Nothing but democracy

Published: December 20, 2011
The writer is professor of political science at LUMS

The writer is professor of political science at LUMS

True, democracy in Pakistan is not what democracy is in essence, or what is actually practiced in more developed and mature systems. What we have is an unsettled institutional balance between the military and the civilian government on the one hand and between the political executive and the judiciary, on the other. While we face these structural issues, the economic conditions are deteriorating, political mobilisation through public rallies is on the rise and speculations about a soft military intervention are rife. All is not well for our democratic future.

As we can glean from sampling public opinion, from public statements and media comments of certain political party leaders to drawing room chatters, democracy is not taken as one of the fundamental national objectives. This is a question that should have been settled in its early years, but unfortunately continues to be an issue even after 64 years. In my view, democracy, is the only way Pakistan can stabilise itself, make progress and achieve peace within as well as with the regional countries.

All countries have started on this road with one central idea — constitutional democracy — which in a way we are. The reason we appear to be unsettled is that the main stakeholders in the political system — the military, the political executive and the major opposition parties, are impatient being on the sidelines of power — wish to give a meaning to democracy, the Constitution, patriotism and civilian democracy that would support only their political interest and point of view. I would rather consider this state of affairs normal than alarming in this transitional stage of Pakistan’s democratic development for two reasons.

First all counties have been through this stage of development before the major political players and state institutions adjusted to their constitutionally determined roles and positions. Second, being unstable and facing conflicts over issues of jurisdiction, lawful authority and what can or should be done in the face of the challenges that Pakistan faces cannot be a reason to bring down an elected government by any unconstitutional means — indirect, soft or direct military intervention.

It is true that popular support for the present coalition at the federal level has declined, the charges of corruption and incompetence against the government headed by Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani are not without substance and some of the hired guns within this government would like to see the current political order pulled down. But given all this, the cost of undoing an elected coalition government — that has coalition partners from all provinces of Pakistan — unconstitutionally, will be far greater than the short-term relief of seeing an inapt political group be torn down.

We have a right to be critical of the government, as many of us, including myself, are, and we have vehemently opposed the government on a number of issues. We have called for a popular uprising and to force the government to act in public interest. That is within the democratic, constitutional domain. Let us remind ourselves that the idea of an objective critique of a democratic government is not to kill democracy but to improve its essence and functioning.

It is my earnest belief that without democracy — supremacy of the Constitution, rule of law and representative government — we, as one of the largest Muslim countries, will never be able to govern, stabilise or be at peace among ourselves. Whispers and off the record calls for removing this government by unconstitutional means, no matter how we feel about its deficiencies, pose a threat to our collective interest as a political community.

Let us learn from our past when non-political messiahs damaged democracy, the Constitution, the courts, rule of law and national cohesion. They gave us a fragmented and weak society, a manipulated polity and a dysfunctional state.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 21st, 2011.

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Reader Comments (16)

  • Khan Jr
    Dec 20, 2011 - 11:55PM

    Rasul Bakhsh Rais makes more than abundant sense.

    Throwing out Zardari and his corrupt lot would be akin to throwing out the baby with the bath water. From the so-called elite to the people sweeping the streets we are are a nation of emotive and politically immature people. Of course there is corruption all around, however it only a matter of degree – blatant nepotism and corruption were rife in each and every military dictatorship as well.

    The big difference is that we can throw out the present lot using the will of the people at a ballot box. On the other hand once you get get a military dictator the only way to get rid of him is either by blowing him up in the sky or get foreign “friends” to disavow him.


  • Falcon
    Dec 21, 2011 - 12:07AM

    Agreed. Since last 64 years, we have moved 2 steps backward for every step forward because of this reason. But I think this time around, even establishment and people in general are less interested in switching gears, because of this very reason coup has not occurred despite a lot of controversies. Secondly, civil society and media are highly active and won’t let the system to be derailed. However, bearing with current inefficiencies is also painful and we hope that people suffering through it can make it to a better end.


  • adeel759
    Dec 21, 2011 - 12:21AM

    Democracy Is The Only Way, Thats the bottom line. If this Govt is incapable, remove it through pressure and legal means and let elections take place. Whoever wins shold for the Govt. Mil Coup is not the way…no matter what.


  • Raheel Khawaja
    Dec 21, 2011 - 1:43AM

    Democracy delivers or not but government should complete its term for 5 years. yes there are many apprehensions of soft military coup but if all political parties sit on one table, This would be an option to re-strength governance, corruption and fears of uncertainty. otherwise economic situation deteriorating each day, dollar price has been going up every day, fuel gas and now electricity shortage again has begun. stake holders i think are now deaf in all the prevailing hot contemporary issues of today, they are wasting there time on memo-gate issue, now they still have a time , time to think for the betterment of people, solve the unsolved issues of common people. An individual who earns 10,000 Rs / month does not have any concern in all the issues which are highlighting in all the talk shows, breaking news, tickers and fiery speeches of our beloved leaders. so gear up the tone, fasten their belts and come to real ground which have the plethora of issues waiting for all the leaders.


  • Shahzad Kazi
    Dec 21, 2011 - 1:52AM

    Makes sense. The only way to preserve institutions is to let them function. If we do not stop derailing the democratic process every few years, democracy will never work. Unfortunately, people often end up making the wrong choice of candidates and keep on voting corrupt and incompetent individuals back into power over and over agian.


  • Mumbaikar
    Dec 21, 2011 - 2:00AM

    This entire article even once doesn’t mention the role of Islam/Quran in Pakistani constitution as it exists today. The fact of the matter is that democracy will neither stabilize nor achieve it’s true purpose without removing references to Islam/Quran from the constitution. The reason is that a competing market of spiritual ideas is required to stop a country from sliding into religious darkness. Religious monopolies like corporate monopolies don’t work , become lazy and inefficient and stop responding to people.


  • Timorov
    Dec 21, 2011 - 2:22AM

    A brilliant piece as always Professor Rais. You are one of the few people that brings in that academic element to the discourse in the opinion section of this paper (that is usually sorely lacking).


  • Shahid Jamil
    Dec 21, 2011 - 4:28AM

    Unfortunately, with the well entrenched feudal ruling structures in nearly 80% of Pakistani society – these structures have only become stronger over the past 60 years of Pakistani history – and the feudal mindset that is shared by the remainder of the Pakistani “Ashraafia”, the likelihood of Pakistani situation improving is really minuscule.

    Democracy only provides the appropriate cover to these rulers so that they can continue to rule the country however they please. The royal caravan that took the Prime Minister of Pakistan today from the airport to the Bilawal house is a good indication of the fact that this feudal mindset does not even give two hoots for the people of Pakistan. The utter disregard of for the condition of ordinary Pakistanis is really none of our rulers concern, regardless of which party they come from. The current democratic dispensation is meant to maintain the status quo and make sure that there is no threat to it. The ruling political classes have neither the intention nor the capability to change it. They want to rule the country just like they rule their “deras” and agricultural fiefdoms, Rue of law means nothing to them.

    This whole clamor about democracy in danger is just there to ensure that their “jagirs” and “wadera shahi’s” continue unabated. Every military intervention that has occurred has always been preceded by prolonged periods of lawlessness and misrule by the political leaders. Our political classes provide the opportunities to the army to intervene. It happens again and again primarily because of their absolute incompetence and feudal mindset and ways of ruling. And of course during the times of military rule they support the powers that be to gain what ever advantages they can, till they have another opportunity to have a free for all. Army cannot dare to intervene if the politicians have their act together. Just check out the Turks.

    Rasul sahib’s suggestions are fine theoretically; but unfortunately, in the current feudal political landscape of contemporary Pakistan, these are irrelevant. They, unwittingly, will continue the Pakistani on the same path for a long time to come going round and round without any end; our feudal “Ashraafiya” will see to it. Every successful society at some point in their history has had to deal with feudalism head on before it could transform itself into a truly democratic dispensation. With out Pakistan dealing with this fundamental problem boldly and decisively, we are doomed to wander in this dark night. Even a thousand elections in this deformed pseudo-democratic polity will not change Pakistan’s future. And of course our politicians have absolutely no intentions to see things change even a scintilla, except for appearances sake.


  • Ali Akbar
    Dec 21, 2011 - 4:49AM

    Professor, I am quite bemused that while you stress on the importance of a well functioning democracy and upholding all its pillars, you never mention about the need for accountability processes and transparency. CBR, NAB, Election Commission, local government bodies and police may not be the important pillars on which democracy stands, they are nevertheless, vital support functions of the state . Without them democracy – the system is superficial and shallow.

    You say that an objective critique of a democracy is to improve its functioning and not to de-stablise the system. This begs several questions : Was there a proper system to begin with? Is there is no alternative mode of feeback/critique other than the elections that occur after 5 years. Does that mean that under our version of democracy, the people have given a blind mandate the government in the form of carte blanche? If the current incumbents are booted out in the next elections, and PMN-L assumes power, will the system have evolved and self improved – by itself?


  • Wellwisher
    Dec 21, 2011 - 6:09AM

    I would rather consider this state of affairs normal than alarming in this transitional stage of Pakistan’s democratic development for two reasons.

    Transitional stage? How long? Centuries…!!! People have to rise from the slumber they are in. Sooner the better.


  • zia ur rehman
    Dec 21, 2011 - 9:25AM

    Yes.. Democracy is the only way, but I think it is needed to get some amendments. I think Presidential democracy will suite Pakistan more, then this current parliamentary democracy.


  • rk
    Dec 21, 2011 - 9:31AM

    i thought kaliphate was the answer.


  • Abdullah
    Dec 21, 2011 - 9:56AM

    Mr.Rasul how do you expect democracy from contemporary political parties when they virtually don’t have it within parties ?
    In Pakistan democracy is just like film which is replayed after flopping of previous one.


  • Mirza
    Dec 21, 2011 - 11:17AM

    @Khan Jr:
    You said it like it is. Thanks and regards,


  • Anonymous
    Dec 21, 2011 - 5:23PM

    I agree 100 % with Mr Shahid Jamil….unless with get rid ourselves from the clutches of these feudalism & religious mascots….enlighten our people with basic education ( as enshrined in our cxonstitution )when they can diffrentiate between right & wrong….democracy system will not flourish as much as it is desired…we hv ample example around us….

    Prof Rais…pls explain….is China a democratic country ?? ..then how come it has become second largets economy in the world although they became independent after us…?? Was Singapore a democratic country when it was given independence ??…Mr Lee was the first President for more than a decade before first election was carried out….& during this period Mr Lee put Singapore on the ” World map ” as the most financially sound country through honest & great team…hence, it is not what system we choose…it is the people at the helm of affairs who ought to be honest, patriotic with hard working team who can put the country on correct trajectory…Recommend

  • Nadeem
    Dec 21, 2011 - 5:52PM

    53 years of Army Rule has brought us nothing but disgrace, loss, miseries, and complete disrespect for the rule of law. 80% of the current politicians too are a product of it, hance before we curse their incompetence and corruption, let us thank the military for killing the natural process of political grooming in this country. I am glad that more and more people now think that the road to a better future for Pakistan must pass through supremacy of civil institutions: executive, parliament, judiciary – and that the milirary’s task is to wait for orders from the president, and to be as open to accountability as the Haj ministry or the tourism ministry or the local municipality. Nothing more nothing less. Recommend

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