Populism vs democracy-By Ayesha Siddiqa

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DESPITE the presence of an elected government in the country, there is nervousness and unease on the streets. Those that ridicule democracy are having a field day, satisfied as they are at the thought of people getting punished for choosing leaders who have not been able to deliver and are caught up in internal disputes.

Some educated and powerful elements feel that their opinion that Pakistan’s ‘illiterate’ people are incapable of exercising the correct judgment has been justified. But the counter question is: were the people wrong when they voted in political leaders and showed the door to a military dictator?

The answer is in the negative. The people followed their correct instinct when they voted for a political dispensation in Islamabad. Moreover, democracy’s sad experience in Pakistan should not negate the concept of its existence. Democracy is about a system where different groups of people get an equal opportunity to contest for their interests.

From a common man’s perspective, elections are about electing politicians to negotiate the interests of the people, interests which include greater access to justice, better governance, accountability, the rule of law and provision of services such as law and order, health, education and all that a society requires for its survival.

What we have instead is a government that has adopted populist means for its own survival. For example, the recent out-of-court settlement to release Dr A.Q. Khan was meant to appease the people. The action is equivalent to a morphine injection being administered to a drug addict. People are kept happy for a short while and this gives them a sense of confidence that the government is doing exactly what they want. A.Q. Khan is one of the heroes created by successive governments. He is the man who is believed to have played a critical role in the production of the nuclear bomb, and whom the country now has to defend as a symbol of its honour and security.

Nuclear weapons have become critical to Pakistan’s identity and so releasing the national hero is meant to comfort people who would otherwise start reminding the government about their need for greater social and economic security. Of course, the present government would not explain to the people that this freedom of sorts was basically a prior arrangement and has nothing to do with the independence of the judiciary; or that it’s about the government’s urgent need to ratchet up its popularity; or even that Dr Khan was kept inside and is under strict observation because of his part in the racket — which caused Islamabad to be caught almost red-handed — of providing nuclear technology to other countries.

Surely, we must have boosted the security of nuclear weapons since the expose but it will take a while before the world begins to trust us again. More importantly, people were never informed that the proliferation we were accused of through Dr Khan’s network compromised Pakistan’s security.

In any case, the emphasis on military security and the bomb as opposed to food, shelter, clothing and opportunities for social mobility is based on a flawed principle that links greater social and economic security with a robust military security. Countries that cannot defend themselves will never be affluent or have a share of global resources. Unfortunately, we still lack the ability to strengthen ourselves economically.

But referring to the game that governments play to seek public support, this is about populist politics rather than democracy. The renowned Pakistani political scientist (late) Hamza Alavi was of the view that what Pakistan has is “legal constitutionalism” and not democracy. We have never had the latter, not even periods of transition to democracy. According to his idea, we continue to have elections which bring strong interest groups into power rather than democracy which is meant to open up political space for ordinary people.

To paraphrase a popular argument, the answer to bad democracy is more democracy. But the problem is that we may still not see a change in the system unless there is structural transformation. Even during the early years after independence Pakistan emerged as a bureaucratic state when politics, political parties and politicians were meant to bring some legitimacy to the system. So, there was a partnership among the political parties, the politicians and the civil-military bureaucracy. And while the state bureaucracy considers itself the creator of national ideology and its primary guardian, the political class and significant segments of civil society continue to partner it because service delivery to the people was never one of the main goals.This creates a highly turbulent political system of a revolving door in which civilians replace the military to be replaced themselves. And the circus goes on. Once in power, the politicians begin to believe that they are in control of the state and the government and operate under the false assumption that they can change the situation from within. Little do they know that the bureaucratic system is far more robust and they the politicians are at best delusional.

After every injection of democracy, society itself becomes delusional and thinks that there will not be another military takeover. However, it doesn’t take a lot of time before minds begin to change and people get tired of the political dispensation. At present, things are not too different. The lack of performance, accountability and rule of law accompanied by the breakdown of all civilian institutions is bound to result in mounting frustration and lead to a change that will be welcomed by the bulk of the population.

Another military takeover will of course create its own set of frustrations and then the people will begin to wait for another cycle of civilian rule. Of course, the problem right now is that other forces have also emerged to fill the gap. These are the militant forces which will further weaken political control.

It is a fallacy to keep arguing about the majority of Pakistanis not being pro-Taliban. Many cite the election results in support of their argument, without recalling that a political system that does not deliver is at best a representation of a predatory patronage system in which people use their right to vote to get the crumbs on offer. After all, how does one survive in a system in which power is centralised, any change is at best temporary, the only alternative ideology is violence and the political legacy of any political leader and party is brutal power and patronage?

Is it just a coincidence that at this juncture one is reminded of numerous African states like Ethiopia, Congo, Chad and others where the situation could not improve despite being the country’s being blessed with capable people?

The writer is an independent strategic and political analyst.



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