The democracy debate

Military activism from the sidelines is better than direct military rule


Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi July 12, 2015
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

Humanity has learnt from experience spread over many centuries that democracy offers the best possible approaches to governance and political management. This political framework first developed in Europe and North America. Most Asian and African countries which gained independence after the Second World War adopted some variation of democracy or the other, although not all could sustain it for a long time. The Soviet Union and other Marxist states projected another brand of democracy.

The collapse of Eastern European political systems (1989-90) and the dissolution of the Soviet Union (December 1991) gave a boost to Western liberal democracy. This was coupled with an emphasis on free economy, privatisation and open trade across territorial boundaries of states under the rubric of globalisation. Some writers described this development as the ultimate triumph of Western liberal democracy and an acknowledgment of this system being the final political ideology. However, in many countries it soon became clear that unless the state adopted specific measures to protect the rights and socioeconomic interests of the common folk, the democratic system within a capitalist framework has a tendency to perpetuate socioeconomic inequities in society, working to the advantage of the privileged sections of the populace. Political democracy, deriving legitimacy from popular support, cannot sustain voluntary loyalty of people over a long time without taking effective measures to ensure economic democracy.

The West had developed the system of the welfare state, whereby the state offered minimum social and economic safeguards to every citizen. State intervention for the sake of the poor was viewed as integral to the democratic system. The current crisis of democracy in North America and Europe is that these states are finding it hard to sustain the welfare state as their economies are not generating enough surplus to cover the cost of welfare services. The diminution of these services is causing alienation within these societies at the common person level, especially among minority groups. For most developing countries and some European countries with troubled economies, liberal democracy with capitalist economic orientations is facing extremely serious internal challenges. Many people question the democratic political order that accentuates inequities in society because the state is unable or unwilling to offer basic services like education, health care, regular jobs and minimum civic facilities to the common people who live in an insecure physical environment marked by denial and dispossession. The key question for the future of democracy is how far the democratic political order can secure itself if it dehumanises its relations with a large number of people?

In Pakistan, democracy faces this dilemma on a more or less permanent basis. There is a broad-based consensus in favour of a democratic and representative political order. However, the debatable question is whether we should be content with just having an elected leadership and ignore its performance on the governance front? Or do we need to focus on the substance and quality of democracy in terms of actualisation of its spirit and service to the people? One meaning of democracy in the present Pakistani context focuses on elections, elected civilian government and political continuity. An elected civilian government must complete its tenure. The other approach talks of the quality and substance of democracy which means two things: 1) constitutionalism, the rule of law and civil and political rights; 2) delivery of basic services to common people, socioeconomic equity and a hope for a better and secure future. Democracy in Pakistan falters on both counts.

The complexities in Pakistan’s situation are caused by a strong and long tradition of the military’s ascendency to political power. Any criticism of an elected civilian government for poor governance and neglect of socioeconomic threats to the common people is described by many as an invitation to the military to return to power. A critique of civilian democratic rule on the above two counts does not imply support for the military. Pakistan’s experience with military rule has been equally problematic. However, if there are complaints about the military’s expanded role, this does not mean that civilian rulers should be supported even when they create a highly personalised, corruption-based system that has skewed priorities and entrenched the ruling elite in all walks of life.

The criticism of civilian governments does not strengthen the military. Rather, it is meant to make the civilian leadership conscious of its responsibilities towards the people. Pakistan’s current civilian leadership has itself been conceding space to the military when it comes to internal security, counterterrorism, security and foreign policy, and even administrative affairs under the shadow of an extra-constitutional, civil-military hybrid of Apex Committees. The civilian failure pertains to poor and selective governance, incapacity of civilian institutions to cope with urban terrorism and violence, corruption and flawed socioeconomic priorities. The troubling situation in North Waziristan and Karachi is being handled by the military and paramilitary forces, especially the Rangers. The civilian law-enforcement agencies and the administration are playing supporting roles.

Military activism from the sidelines is better than direct military rule. It creates a mixed or hybrid civil-military system where the governments are elected, while the military assumes an active role in security and administrative affairs from the sidelines. However, such a civil-military relationship is not stable because its boundaries change depending on the issue at hand and the relevant political context. If and when the military decides to go after hardline militant groups in Punjab or adopts both direct and indirect measures to control corruption, relations between the military and the PML-N government may get strained.

Such a situation will require patience and prudence from both the civilian leadership and the military top brass to maintain equilibrium in civil-military relations, which is a prerequisite for maintaining stability and a semblance of democracy in Pakistan. The internal situation can deteriorate if the military becomes impatient with the civilian government and attempts to replace it. Similar negative consequences can arise if the PML-N leadership engages in adventurism of the 1999 type when it tried to replace the army high command.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 13th,  2015.

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COMMENTS (11)

Rex Minor | 6 years ago | Reply @Anon: Why are you so closed minded to systems of government which are not prevalent in the west? Because all people are born free and have the right to live as free people without being enslaved to any ideology other than the democratic system of governance. Those who are prepared to willingly accept the rule of one over all or the military dictatorship have no business writing on democracy. Rex Minor
Siddhartha Shastri | 6 years ago | Reply @Arifq: IMHO a constitution which confers special rights to one particular section of the citizenry and denies the same privileges and opportunities to the remainder can only provide a sham democracy. The essential basis of a democratic constitution has to be an unambiguous dedication to the principle that all men are created equal (where "men" refers to all humans). I suspect that the Pakistani constitution, being based on a religion that institutionalizes a "we-they" feeling can only end up promoting division. The civil-military divide you refer to is a minor problem in comparison. The author has not covered this aspect at all. @Editors - hope you will publish and not censor this sincere comment. if I am wrong, surely the readers and hopefully the author himself will refute it and I shall become better informed as a consequence.
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