain away from socialist economic order towards unregulated free market economy, less attuned to the needs of lower strata of the society—and during her election campaign for 1988 parliamentary election, Benazir Bhutto promised to the industrial sector to end nationalization program and to carry out the industrialization by means other than state intervention.

This was the reversal of her father’s policy of state intervention in industrial processes to achieve the objective of social welfare. She didn’t succeed in her endeavor in the first tenure as there was a lot of opposition to the privatization process. But in the second tenure beginning in 1993 she initiated a massive privatization of industry nationalized during her father’s tenure. Benazir’s political opponents were not ready to be left behind on this count and they also started to dance to the tunes of neo-liberal economic order that was swaying the world after the defeat of communism and the collapse of Soviet Union.

This was the time in Pakistani society of great excitement as the country had only recently returned to a parliamentary democracy—freedom, civil liberties and political association and activities became the buzz words in those days. Intellectuals and political theorists started to argue—and rightly so—that cause of Pakistan’s problems is lack of democracy and panaceas for the social and political malice society is facing is more democracy. A continuous and sustained political process, they argued, would push the bad apples out of the political process and a clean and vibrant system would emerge from this rotten political setup. Feudal and big money influence from the system will be erased and non-representative institutions will be pushed into the background as supremacy of political institutions will be established. Thus they advocated a sustained and continuous political process in the country to put the country back on track. Nothing of the sort happened in actuality—feudal and big money are still dominating the system, non-representative institutions like judiciary, intelligence services and military are controlling the political forces as well as the political system  and last but not the least political institutions are still weak and dependent on non representative institutions for establishing their writ, legitimacy and credibility.

The advocates of unfettered and continuous political process as a panacea could possibly argue that since 1988 the political process has not been uninterrupted and unfettered. There was a military intervention in October 1999, which continued till 2008 and besides the military and intelligence services continued to interfere in the political system and carry out political engineering in the intervening period. This may be all true. But this argument doesn’t devalue the proposition that the political forces, which believed in democracy and sustained political process, didn’t help by not initiating any reform program that could have reduced the influence of big money and could have alleviated the social and economic inequalities prevalent in the society—the social and economic inequalities which consolidate the position of upper strata of the society on power structure. For this upper strata of the society don’t see democracy and political system as a matter of life and death and always side with the non representative institutions in any battle for control of political institutions in the name of patriotism and national interests.

In Pakistan’s case the natural house of big money is always the non-representative institutions, especially the military—the military, which during more than 30 years of direct rule, has created a class of crony capitalists, who not only control the financial resources of the society but have now come to dominate the political structures of the country. The non representative institutions in 30 years of direct rule have served three kinds of sometimes overlapping interests. First they served the institutional interests by deciding the debate over distribution of national sources overwhelmingly in favor of the military.

Second, they served the ethnic interests by locating most of the financial and industrial assets of the country in the province of Punjab—with non-representative institutions overwhelmingly composed of ethnic Punjabis. Third, they promoted a class of crony capitalists—gave them loans, access to foreign capital and natural resources of the country—who were either chosen from amongst them, were their relatives or were politically, ethnically, religiously or socially resembled them. The neo-liberal philosophy that newly emerging political leaders began to espouse in the post-Zia period actually helped consolidate this crony capitalism that was in the first place founded and promoted by the military governments.

In my reading of Pakistan’s political history, I have found (most of the modern and independent political literature bear witness to this fact) that the single most important factor in preventing democracy for taking root in our society is none other than the state policy of depriving smaller nationalities of their share in state power and state resources. Sindhi, Balochis, and before 1971 Bengalis were not allowed their due share in state institutions and their due place in representative institutions.

At the time of independence, Pakistan Muslim League, the ruling party of the newly independent state, was hardly a representative body in the societies and lands which formed part of Pakistan. In the East Pakistan Muslim League was badly defeated by locally formed ethnic parties in 1954 elections for provincial assembly and in West Pakistan Muslim League and its leadership hardly had a representative base. West Pakistan comprised of four distinct ethnic societies, where All India Muslim League, during the struggle for Pakistan, formed alliances with local and native political elites, who rebelled against Muhajir-Punjabi dominance of the central government, till the first military coup. First the Muhajir-Punjabi bureaucratic and political elite dominated the government at the center, which was later replaced by military top brass composed mostly of Pushtun and Punjabi generals. Both these types of ruling elites followed a policy of exclusion as far as local ethnic elites in the provincial units that formed part of the western Pakistan. The policy of exclusion of local elites from central government structures that deprived them of access to the state resources set the stage for a process that resulted in weak political institutions and hence weak democracy in Pakistani society.

This background was explained with the aim to suggest two broad reforms, which, in my opinion, are necessary to make democracy project a success in our society—firstly, social and economic inequalities have to be drastically reduced. Even if state intervention is needed, such a reform is absolutely necessary to make democracy a successful project.

Secondly broad reforms are needed to give the smaller ethnic nationalities their due share in the federation of Pakistan. Otherwise, democracy will continue to be slaughtered at the altars of religiously inspired nationalism, which has time and again proved to be a hoax of our history.

Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.