Challenges to democracy in Pakistan: A way forward

Internally, Pakistan’s democracy lacks democratic spirit despite following a democratic process.


By Farah Adeed
Pakistan is going to hold the general elections on 25th July, 2018. This is a remarkable breakthrough for the proponents of democracy in the country. Interestingly, this is the first time in the history of Pakistan that second consecutive elected government has completed its constitutional tenure. The caretaker Prime Minister has assumed the office and political parties have started mobilizing masses across the country. This is interesting, pleasant and desirable moment for the majority of Pakistan who believe in a democrat form of government. But Pakistan’s present-day democracy is facing challenges by internal as well as external actors. This piece is an effort to highlight the underlying challenges to democracy in Pakistan and also to suggest some workable solution for the establishment of a sustained democratic order in the country.
Internally, Pakistan’s democracy lacks democratic spirit despite following a democratic process. Unfortunately, both the government and the opposition still demonstrate authoritarian tendencies in and outside of the parliament. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N) government, for example, has made all efforts to save Nawaz Sharif, former party chief and ousted PM, when he was disqualified by the highest court of the country in a corruption case. Although the government accepted the decision yet many PML-N leaders and ministers not only made anti-judiciary speeches but also threatened the judges and their families. Such a politically selfish behavior is at least not acceptable in a democracy where it is mandatory to establish an independent judiciary and the rule of law.
Furthermore, the role of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), a leading opposition party headed by Imran Khan, was interesting the in parliament. Oppositions are generally supposed to be ‘watchdogs’ to ensure that the government functions properly and according to the constitution of the state. But the PTI crossed a redline and attempted to topple PML-N’s government. Imran Khan was apparently desperate to get the government dismissed by any means to become the PM. Prolonged sit-ins in Islamabad over the alleged rigging during the general elections in 2013 was a major challenge for the PML-N. But fortunately the government managed to survive.
Externally, democracy needs an independent political context to evolve but it hardly finds one. There are always some external forces which either challenge or counter the democratic process. Pakistan’s democratic deficit has generally been associated with unrestrained role played by the armed forces in the political process. This is an institutional argument while explains democratization and existing challenges to it while focusing on the role of an institution i.g. military throughout the history of Pakistan. I term the institutional argument as an external challenge to democracy. The military establishment does not intervene into politics directly these days but their role is visible through indirect and undercover ways.
The military establishment in Pakistan does believe in a controlled democracy. It is believed that since the people of Pakistan are naive and do not have required political knowledge to make sound judgements so the ‘country’s guardians’ should play their part. Alliances are formed or broken with the help of security and spy agencies, elections are managed by these agencies and politicians are given a list of what-to-do and what-not-to-do in ‘the best interest of the country’. Agencies in Pakistan are still the kingmakers.
Any external intervention in the political process not only violates the constitution of the state but also compromises the core principles of democracy.
The question is why these internal and external challenges to democracy exist in Pakistan? There may be various answers to this simple question. But the most interesting one is based upon culturalist paradigm. Democracy evolves in a democratically compatible culture. Initially, democracy faces challenges in any society. The existing power-structures reject democratic order and attempts are made to suppress voices rising for a liberal/constitutional democracy. But with the passage of time when people get to know about their civil rights and constitutional protection of their basic rights, they become the guardians of democracy against the forces of status-quo.
Unfortunately, Pakistan lacks a culture where people have been realized that democracy works better than a dictatorship. People in Pakistan are still to be told that why democracy is better than a military dictatorship? Due to cultural poverty of democratic norms there is little or no guardianship offered by the people of Pakistan for democracy and its sustainability. Generally, people do not own the system and, therefore, they do not consider it imperative to protect it.
The demonstration of dictatorial or authoritative tendencies by the political elite (government as well as opposition) validates the thesis that they have been grown up in a culture where there is no regard for democracy as a system or as a philosophy of everyday life. Similarly, the military dictators and spy agencies are also the products of the same politically stagnant culture which does not inculcate respect for the constitution or the rule of law in the mind of people.
When the government, opposition and military forces have their respective personal or institutional interests then what is the future of democracy in Pakistan? Democracy needs time and guardianship of the people to get evolved. Therefore, the public intellectuals in Pakistan have a heavy responsibility on their shoulders to educate their people and provide them with enough knowledge of democracy and its benefits for them so that they become vigilant defenders of democracy in Pakistan.
Social media is the best available source for the Pakistani public intellectuals to interact with the people and profess them democratic ideals. A digital public sphere can be more effective to communicate with citizens all across the country to campaign for a genuine, representative democracy in Pakistan. People in Pakistan need to be professed that democracy means accountability across the board, rule of law, freedom of expression, insurance of human rights and proper political representation of every group in the society.
Farah Adeed works as Research Associate with Global Village Space in Pakistan.

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