I am sharing this piece written by Dr. Samia Altaf with you. At its core, this piece reflects much of my thinking but I couldn't have articulated it better than Dr. Altaf has. Kudos to Dr. Samia Altaf.
By Samia Altaf
Pakistan, labeled the most dangerous country in the world, with loose nukes and
angry jihadis, is unraveling. It needs help. To be helped it needs to be
understood. Urging a transition to "true democracy," after the fourth military
dictator has suspended the constitution for the second time and sacked a
judiciary that dared to question his legitimacy, betrays either naiveté or
disinterest. Both will hurt in the long run, if there is a long run.
Understand that there has not been much difference between military and
civilian rule in Pakistan. When unreal hopes are betrayed by one, the other is
accorded a relieved welcome. Four painful cycles ought to be enough to make
that clear. The pundits wringing their hands at the ills of dictatorship today
are the same who saw huge silver linings when the fourth dictator, the
"enlightened moderate," came along to clean the democratic mess.
Understand that both dictators and democrats have attacked the judiciary in the
same way, both have pandered to the religious fundamentalists in the same way,
both have harassed political opponents in the same way, both have enriched
themselves in the same way.
Understand why this is so. Understand that the vast majority of the 160 million
people have gained nothing since they were "liberated"—not from those who
founded the country, not from the democrats, not from the dictators, not from
the priests. Half of them are still illiterate, a third are below the poverty
line, many still die from the lack of clean water, and many still live in
another century. Any surprise they are not active participants in the struggle
for "true democracy?"
Understand that the forgotten have no expectations of political equality or
fundamental rights from their rulers, be they dictators or democrats. No
political party has bothered to make that the central thrust of its campaign
and one that did in the past only abused it cynically. All the leading
democrats are ever ready to ditch the aspirations of their supporters and cut a
deal with the dictator of the day. It is an easier route to the top.
Understand that in a deeply unequal society without individual rights, and with
extreme dependence of the many on the few, the functions of political
representation and social protection are inseparable. Understand that the
natural state of such a society is one of patronage. Understand that the
unprotected and powerless are as rational as anyone else—when forced to
participate in an electoral game, they vote for the most powerful patron with
the strongest links to the ruler. Understand that the preyed upon want their
protectors to be on the winning side first and represent their political
ideology second. Ideological somersaults and shifting loyalties matter but
have to be accepted pragmatically in the real world that exists for them. Count
the number of political representatives who have been in every party that has
ever ruled the country. Watch how high they hold their heads; watch how much
they are sought after.
Understand this is still very much a monarchical society in which the ruler, in
whatever garb, believes he rules by divine right Understand the culture in
which every ruler, legitimate or illegitimate, begins to see visions of being
anointed by the Almighty to "save the nation." The more incompetent and
unprepared the chosen one, the greater the proof of divine purpose. The third
dictator (the "meek") used to say, in so many words, with awe and humility:
"Look at me, what is my worth? Would I be here were it not for the will of
The leading prose writer of the country called such leaders "men without
stature." Calling them pygmies would have landed him in jail for abusive
language. And why does the Almighty continue to find such pygmies? Because He
is putting His chosen people to His severest test! Understand this is an
environment rife with such fatalistic beliefs.
Understand this is a society at a stage of development where political parties
are personal affinity groups with lifetime leaders—the leading democrat is
chairperson for life of a party she inherited from her father. Understand this
is a banana republic in which the "best" president and the most "appropriate"
prime minister are determined not by the people but by meta-patrons abroad.
Understand this is a place where a prime minister can be parachuted from above
one day and be consigned to the doghouse the next. Understand this is system in
which the king's courtiers can switch loyalties any minute and have to be
continuously bribed. Count the size of the cabinet; compare that to the output.
And, nary a protest from any side, nary a protest on any count.
So what does a transition to "true democracy" mean in a situation like this?
Understand that representative democracy is not going to emerge any time soon
by pressure from below. Democracy will be the name given to a sharing of power
amongst the elites holding the wealth, the guns, and the controls over rules
and rituals. And, barring anything different, this democracy will go the way of
previous democracies, each morphing from "true" to "sham," each leaving the
country more wounded and vulnerable than before. Has this not been the story of
the last sixty years?
How then can we get something out of the elite democracy that we will
inevitably inherit? Not by imagining a battle won, not by wishing for some
ideal unfettered democracy, but by working towards a system of some checks and
balances that limits the accumulation of power and the abuse of office by
ruling groups, a system that advances human rights and access to justice, and
one that enlarges the space for hearing the voices from below.
By some quirk, this was a scenario beginning to unfold with the assertion of
independence by the judiciary, by its questioning of arbitrary executive
authority, by its taking up the causes of ordinary citizens. This was the first
institutional development in over sixty years that promised a meaningful step
towards good governance in the interest of the ordinary citizens. And even
before one could be sure it was for real, the fourth dictator (the
"enlightened") smothered it, quickly and ruthlessly, risking even his carefully
varnished image of moderation in the process.
De Tocqueville said it long ago: "Unable to do without judges, it [the
government] likes at least to choose the judges itself and always to keep them
under its hand; that is to say, it puts an appearance of justice, rather than
justice itself, between the government and the private person." Pakistanis know
why. Governance in Pakistan is allergic to accountability. Pakistanis know now
what has to change.
So, going back to "free and fair" elections, back to "true democracy," as
promised by a dictator, ruling under an emergency, to a bunch of democrats
ready to cut a deal, is not going to do much good. It will be very old wine in
very old bottles. Well-wishers of Pakistan, at home and abroad, need to grasp
the one promising development in an otherwise sorry history. They have to agree
on a one-point agenda—the Supreme Court has to be restored; the independence of
the judiciary has to be guaranteed. This is the only leverage we have at the
moment, the one issue on which a broad coalition can unite. This is where the
fight for "true democracy" begins. Whomsoever is next anointed by God would
need to be put to this test of sincerity. Otherwise, the moment and the opening
would be lost. Those who are fighting would need to go on fighting.
This unpublished appeal, addressed to friends of Pakistan, at home and abroad,
is dedicated to the students at the Lahore University of Management Sciences
Dr. Samia Altaf is the 2007-2008 Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson
International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.
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