‘Democracy’ vs democracy

Published: June 24, 2011
The writer, a former Ambassador, is Senior Visiting Pakistan Fellow at the School of Advanced International Studies Johns Hopkins

The writer, a former Ambassador, is Senior Visiting Pakistan Fellow at the School of Advanced International Studies Johns Hopkins

One of the most confused and confusing debates around is on the subject of democracy, where it is easy to confuse concept with practice, form with substance and illusion with reality.

Yes, democracy does have form and substance, and it is important to understand the difference. The form manifests itself in electoral democracy, sustained by a process of free and fair elections and peaceful and orderly change of government. But the form must embody good governance to empower people, and it can do so only by resting on free and representative institutions, constitutional liberalism or any other value based system, strong rule of law, and a just and equitable social order. That is the substance.

Democracy is also a graded experience which nations acquire by hard work in schooling themselves in literacy and appropriate habits of thought, accommodation and tolerance, and by modernising social structures with openness to such concepts as rights of man, people’s sovereignty and humanistic values. In many ways, democratisation is a painstaking struggle indistinguishable from the state and nation building.

Finally, there are some preconditions that make democracy possible, especially reform of the social structure and education, combatting intolerance and extremism and finding a national purpose. Only in this favourable environment can one lay the foundation of democratic ideals and facilitate the emergence of a country at ease with its religion and at peace with itself.

Where does Pakistan stand? In my view, at the beginning of the beginning, where even the struggle to create preconditions has not begun in earnest. The debate about democracy is stuck in the civilian vs army rule argument and the completion of the civilian government’s term. Both, the civilian and military governments, have done enough damage to account for all the harm that has come to Pakistan. The fact is, it is not one stakeholder or institution that is responsible for Pakistan’s crisis. Seen from a historical perspective, both the army and feudal dominated civilians have been united in the common pursuit of strengthening themselves and their class and institutional interests. They were allies as well as rivals — allies in maintaining the status quo and rivals in the struggle for power.

So the debate should not be whether bad civilian government is better than no civilian government but how to have a good civilian government that is truly democratic.

The liberals clap when the media is free and a judge speaks up and lawyers march for democracy. But can we equate one individual judge’s activism with an independent judiciary? Yes the media is free but is it really debating the fundamental national issues or is it trapped in the emotion of the moment? Yes there is an active civil society but part of it is as much uncivil as civil. Lawyers march for democracy but some of them also shower rose petals on Mumtaz Qadri, an assassin. And the young are confused, making them vulnerable to radical thoughts and aspirations for progress and modernisation, making them prone to guilty feelings for being not Islamic enough. They cry out for leadership and moral clarity.

The only segment of population that has a clarity of purpose are the elite — civil, military, in the government and in the opposition — who have managed to defend the status quo by keeping the nation weak, insecure, divided and chained to illusions and emotions that provide a surrogate national purpose and shift attention away from the real issues. So when it is said let the ‘democratic process continue’, what democratic process we are talking about?

Published in The Express Tribune, June 25th, 2011.

Facebook Conversations

Reader Comments (11)

  • Sajjad Ashraf
    Jun 25, 2011 - 7:56AM

    Makes sense…Recommend

  • Rao Amjad Ali
    Jun 25, 2011 - 12:30PM

    And the point is? Wait until the cows come home and then take a swipe at civil reforms? Abandon democracy project, sit out in the sun until the literacy rates rise? Pray for a change of hearts and minds of army’s leadership and blossoming of a greater sense of enlightened responsibility among the elite, feudal lords and, might I add, a coterie of pro status-quo civilian enablers who are inherently reticent to civilian reform agenda and by force of habit loathe politicians?

    To paint the role of Pakistan’s highly politicized army and weak political formations with the same brush reflects very poor understanding of Pakistan’s history and can only lead to flawed analysis of Pakistan’s complicated geopolitical frame.

    In my judgment, the army’s enduring role as the primary purveyor of civil and military complex and beneficiary of an unduly large portion of the national income has created an asymmetrical political and socio-economic power structure which has impeded Pakistan’s progress on multiple fronts. Unabated, the army sucks up a significant portion of the budget, is guilty of bludgeoning democracy movements, consistently feeds into an anti-India hysteria, in part to legitimize its own raison d’etre, and allegedly harbors good relations with an amalgam of fundamentalist entities.

    As for the judiciary, the revolt which was triggered by street power resulted in Judge Caudhry’s reinstatement and its emboldening impact on people’s voice and judiciary as an institution has seemingly seeped into the psyche of most Pakistanis, a phenomenon that should form part of the broader national narrative of our times.

    Young as it is, Pakistan’s media is understandably irresponsible, it is however set on a healthy trajectory and the profusion of social media tools have, by and large, set into motion conversations on a wide variety of hitherto veiled subjects. The US Consul General in Karachi has very well articulated this point in his TET article of June 12, 2011.

    In a democracy countervailing forces are usually strengthened when dissent occurs even when it raises its ugly head in the form of a Qadri or Reverend Jim Jones.

    Indeed, there are disparate paradigms under which democracies have unraveled in a number of countries, deviating in significant ways from the traditional notions of democracy to which the good Ambassador has alluded. For a more detailed discussion on these and related issues read essays by Graham Allison, Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

    For the moment, however, it is interesting to read the paths and processes through which democratic movements took course in countries such as Bangladesh, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Chile. And, of course, there are lessons to be learnt from Iraq, Afghanistan and the Arab uprising.Recommend

  • Irshad Khan
    Jun 25, 2011 - 1:10PM

    Excellent but writer has not given pertinent examples of Pakistan. Democracy in Pakistan means rule of Jagirdars and rich people, telling lies, diversify attention of common man, making money by all means, killings, hurling threats and also enforcement of PAGRI UCHAL JATTA and creating all type of nuisances, strikes, rallies, abusing others etc. etc. etc.Recommend

  • ashok sai
    Jun 25, 2011 - 1:23PM

    @ Author

    Fantastic write-up sir, first time reading from you, expect more from you.

    My question is, how long will it take Pakistan to adhere to democracy ?Recommend

  • Hedgefunder
    Jun 25, 2011 - 4:50PM

    Well written and thought out article!!! Not that anyone in the country will pay heed to it!!
    Its been over 60 years since Independance and during that time Part of the country has been lost and still the people of this nation have learned nothing about democracy or its actual functions and it may be another 60 years and they will still be at the same crossroads, without clear vision and objectives as to how the country should be run and by whom?
    In last 60 years, they have manged to destroy the secular society that had existed and introduced religion into politics and affairs of the state.
    They have manged to build Bombs and discarded progress in educating their younger generation or providing them with basic healthcare or employment.
    The country’s economy is dire condition and without the life support machine known as Aid and Loans!! This Patient is very much Dead!!!!!!
    Yet the Elite in the country do not act to arrest these problems!!!!Recommend

  • Jun 25, 2011 - 6:49PM

    Not sure what the point. It seems to me that increasingly opeds in TET are focussed on regurgitating old known facts and situations prevelaent in this country and applying them to current sitauation and further strengthening the previously held fact in the first place. Sir, we due respect we all know decomcarcy never was rooted in Pakistan except some time during ZABs rule. But can you provide some way forward as to how democractic institutiosn can be strenthenedRecommend

  • aariz memon
    Jun 25, 2011 - 11:00PM

    Nice write up, but it is cliche. Almost all political writers raise same issues and points.
    Was looking for new. :(Recommend

  • kashif manzoor
    Jun 26, 2011 - 1:42AM

    very pleasing to see the dying democracy in pakistan , that will allow the people to think about a new system , a system for justice and peace. which this filthy democracy has denied the people.Recommend

  • Khan
    Jun 26, 2011 - 12:01PM

    Excellent article, sir. Hitting the nail on the head and very thought-provoking.
    I would like to give my two cents. I think we are still struggling to agree on and establish fundamental democratic rights, and we are doing it in a very confused and haphazard manner. There is very little institutional building going on… democratic institutional building. We look at isolated incidents and try to measure the democratization of its outcome randomly, based on no criteria. We only speak out when something happens (more recent example would be Shahzad Saleem’s murder) and the news is glaring enough to catch our attention. As to why we are doing it in a confused and haphazard manner that bears very little fruit, it is because the elite has “divided and chained [the masses] to illusions and emotions that provide a surrogate national purpose”. In other words, we are too uneducated and too immature to even understand what democracy is and it all comes back to a serious lack of a well-oiled educational system… there is very little human capital among the masses to even understand and debate democracy and nation-building. The masses only understand what the elite tells them. Recommend

  • Cynical
    Jul 17, 2011 - 4:59AM

    Nothing that is not already known.
    What is not known is the way forward.


  • Cynical (original)
    Aug 19, 2011 - 2:32AM

    Hey, I have been robbed of my name.
    I find it amusing, that someone has posted his/her comment under the name ‘Cynical’ that I have been using for almost an year.

    Any redress? ET moderator?


More in Opinion