Pakistan Politics: Illusions and delusions of democracy


Dr Rubina Saigol
The moment one picks up the newspaper in the morning, one is struck by the collage of various news items that do not seem to have any apparent thread tying them together. There are daily reports of bombing by US and NATO forces on Pakistani territory killing mostly women and children in the area; one finds news items about the bombing or torching of girls’ schools in Swat or other areas in northwest; one comes across blood-curdling incidences of so-called ‘honour killing’ and women being butchered, slashed shot and buried alive by influential people an act subsequently upheld by Senators; one reads about all kinds of new political alignments between seemingly hostile forces such as PML (Q), a party that voted a uniformed general into the presidency, and the PPP; and there are speculations that the dreaded Article 58 (2) b and the abhorred 17th Amendment may not be going away anytime soon.

So what is the common thread that ties these disparate events together? Briefly ruminating on these happenings one is led to the inevitable understanding that the common underlying problem is the absence of Rule of Law, which in turn signifies the absence of democracy and both democracy and Rule of Law are necessary conditions for the exercise of human rights. One might ask, why do we not have democracy given that national elections were held on February 18th and the people of Pakistan gave a verdict in favor of democracy and against dictatorship. Why is the unfolding script revealing the grand plan that was apparently put together prior to the elections through political wheeling and dealing? Musharraf had predicted that the MQM and the PML (Q), along with the PPP would form the new government. Some analysts have also pointed out that the victory of the ANP and defeat of the MMA were also a part of this grand design.

However, it has taken time for the grand design to materialize because the PML (N) was the wild card – the party that was not supposed to be included in this patchwork. It was to be sidelined, kept out of power and instead Musharraf was to remain and oversee the new dispensation. The unexpected victory of the PML (N), mainly in the populous Punjab was the piece of the puzzle that did not fit and forced a change in the grand plan in that Musharraf was forced to quit. With him out of the way the PML (N) can now be ditched for re-alignments to take place in accordance with the pre-election plan.

So while the people of Pakistan were given the grand illusion of ushering in their own government through the power of the vote, they ended up being mere pawns in a game, the rules of which had been set elsewhere. They were provided with all the trappings of democracy – elections, voting, political parties, representatives, a parliament, a cabinet and an array of ministers. In other words, democracy was there in form – but not in substance. What we discovered was that we were to be denied sovereignty over our territory and resources; we were to be shorn of our human rights and deprived of the Rule of Law, a free judiciary and a constitution cleansed of the undemocratic 17th amendment and 58(2)b. The obvious question is why did this happen.

There can be a number of answers to such questions. Here I propose a few tentative answers as I ponder over our unending predicament: 1) It is almost a cliché, nonetheless true that we have tried to usher in democracy without any serious attempts at land reforms to end our own unique brand of ‘feudalism’; 2) We have been unable to transform the most pernicious aspects of our tribal culture and instead have tribalized the state; 3) we are geographically located in a region that is geo-politically and geo-economically central to aggressive, resource-seeking global powers. There are many more complex reasons for the agony our nation is undergoing, but there is space here to reflect broadly only on these three dynamics.

As we failed in transforming large landholding particularly in Southern Punjab and Sindh, our parliament and our provincial assemblies got filled with landlords and powerful local influential people. Our military dictators as well as our elected political parties invariably need the support of the landed and tribal elite to consolidate their power. Zardari relied as much on the support of such people as did Musharraf for his election as president. In return the parties of large landholders and tribal Sardars/Khans extract their pound of flesh. This pound of flesh may be in the form of ministries, but it is also takes the form of ignoring, overlooking, condoning or concealing tribal and feudal practices ostensibly committed in the name of culture, religion and custom. In fact reports indicate that the JUI (F) demanded the repeal of the Women Protection Act of 2006 in return for support in the presidential election. Women’s rights and protections are so often the first to be bartered away in the muck and mire of party politics.

In the past and present we have had at least four senators condone so-called ‘honour killing’, Ajmal Khattak of the ANP, Sardar Salim Mazari, Israrullah Zehri and Jan Jamali. The perpetrators of crimes committed against women in the name of culture or religion, but in reality for economic motives, often escape punishment as their support is crucial for the ruling party or a dictator. The formal state system which includes the police, the local administration and functionaries, who are under the national and provincial governments, then collude to hide or justify the crime. The writ of state weakens in the local areas controlled by senators, MNAs and MPAs whose support is required for the magic number to win presidential elections or vote of confidence. Our political structures rest on economic structures which in turn rely on tribal practices, and jirgas and panchayats, to maintain power in the local area. In the collusion between formal and informal systems, the formal system capitulates to the informal practices as in the case of the Qisas and Diyat, a tribal custom that has become a part of formal law and allows the perpetrators of ‘honor killing’ to go free. Our state has therefore become tribalized instead of altering tribal or ‘feudal’ practices in line with concepts of democracy and human rights.

Democracy, sovereignty and human rights, the hallmarks of a modern independent state, have been scuttled in our region further because of our geo-strategic location. We rest on the border with Afghanistan, the gateway to the riches of Central Asia and the Caspian Basin. We are the route for arms and ammunition for the imperial forces and we sit on the intersection of militant, military and extremist forces on either side of the Durand Line. There are militants of various shades and hues, some misguided by an archaic version of religion, others simply enthused by nationalist anger over the occupation of their territory, still others that represent a criminal element that takes advantage of the blurred boundaries between religious militants, ethnic warlords and nationalist fighters to commit loot and plunder.

Partly because of our location, and partly owing to our past mistakes in imagining Afghanistan as our strategic depth, colluding with the Taliban and their culture of violence while also allowing the US imperial power to use our territory and resources to its heart’s content, we have locked ourselves in the unenviable situation of ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’. We are suicide-bombed if we try to clean the militant-infested area; we are bombed by the US forces if we try peace deals to establish some order and the writ of state without bloodshed. Caught between a blood-thirsty, trigger-happy superpower on one side and equally blood-thirsty and heartless militants on the other, we watch helplessly as our citizens are bombed, forced to flee and become displaced refugees in their own land.

To top it all we are seriously cash-strapped and need money and spare parts from the very Superpower whose ‘war on terror’ has wreaked havoc in our country. So we sell our family silver – our national assets to make ends meet. We quietly acquiesce in the endless and borderless war in return for just enough dollars to keep us afloat. We are forced to look the other way as our country is attacked. We are constrained to cobble a coalition that can only have parties acceptable to our imperial tormentor. We cannot restore our independent judges who may have taken suo motu notices over the murders and burying live of innocent women; we cannot restore the rule of law for it may mean demanding our sold citizens back, stopping military operations against our own people and ensuring due process. It is not hard to conclude that imperialism is by definition the antithesis of democracy, rule of law or human rights. The ‘great democracy’ that has been handed down to us amid cheers and applause is a grand national delusion that conceals global and national politics of power and the capture of resources.

Source: The News, 19/9/2008

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