15 December 2004

"Democracy has few supporters in Pakistan"

Democracy has few supporters in Pakistan. The army has been in power for nearly half the country's existence and it is commonplace for senior officers to complain wistfully that the politicians are too incompetent and too corrupt to govern. 'The Western type of parliamentary democracy', Ayub Khan once wrote, 'could not be imposed on the people of Pakistan.' Many civilians have shared his jaundiced view. The feudal landlords, the bureaucrats, the intelligence agencies and the judiciary have all shown a reluctance to accept, never mind promote, the rule of law. Pakistan's urbane, sophisticated elite and the country's Islamic radicals do not agree about much. But on the issue of democracy they can find common ground. 'It's a good thing', said Lashkar-e-Toiba's spokesman Abdullah Muntazeer speaking of Musharraf's 1999 coup, 'the parliament was un-Islamic and he's got rid of it.'

There have been three periods of civilian rule in Pakistan. The first, between 1947 and 1958, began with independence and ended when the chief of army staff, Lt. General Ayub Khan, mounted the country's first military coup. The second, between 1971 and 1977, belonged to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The third, dominated by Bhutto's daughter, Benazir, and her rival, Nawaz Sharif, started after General Zia's death in a plane crash and came to an end when Musharraf took over. Many Pakistanis explain the failure of democracy to take root by bemoaning the poor quality of their elected leaders. In reality, there are more fundamental reasons for the fact that no civilian leader in the country's entire history has ever completed his or her term in office.


Mohammed Ali Jinnah wanted Pakistan to be a constitutional, parliamentary democracy informed by Muslim values. Many Pakistanis believe that, had he lived longer, Jinnah would have been able to transform his vision into reality. Yet, for all his ideals, Jinnah never behaved democratically. From the moment of independence he effortlessly assumed control of all the key levers of power in Pakistan. He was not only the governor general but also the president of the Muslim League and the head of the Constituent Assembly. As the founder of the nation, Jinnah had such massive personal authority that few dared to challenge him and, even if they did, a momentary scowl was enough to silence his most determined opponent. Arguably, the new country, lacking any political institutions, needed a strong leader. But even Jinnah's most ardent supporters concede that the concentration of power in his hands set an unfortunate precedent! When Jinnah died, thirteen months after Pakistan was born, there was no one capable of filling the vacuum he left behind.

Pakistan's first generation of politicians were inexperienced men faced with truly daunting challenges. As well as being confronted by fundamental national issues such as the demand for provincial rights, the status of the [small minority] Urdu language and the role of Islam in the new state, they had to deal with the millions of Muslim refugees who arrived in Pakistan at a time when an economy barely existed. It was perhaps inevitable that power inexorably slipped into the hands of the only people capable of delivering any semblance of governance: Pakistan's small cadre of highly educated civil servants. As Jinnah's aide-de-camp, Ata Rabbani wrote:
... our senior politicians had little experience of the running of a government for they had spent most of their lives criticising governments in power. Now saddled with the responsibility they took the easy way out. Instead of applying themselves to the task and working hard to learn the ropes they relied on the advice of senior bureaucrats.
SOURCE: Pakistan: Eye of the Storm, 2nd ed., by Owen Bennett Jones (Yale Nota Bene, 2002), pp. 223-225

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