Democratic Transition in Pakistan

The national elections in Pakistan last month were surprisingly successful, with turnout of 55.02 percent, the largest since 1970 and a victory for democracy in that the voters refused to buckle under to the intimidation of radical Islamists who threatened violence.

The election meant the first civilian transfer of power after the successful completion of a five-year term in the 65 years since Pakistan became a nation. However, that is hardly a vote of confidence. Even a cursory look at its past would show that Pakistan has been tumbling from crisis to crisis, and only rarely experiencing moments of relative peace and stability.

Many political leaders have emerged during those 65 years, every one trying to solve Pakistan's socio-political riddle in his own way. Ayub Khan (1958-69) introduced presidential government at the center and a system of basic democracies at the grassroots. Z.A. Bhutto (1971-77) attempted to implant his grand program of Islamic Socialism. Zia-ul-Haq (1977-88) introduced Islamization at the national level, and President Purvez Musharraf (1999-2008) tried to make Pakistan the "South Asian Tiger."

None succeeded, perhaps because of the power structure that evolved out of these programs, leading to the concentration of power in a few hands, rendering the majority powerless and ineffective. Moreover, none of the programs took into account the pluralistic and heterogeneous nature of society, and none really understood the importance of cultivating democracy as a culture rather than as a process.

It is for this reason that most of Pakistanis define democracy only in terms of the right to cast a vote, and freedom of expression, though most of them (about 60 percent), as shown in the Gallup-Pakistan Survey 2011, prefer democracy over any other system, and the majority dislike politics as a profession for the long periods of political fragility, power concentration, military dictatorships. Some 70 percent according to Gallup distrust the leadership as well political parties.

In other words, lack of a healthy political culture has been and continues to be the bane of Pakistan's political stability.

In fact the political culture is shorn of real participatory politics. Although a newly elected government is being sworn in, implementation of democracy at the grassroots remains a major challenge, without which one cannot expect the growth of a participatory system. There are questions why democracy remains less operational and why power remains concentrated in few hands or how these problems can be resolved, and how people can be really empowered cannot be answered without taking into account the very peculiar and deeply entrenched problems of Pakistan's polity.

Unless the role of state institutions is changed, it is difficult to expect the establishment of rule of law and supremacy of the constitution. What has led to the politicization and domination of the military is the ‘inherent' security imperatives, both internal and external. This has further led to diversion of resources away from critical expenditure on socio-economic development to less critical matters.

According to a 2010 report of the Planning Commission of Pakistan, defense expenditure far exceeded per capita expenditure on the education and health sectors combined. Per capita defense expenditures stood at US$26, while health and education stood at US$24 combined. As a result of this imbalance, more than half the population does not have access to proper education or good governance, which are essential elements of providing the less privileged classes a say in politico-economic affairs. Having no such privilege implies a poor political culture—hence, problems of profound political transition.

Secondly, the corollary to the first point is the peculiar role of the bureaucratic elite and the role of political and economic institutions. A number of studies, such as the one Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty authored by Daron Acemoglu, an MIT economist, and James Robinson, a Harvard University political scientist, have shown that politico-economic progress of a country is irrefutably linked with the role of state institutions. They conclude that nations with inclusive political and economic institutions progress to prosperity while those with extractive political and economic institutions - those that are designed to extract incomes and wealth from one subset of society to benefit a different subset - fail to cater even to the basic needs of life.

Inclusive institutions are those that aim at improving the public welfare, and which ensure good governance. Extractive ones cater to the benefit of the governing elite and remain under its domination. In the case of Pakistan, whose institutions have remained deeply under the influence of the bureaucracy since its independence, they have been resisting to give up their domination over the key instruments of power, resulting in a highly stratified social order.

Another consequence of this power-dominated social structure is that the quality and efficiency of state institutions have declined and the masses are almost deprived of basic social and economic services, energy crisis and rampant corruption being the major examples. This has created not only a crisis of legitimacy for the government institutions, but also dampened the prospects of upward social mobility, which are again essential elements of democratic transition.

Third, the fragile political culture as reflected in the lack of consensus shows the backwardness of Pakistan's polity at the national level. The democratic process remains dysfunctional, without a minimum consensus on the operational norms of polity. As the political process functions over time and offers opportunities for sharing power and political advancement, it gets more support from among different sections of the society.

This makes the political institutions and processes viable. But Pakistan's polity has been unable to fully develop a minimum consensus on the operational political norms. The tendency of the dominant political elite to impose selective consensus by excluding those who disagreed with them has retarded the evolution of such norms. In any political system, political parties and leadership play a critical role. It is through these instruments that national interest is articulated and political mobilization carried out.

This is especially true of a democratic system in which political harmonization and the evolution of a participatory political system are greatly facilitated by political parties and leadership. In Pakistan, on the contrary, political parties have traditionally been weak, often splitting into factions, and not playing their roles efficiently and effectively.

Their role has suffered also because of the frequent suspension of political activities under military regimes, infrequent elections, the absence of attractive socio-economic programs, lack of financial resources, and because of the domination of political parties by the selected few. This hijacking of political parties has resulted not only in the personalization of politics, but also in inefficient leadership.

Similarly, at the local level, the division of society along sectarian, ethnic, linguistic and caste lines has debarred democracy from taking roots. Polarization at this level blows back at provincial and national level politics, leading to frequent disagreements over matters of national importance. For instance, 97 percent of Pakistanis are Muslims, and the majority agree that the political system must have some relationship with Islam.

However, they are unable to agree on the precise nature of this relationship. As a consequence of this controversy and the lack of resolution, the debate on the desirability or undesirability of incorporating Islamic junctions has become acute, with the emergence of extremism and terrorism in the name of religion. And, as far as its impact on the system is concerned, it has adversely affected the prospects of socio-political stability.

Another side effect of this ethnic and linguistic polarization can be seen in the Kala Bagh Dam issue, where other provinces' real or imagined fear of Punjab's domination over the dam's prospective benefits has been a major stumbling block in its materialization.

The core problem of a genuine democratic transition lies at the operational level. A system of government devoid of practical and effective mass participation, and which is dominated by the gentry, cannot function as a representative system.

A major reason for this lack of understanding and awareness about practical politics is lack of education. We cannot hope to expect democracy grow unless people are empowered. This lack of empowerment resulted in the 1971 dismemberment of the country and today a similar sort of situation is developing in Balochistan. Until the masses are directly engaged in the political process through local government and until political parties and leaders start cultivating a national spirit instead of perpetuating societal divisions, the prospects for a democratic transition remain bleak.

As long as the masses remain powerless, institutions will remain extrusive, and the welfare of the masses a second priority. Mere change of governments at the center and the provinces does not and cannot lead to the growth of democracy. The new government has to redesign its priorities. It has to decide what is to give to the masses: power or ammunition, good governance or mere ideas of governance.

No idea, however ideal, can work until it takes into account the ground realities of a society, and until it suits it. Pakistan's is a heterogeneous society, and only a democratic cultural ideal can accommodate this plurality and unite all sub-cultures with the national culture.