Promoting democracy through agitation

Published: July 13, 2014
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst. He is also the author of several books, monographs and articles on Pakistan and South Asian Affairs

The writer is an independent political and defence analyst. He is also the author of several books, monographs and articles on Pakistan and South Asian Affairs

The 2014 Football World Cup ended with one winner. On August 14, a new political tournament for the ‘Democracy Cup’ is starting in Pakistan and the major political parties would be competing in it. The attention is going to be focused on the disposition of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Dr Tahirul Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek that want to launch street protests against the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). Most other political parties are expected to line up against the PML-N. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is claiming at this stage that it wants to stay away from street agitation. It is quite possible that there is no clear winner in this political tournament. The ‘Democracy Cup’ may be taken away by the military.

Though the PTI started with the demand for recounting in the constituencies where its candidates lost, it now wants to pull down the Nawaz Sharif government at the federal level. Tahirul Qadri talks of the literal implementation of the articles of the Constitution but he also aims at dislodging the Nawaz Sharif government. Smaller opposition parties working with these two parties share this objective. The greatest worry is when the political parties engage in a political game with a zero-sum perspective and each claims that nothing is acceptable short of total victory, all political parties may lose.

The ruling PML-N has alienated people at a faster pace than was the case during its earlier two terms in office (1990-1993 and 1997-1999). It is lonely in the current political spectrum and it has picked up some confrontation with all major entities, including the military. The PPP is also expected to drift away from it because the PML-N government has opened court proceedings against some PPP leaders. How many fronts does the PML-N want to fight on? Its governance in the first year in office in the current term is marked by highly personalised, insular and parochial rule by the Sharif brothers, their relatives and close associates that paid more attention to high-flying rhetoric and initiated high-profile and media-oriented projects while neglecting the measures that could address the power shortages, price hike and poor law and order. The well-publicised initiation of 26 new electricity generation projects could not change the bitter reality that Pakistan experienced the worst electricity shortage in history this Ramazan.

Furthermore, the brute display of state power in Lahore on June 17 at the headquarters of Dr Qadri’s religious movement and the purely administrative response when Qadri returned to Pakistan on June 23 showed that the PML-N government preferred the display of state power over political measures.

If the PML-N has demonstrated poor governance and flawed political management, the path of street agitation adopted by Imran Khan and Dr Qadri does not offer a better alternative.

If the objective of the opposition is electoral reforms or full implementation of the Constitution, street agitation does not offer a better course of action. The proposed methods will lead to direct confrontation between the government and the opposition. Pakistan’s experience suggests that confrontational politics does not necessarily improve the quality of democracy.

All political leaders and activists need to reflect on a simple question. If all political leaders and political parties believe in democracy and want this to become strong in Pakistan, why does this not happen? If all want democracy, why does Pakistan have a strong deficit of democracy?

Democracy cannot be consolidated only by verbal commitments. It depends on what the political and societal leaders actually do in the political domain. Democracy is also an attitude and a way of life. If the leaders and their followers are keen only for enjoying their rights in their own way in a democratic system without giving equal importance to their duties, democracy cannot consolidate. Democracy also expects that the political leaders cultivate self-restraint as a part of their disposition.

Political leaders create political institutions and processes. Once these are created, the political leaders must function through them and address their problem within the limits set out by these institutions and processes. These institutions grow over time if mid-course corrections are made on the basis of practical experience.

Street agitation shows that either the leadership has no faith in the democratic institutions or processes or they want to impose their choices by paralysing these institutions by displaying street power. The experience of the Arab Spring shows that street agitation can dislodge a ‘despised’ government, but it does not necessarily guarantee the rise of democracy.

In Pakistan, political leaders do not imbibe democratic norms of mutual respect and restraint. Look at television political talk shows. Party activists use foul language and engage in personal recrimination. Some of them are known for their irrelevant conversation, shouting and not letting others speak. What these leaders are teaching to the younger generation is that you do not listen to others, be defiant, do not hesitate to insult your political adversaries and that there is nothing wrong in being irrelevant, but do not let others talk.

Democracy is a delicate system of governance and societal management. It is also a culture of rights, duties and restraint. It can be destroyed in the name of democracy when rights are pursued without recognising corresponding duties and its institutions and processes are bypassed.

Pakistani politicians should recognise the limits of settling political issues on the streets. The invocation of Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution for mudslinging against the top leaders is another ruinous strategy that minimises the chances of political accommodation. Such a free-for-all politics and total confrontation is likely to hurt all the key political players. This can shift the political initiative to the military that is already disappointed, if not hurt, by the priorities of the political leaders at a time when it is engaged in a war to save Pakistan from extremism and terrorism.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 14th, 2014.

Like Opinion & Editorial on Facebook, follow @ETOpEd on Twitter to receive all updates on all our daily pieces.

Facebook Conversations

Reader Comments (18)

  • salaam
    Jul 13, 2014 - 11:22PM

    For the first time, it appears that the author has been blessed by a balanced approach. Thanks.


  • Irfan Cheema
    Jul 14, 2014 - 1:58AM

    One of the most balanced and well written piece. Bravo Rizvi SB.


  • Ranjha
    Jul 14, 2014 - 3:01AM

    It seems like the author has by now had enough of the “experienced” brigade of Naan League. time to Get rid of the family Raj and vote PTI! I am sure there will be many more who will follow suit. The party needs as many good people as it can get — join it.


    Jul 14, 2014 - 7:35AM

    At times agitation is warranted. Since Muslims never agitated or demanded Independence from the British they are timid to go in the street. What Imran and Qadri will do is to createa political conscious among the masses. The feudal lords, Pirs, Syeds and now family rule has ruined both government and governance. Change is the spice of life. Let new faces come in the fore front, People are fed up with these old faces ruling for several decades and leading the nation to a pigeon hole.


  • Ali Pakistani
    Jul 14, 2014 - 8:28AM

    What is democracy?

    If people have elected a party to lead them, but they soon find out that the party is actually working against the norms of democracy, what should they do?

    As you mentioned, bad governance and anti democratic norms of PLM-N are a norm. PML-N is an old party, which should have learnt from its own history, but they haven’t.

    What options do people have now?

    It is detrimental to the welfare of the people and that of the state to let PML-N pursue with their autocratic rule.

    As far as I know, there is no law that the elected party will rule for 5 years. If the people want early elections, they have every right to agitate for early elections.


  • Muneer
    Jul 14, 2014 - 6:46PM

    Democracy,democratic institutions or processes have evolved and developed through repeated street agitation or removal of governing body.If through street agitation the current government and PPP who have the majority to make laws could be forced to make laws for holding free and transparent elections,it is very much belief in democracy and strengthening the democratic processes or institutions.If through street agitation the PM is forced to call for early elections,this is also strengthening of democratic process.In Europe etc the elected governments have been changed/fresh elections called even after three months.Holding/ calling for fresh elections before completion of stipulated tenure is very much constitutional and our constitution allows the PM to call for fresh elections any time he feels appropriate.If the street agitation calls for it,it is an appropriate time for fresh elections.The agitation/ example of Middle East is not relevant here because there was no functional democracy in those countries but in Pakistan we do have.


  • S.R.H. Hashmi
    Jul 14, 2014 - 7:45PM

    The writer has correctly stated that strengthening and functioning of democracy is dependent on both the voters and elected leaders enjoying their rights, while also performing their duties in an appropriate manner. He has described PML-N rule as highly personalized, insular, parochial and confrontational while also demonstrating poor governance and flawed implementation. There is also massive corruption, a glimpse of which can be had from Kamal Siddiqis’s article ‘Trouble in the Wind’ (July 13). Previously, there used to be one or two beneficiaries at the top milking the country, but now there is a whole tribe trying to make its fortune through this greatly impoverished country. After they had their go, there would not be much left by way of assets, and there will be massive loans with not much capacity to repay because revenue-earning state assets would have been sold to relatives, friends and associates at rock-bottom prices, and the proceeds plus loans raised having been spent on grandiose, unproductive projects.

    As for voters, they have a duty to cast their votes only on merit but are handicapped because of lack of civic sense and prevalence of feudal system. Another flaw is that due to electioneering having been made a costly business, with few exceptions, only moneyed people can participate in the process, and even if voters tried to vote conscientiously, there is not much to choose from and the same rotten lot or their close relatives keep contesting the elections. Moreover, since rigging has been developed to an advanced stage, the candidates can get elected irrespective of the number of votes cast in their favour. In these circumstances, even a dozen elections will not bring any improvement and I don’t think we have that much time anyway. As for the suggestion that people should try to improve the electoral process while operating within the system just how could one expect that those greatly benefiting from the deliberately-created flaws in the system will enthusiastically work to remove these.

    And seeing the predicament of Gen (r) Pervez Musharraf, I don’t think the present army chief would be tempted to try his luck in politics, more so when he is a professional soldier and brother of a martyr. Also, with enough on his hands and more feared by way of cross-border attacks from militants who have fled to Afghanistan, or attacks by those who have moved to cities, I don’t think the army chief or his stop team will be interested in some adventure away from their line of duty.

    However, instead of just complaining about their plight, if the members of public pick up some courage and heeding Dr.Tahirul Qadri’s call come out on the roads in large numbers then together with PTI members and others, they could create enough pressure which could ‘persuade’ army chief to call for the dissolution of the assemblies and for holding of fresh elections under a caretaker government, duly supervised by honest and capable electoral staff, with strict enforcement of eligible criteria, which could keep out the undesirables and let only honest and competent people reach the assemblies. Such a team could then introduce rest of the reform agenda in phases through constitutional amendments, where required, but mostly by activating the already-present provisions which had been made redundant by the corrupt lot, for their mutual benefit.

    Being in a desperate situation, we need to take desperate measures.



  • Naive
    Jul 14, 2014 - 10:07PM

    Those calling for fresh elections should note:
    1) There is no honest electoral staff presently and there is no guarantee that they can be replaced by “honest” people, as there are far and few to go by. Besides, you can’t just appoint new staff out of the blue as it entails longish procedures and has to meet certain criteria to be “honest” and “capable.”
    2) Even if we suppose that Qadri is an “honest” revolutionary, not all his supporters are likely to be and Qadri and a few close associates are not enough for reforming the entire system, much less the society at large, where-from come “honest” citizens.
    3) It is, therefore, necessary to assume that no one is holier than thou and to work through institutions to bring about change. The country cannot afford any further lawlessness and the defiance of the writ of the State.


  • Interring Truth
    Jul 14, 2014 - 10:40PM

    Point well taken by the author: promote democracy through institutions, not through agitation. This point is lost on the partisans but not on those who truly favor democracy, although with serious flaws.


  • marde nadan
    Jul 14, 2014 - 10:43PM

    Incremental change within the system or reforming the system, with in the system is way to move forward in the best interests of the country. Destabilization can lead to irreversible disaster.
    Think of the future of Pakistan not the future of the success of Qadri and his followers.


  • ObserverUSA
    Jul 14, 2014 - 10:49PM

    There are questions about Qadri’s integrity that need to be resolved without doubt. These relate to his benefiting from Canada’s welfare programs and as to why he lied for seeking asylum in Canada.
    Before these are satisfactory answers to these question, one cannot trust him as being a true leader.


  • Solomon2
    Jul 14, 2014 - 11:51PM

    “What these leaders are teaching to the younger generation is that you do not listen to others, be defiant, do not hesitate to insult your political adversaries and that there is nothing wrong in being irrelevant, but do not let others talk.”

    This behavior in Pakistani schoolchildren was noted by Jeffrey Goldberg in his 2008 book, Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. He visited a Pakistani madrassa and recorded that when he tried to present an alternate view to the class the boys responded by chanting as loudly as possible to drown him out. Apparently this is how they had been trained by their teachers.


  • Parvez
    Jul 15, 2014 - 4:18AM

    That was an excellent read.
    The Pakistani public are tired of slogans such as democracy, dictatorship, caliphate, the Bangladesh model, Islamic welfare system etc………all they want is a system that would provide good governance, less corruption and speedy justice across the board.


  • kamran
    Jul 15, 2014 - 7:54AM

    I m tired of hearing democracy specially when we don’t have a semblance of it. our elites have developed an oligarchy where the unprivileged have no rights and security. Our institutions are marked with inefficiency on account of nepotism and favoritism. There are bureaucrats who enjoy power instead of discharging their responsibility. How can we bring reforms in our system while living in it and specially when power magnates are bent upon safeguarding this foul system.Why don’t we understand that we are heading toward chaos not order? This system must be replaced with our indigenous system of government which we have unfortunately failed to evolve after partition.


  • Empty slogans
    Jul 15, 2014 - 9:31AM

    So what “is a system that would provide good governance, less corruption and speedy justice across the board.”??? Describe. Make sure you tell us who will establish the system and how? What shall be the role of the common man, the elites, the landed “aristocrats,” the peasantry, the clergy, and the military. What kind of economy would you prescribe? How shall it come about, the role of interest in the economy or the absence thereof? How would you raise the moral level of the people so there is no corruption and accountability?
    It easy to rule out every type of system known to man and history but almost impossible to come up with a system you are dreaming of. Utopias are a figment of man’s imagination. Get real.
    Many a system is workable if the people, the leaders, make it work it could even be democracy, which is under trial presently and must be given a chance to succeed.


  • Saleem
    Jul 15, 2014 - 9:37AM


    The greatest worry is when the
    political parties engage in a
    political game with a zero-sum
    perspective and each claims that
    nothing is acceptable short of total
    victory, all political parties may


    Very well said. In this game everyone will be a looser – there will not be any winners.

    Those who keep harping about Arab spring will not dare to name one that brought any change for the masses. In fact in every instance, including Iraq & Egypt, people are worse off today then when they were being ruled by tyrants. Is that kind of Arab spring we are dreaming about?


  • Rex Minor
    Jul 15, 2014 - 2:18PM

    You ommitted the fact that the Arab spring is the beginning and not the end of the movement. These people are still ruled by the tyrants, who are mor ruthless than those who were forced to leave!! The re evoluations always go through the process of hiccups and a period of teething before they leave the age of pub.!!

    Rex Minor


  • Saleem
    Jul 15, 2014 - 4:52PM

    @Rex Minor:

    Those who sit in Washington see the world from their colored glasses and screens, wheres ground realities are very different. Forget Vietnam as it is history now. Look at the disaster that US made in Iraq and Afghanistan and what did it achieve after getting thousands of its soldiers killed and spending billions of dollars. Yes, it did killed Osama, a CIA creation of Russian invasion of Afghanistan. To me it was nothing but a bad idea to create a monster like him and call him a mujaheeden and when genie got out of bottle and turned his guns towards US then call him a terrorist.

    The so called Islamist state that got created in Iraq speaks volumes about failure of US strategy in that country. And I am afraid that this is just a beginning. I am scared to think what will happen when US leaves Afghanistan. I don’t need to see a vision on paper rather on ground. I don’t see any benefit come out of Arab spring and will not believe any word that people like you who sit in Washington say unless I see a change for better on ground.


More in Opinion