Thursday, March 6, 2008

Is Democracy Right For Pakistan?

Pakistan's Constitution:
As Pakistan lurches forward to hopeful and positive change in the wake of the recent elections, there is a lot of talk about what is the right form of viable democracy for Pakistan. Examples of democracy in India, the United Kingdom and the United States come to mind. Given our colonial past and common history with India, many Pakistanis naturally gravitate toward the British and the Indian models as also reflected in Pakistan's 1973 constitution. The assumption is that the 1973 constitution will serve us well as a basis for democracy. Let's examine this assumption and look at a realistic transition to democracy.

British Democracy:
The British democracy has its roots in the Magna Carta issued in 1215. The Magna Carta was the first document which was forced onto an English King by his subjects to limit his powers by law. In practice Magna Carta mostly did not limit the power of the King in the Middle Ages; by the time of the English Civil War however it had become an important symbol for those who wished to show that the King was bound by the law. So the Magna Carta was meant to limit the powers of individuals and create some checks and balances in the governance. The United Kingdom does not have a written constitution. The British democracy has gone through many ups and downs as it evolved over the last 800 years based on the Magna Carta to its modern form with institutions of executive led by the prime minister, judiciary led by the law lords in the upper house and the the legislature consisting of mainly the British house of commons. In spite of the long history of democracy, the British government is known to have acted without the support of its people in matters such as the decision to join the US invasion of Iraq.

The US Democracy:
The US democracy began with the the revolutionary war motivated by the people's desire for participation in decision making of the government. It was inspired by the slogan "No taxation without representation". It was a revolt against the British monarchy. In its early days after independence, one of the US founding fathers Alexander Hamilton said, " The masses are asses". US democracy restricted voting rights to "white men owning property" for a long time. Blacks were held as slaves and women denied suffrage for more than a century. The biggest single addition to the US constitution was the addition of the "Bill of Rights", the first ten amendments to the US constitution which, like Magna Carta, focused on limiting the powers of the government. In 1867,fourteenth amendment passed Congress, defining citizens as "male". The women finally got their voting rights by the passage of "Susan B. Anthony amendment" in 1920, after a long struggle. It took a hundred years after the bill of rights and a bloody civil war for the black slaves to be freed by the emancipation proclamation. And another hundred years after that to repeal segregation and pass voting rights act. So the US democracy has taken a long time, blood and sweat to get to where it is today. And yet it remains imperfect: Today, the US elections, legislation and policies are heavily influenced by the corporate money and powerful lobbyists. Neocons supported by the military-industrial complex have led us into a disastrous war that Nobel Laureate Joe Stiglitz describes as a "Three trillion dollar war". George W. Bush has been hard at work to shred the bill of rights and packing the courts with judges that support giving extra-ordinary powers to the executive branch, particularly the president.

Indian Democracy:
The Indian democracy is modeled after the British democracy but with a written constitution and the president substituting the queen as the head of state. Indians have had more than a dozen largely free and fair general elections in the past 60 years and smooth, peaceful power transfers. There are strong institutions such as an elected parliament, powerful judiciary and a functioning executive.
In spite of living up to the definition of a functioning democracy, the Indian democracy has failed to serve the vast majority of its people who remain mired in extreme poverty, lack of education and basic health care. The license raj and official corruption are rampant and the people of India continue to suffer from the excesses of the powerful government bureaucracy. The few high-profile high-tech companies and several Indian billionaires cited as the successes of Indian resurgence fail to hide the fact that there are very few jobs being created relative to the needs, and high rates of poverty and low wages make life difficult for an average Indian.

Pakistani Democracy:
Pakistan has had checkered history of attempts to establish democracy. The failure of the politicians and the interventionist military have made things difficult. Compared to India, the Pakistani economy and the average standard of living have not been bad. As William Dalrymple of the Guardian wrote in August 2007, "...and first-time visitors to Pakistan are almost always surprised by the country's visible prosperity. There is far less poverty on show in Pakistan than in India, fewer beggars, and much less desperation. In many ways the infrastructure of Pakistan is much more advanced: there are better roads and airports, and more reliable electricity. Middle-class Pakistani houses are often bigger and better appointed than their equivalents in India." So while democracy in Pakistan has been missing in action, the reality on the ground is that the people in Pakistan are slightly better off than the the people in India. While free, fair and peaceful elections by Musharraf in Pakistan are very welcome, I am a little leery of accepting this as a fundamental change in Pakistan. This vote is more a protest vote based on basic bread, security and electricity crises they were subjected to in the last few months as the polls showed Musharraf going from 60% favorable rating down to 15% within about a year. People have responded by recycling the old, failed, and thoroughly corrupt feudal politicians and given them a third chance hoping things will improve. If they fail in solving the basic problems of food and fuel and security (a tough challenge by any measure), I wouldn't be surprised to see the same voters yearning for and welcoming another coup with a new general as a strongman. Let's all hope I'm wrong but we have seen this film replayed several times in Pakistan's 60 year history. Let's hope the PPP and the PML(N)leaders are returning to power as a duly chastised and reformed bunch.

The Future of Democracy in Pakistan:
In the long run, I do remain hopeful that Pakistanis will find a way to a form of democracy that best suits them. As the experience in the US and the UK shows, it will probably evolve over time if the democratic process, however flawed it may be, is allowed to continue to play out. Let's hope Pakistan achieves a better system of democracy in a lot less than 200 years, a democracy that is responsive to the needs of its people and serves them well.


Riaz Haq said...

Fruits of democracy have been elusive in South Asia. Neither Indian nor Pakistani democracy have delivered for the people. British Minister Alexander recently contrasted the rapid growth in China with India's economic success - highlighting government figures that showed the number of poor people had dropped in the one-party communist state by 70% since 1990 but had risen in the world's biggest democracy by 5%.

Riaz Haq said...

Here's a Reuters report on feudal excesses and case for land reform in Pakistan:

Dotted around Pakistan are vast estates run by feudal landlords who command enormous economic and political power, condemning their tenants to poverty, reform activists charge.

On some of these estates, debt bondage has forced 1.8 million people to work the land for no pay, generation after generation, according to the campaigning group Anti-Slavery International. On others, sharecropping systems are practised, under which landless tenants hand over between two-thirds and half of the crops they produce to the landowner.

Unlike other countries in the region, including India, Pakistan did not carry out land reforms after 1947, and attempts in the 1950s and 1970s to reduce the size of land holdings had limited impact.

"Land reform has not taken place because the lawmakers in many cases themselves have large land holdings and will never want to transfer ownership to tenants. There will be no land reform until [the] people are in control of governance," Mubashir Hasan, a former finance minister and social activist, told IRIN.

About 2 percent of households control more than 45 percent of the land area. Powerful farmers have also taken advantage of government subsidies in water and agriculture, and benefited from technological improvements which have boosted yields, according to the World Bank.

By 1977 the biggest estates had only surrendered about 520,000 hectares, and nearly 285,000 hectares had been redistributed among some 71,000 farmers. Around 3,529 landowners have 513,114 holdings of more than 40.5 hectares in irrigated areas, and 332,273 holdings of more than 40.5 hectares in non-irrigated areas, according to the government's annual Economic Survey.

"We manage to earn a little for ourselves by selling the surplus corn and wheat that we take from the land. It is hard work, but despite this we have not been able to escape poverty. None of my four sons is educated beyond the eighth grade. We needed their labour on the land," said Kareem Muhammad, a landless tenant on a farm near the town of Okara, about 110km south of Lahore.

In Punjab, both sharecropping and fixed-rent contracts - where a rent per acre farmed is paid to the landowner by tenants - are practised. In Sindh, about one third of the land falls under fixed-rent contracts and about two thirds of the land is sharecropped, government surveys show.

The sense of injustice created by the continued hold of feudal landlords and the poverty this gives rise to has been a key factor in rising social discontent - aided and abetted by militant groups.

"I am a landless farmer. Last year my teenage son was persuaded by members of an organization engaged in jihad [holy war] to come away with them. They told him it is better to wield a gun and learn to use it than eke out a miserable existence tilling land," Riazuddin Ahmed, from Vehari in southern Punjab, told IRIN.

"My son is only 17. He saw no hope ahead of him, and therefore went away with these people. His mother and I are distraught. But we believe he has gone to the northern areas and we have no means of finding him," he said.

Former finance minister Hassan blamed this on oppression and misery. "Today, governance has collapsed. Extremism has grown and weapons have proliferated," he said.

Farming contributes 21 percent to gross domestic product (GDP) and employs 44 percent of the workforce, according to the government's annual Economic Survey. Of the total land area of 80.4 million hectares, about 22 million are cultivated, according to official data. Nearly 65 percent of this cultivated area is in Punjab, about 25 percent in Sindh and 10 percent in the North West Frontier Province and Balochistan.

Riaz Haq said...

Here's an LA Times report on the vicious cycle of poverty in rural India:

India has long been plagued by unscrupulous moneylenders who exploit impoverished farmers. But with crops failing more frequently, farmers are left even more desperate and vulnerable.

Reporting from Jhansi, India - She stops for long stretches, lost in thought, trying to make sense of how she's been left half a person.

Sunita, 18, who requested that her family name not be used to preserve her chance of getting married, said her nightmare started in early 2007 after her father took a loan for her sister's wedding. The local moneylender charged 60% annual interest.

When the family was unable to make the exorbitant interest payments, she said, the moneylender forced himself on her, not once or twice but repeatedly over many months.

"I used to cry a lot and became a living corpse," she said.

Sunita's allegations, which the moneylender denies, cast a harsh light on widespread abuses in rural India, where a highly bureaucratic banking system, corruption and widespread illiteracy allow unethical people with extra income to exploit poor villagers, activists say.

But here in the Bundelkhand region in central India that is among the nation's more impoverished areas, the problem is exacerbated by climate change and environmental mismanagement, they say, suggesting that ecological degradation and global warming are changing human life in more ways than just elevated sea levels and melting glaciers.

"Before, a bad year would lead to a good year," said Bharat Dogra, a fellow at New Delhi's Institute of Social Sciences specializing in the Bundelkhand region. "Now climate change is giving us seven or eight bad years in a row, putting local people deeper and deeper in debt. I expect the situation will only get worse."

An estimated 200,000 Indian farmers have ended their lives since 1997, including many in this area, largely because of debt.

A 2007 study of 13 Bundelkhand villages found that up to 45% of farming families had forfeited their land, and in extreme cases some were forced into indentured servitude. Tractor companies, land mafia and bankers routinely collude, encouraging farmers to take loans they can't afford, a 2008 report by India's Supreme Court found, knowing they'll default and be forced to sell their land.

"While a few people borrow for social status or a desire to buy a new motorcycle, in most cases it's for sheer survival," Dogra said. "When they see their children starving after several years of crop failures, many feel they have no choice."

Recent amendments to a 1976 law in Uttar Pradesh state have increased the maximum punishment for unauthorized money-lending to three years in jail, up from six months, but many loan sharks are well-connected and elude prosecution. The law specifies that lenders must obtain a state license, but the requirements for obtaining it can be vague, a situation that critics say gives bureaucrats significant leeway to enact arbitrary rules and exact questionable fees.

"I take occasional loans when we're desperate," says Jhagdu, 50, a farmer in Barora, 60 miles south of Jhansi, sitting on his haunches with teeth stained red from chewing betel nut. "When there's no rain, like now, you can't repay for a year, so the amounts can double."

Riaz Haq said...

Here's the transcript of an NPR report on feudal power in Pakistan and how it enslaves people on the large feudal estates in Punjab:

LAURA LYNCH: The midday sun throws a harsh spotlight on weathered faces. Women crouch low, searching for, then plucking out barely ripe tomatoes. Every crease and crevice in their feet, their hands, even on their faces is dusted with dirt from the fields they farm. They work from dawn to dusk - and the landowner gets most of the income. Nearly two thirds of Pakistan's rural population are sharecroppers. One of the male workers, Abdul Aziz, says they all owe their livelihood to their boss - so they support the political party he supports. He has always voted for the Pakistan People's Party he says; the party of the late Benazir Bhutto. Bhutto and other wealthy landowners like her had always been able to count on the loyalty of those who toil for them in the fields. At her gracious home in Islamabad, Syma Khar traces her lineage - both familial and political - through the photographs she keeps in the cupboard.

LYNCH: Khar is a member of the provincial assembly of the Punjab - the largest province in Pakistan. She is also a member of one of Pakistan's most powerful families. The pictures are from the Khar family estate just outside the city of Multan. The sprawling property includes fisheries, mango orchards and sugarcane fields. Thousands of people work there - most are loyal to their masters. Syma's husband, his father, brothers, nieces and nephews have all turned that to their political advantage to gain office. The workers are by and large, poor, landless and uneducated. Pervez Iqbal Cheema of Pakistan's National Defence University says that's the way most feudals want to keep it.

PERVEZ IQBAL CHEEMA: A feudal, in order to maintain his influence, will be probably not very happy for extension of education or health facilities because as long as they have a minimum interaction with the outsiders then the chances of new ideas germinating or causing some trouble are relatively less.

LYNCH: That star power was evident when Benazir Bhutto staged her return from exile in Karachi in October of 2007. Though it was later marred by a suicide bomb attack, the Bhutto power base in rural Pakistan bussed thousands of loyal followers in to cheer her arrival and dance in the streets. Even after she died, Bhutto's political machine ensured her husband eventually became President. And her son, Bilawal, inherited the party leadership even though he's only 20 with no political experience. In a back alley off a busy road in Rawalpindi, boys are just starting a late afternoon game of cricket. Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, rights activist and professor of colonial history at Lahore University of Management Sciences, keeps an office a few floors up. Akhtar sees the staying power of the feudals - and gives credit to the military. It is Pakistan's other power centre - staging four coups in the country's 62 year history. Akhtar says the military, interested in holding onto its own sphere of influence, finds a willing partner in the feudal class.
KHAR: If they don't' keep that attitude then people will be doing daytime robberies because they are illiterate people. They will, you know, kidnap the daughters they will take away the children they will take away the properties, they will kill each other. So a boss has to be a boss. He has to have that sort of attitude.
LYNCH: As a farm worker empties her bucket of tomatoes into a crate there is no smile of satisfaction - the day's work is still far from over. There's little chance her life will change soon. Several land reform programs have failed to change rural life in Pakistan. And failed to loosen the grip of Pakistan's large landowners on the country's politics.

Riaz Haq said...

Here's a 2008 Guardian story by Dilip Hiro on Pak feudal power:

The roots of feudal dominance lie in history. The Pakistan Muslim League, the parent of its present two versions, is the descendant of the All India Muslim League (AIML). Formed in 1906 to promote loyalty to the British Crown while advancing Muslim interests, the AIML was led by Muslim grandees and feudal lords. It was not until 1940 that it demanded partition of the Indian sub-continent, with Muslim majority areas constituting independent states. Unlike the anti-imperialist Indian National Congress, it lacked an economic programme favouring small and landless peasants, and trade unions for industrial workers.

Given the traditional peasants' servitude to landowners, and almost universal illiteracy in rural Pakistan, where most people lived, electoral politics became the privilege of large landlords, who controlled vote banks. During elections their choice of a party depended on self-interest: which one will supply or raise government-subsidised irrigation water and/or fertiliser; or build roads to the villages they owned.

This continues. A recent report in the Observer from Old Jatoi (population, 3,000) in Sindh is illustrative. While the peasants working for the local grandee, Mustafa Jatoi, live in shacks, his spacious house is surrounded by green lawns and high white walls, with its driveway chocked with Toyota SUVs and Suzuki Mehrans, now deployed to transport him to drummed-up rallies.

His electoral rival, Arif Jatoi, too has similar assets. But he takes time off to fly to Islamabad to seek extra development funds for his area from the prime minister, allied with the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Q.

In the more populous Punjab province, the Lahore-based Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, a PML-Q candidate, charters a helicopter to campaign in his rural constituency, promising to bring a gas pipeline to the villages. The family's fortunes have come from textile factories. Likewise, Nawaz Sharif and his brother, the leaders of the opposition PML-N, have amassed millions from their industrial assets.

It would be naïve to expect such super-affluent Pakistanis to advance the interests of landless peasants or poorly paid factory workers.

The near-monopoly of power by the Pakistan Muslim League was broken in 1967 when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, father of Benazir, established the Pakistan People's Party. He coined a catchy, all-embracing slogan: "Islam is our faith, democracy our polity, socialism our economy; and all power to the people." It won him the sobriquet of "a socialist demagogue".

While advocating socialist economy, he never uttered the term "land reform". He could not. He possessed 12,000 acres of rice-growing land. He behaved as haughtily as any other feudal lord. So too did his daughter, Benazir. The corruption and the affluence of her and her polo-playing husband, Asif Zardari, are widely known.

Just as with the Jatois elsewhere in Sindh, any electoral rivalry is between competing estate owners. In the Bhutto-Zardari case, it is Benazir's cousin, Mumtaz. Owner of 15,000 acres of arable land worth £12 million, he earns an annual tax-free income of £345,000 in a country with per capita income of £350 a year.

In a recent interview, Mr. Bhutto waxed eloquent about his last summer holiday at Hotel Splendido in Portofino on Italy's Amalfi coast while his peasants suffered the humid heat needed for rice to grow. It was a break from his normal summer forays to apartments in London's posh Mayfair or Knightsbridge.

The glaring scandal of the present election campaign is the total absence of the long-overdue debate about land reform, where the state takes over the land above the legal ceiling and distributes it among landless peasants.

Riaz Haq said...

Here's an interesting analysis of how Pakistan has changed in this decade by a Ahsan, a blogger on Five Rupees:

In the last decade, this picture has changed dramatically due to three central factors.

The first and most important factor is the explosion of private electronic media. In the 1990s, it was difficult for most Pakistanis -- the vast majority of which cannot or do not read newspapers -- to get information that was not government-sponsored or, less mildly, propagandistic. ....

This picture has changed drastically, as anyone with even a cursory interest in Pakistan will be able to tell you. There are now dozens of news channels in Pakistan, each with their own ideological and partisan bent. Some are national-level, others more regionally and ethnically focused. The trend began in the early part of this decade and has plateaued only recently, as the market gets sated. And while few of these channels will win awards for calm understatement or presciently sedate analysis, the fact remains that the media -- if it can be spoken of as a collective -- has given voice to a mass of the population previously unheard from. It has become a player of truly monumental importance for its ability to shape, mold, and excite the public. It is, at once, sensationalistic, blood-thirsty, xenophobic, conspiratorial, humorous, investigative, and anti-government. And yet its arrival on the scene is more than welcome, first for providing the venue for disenfranchised interests to make themselves known and second because the alternative is much worse.

The second significant factor, related to but distinct from the first, is the rise of communication technologies in Pakistan, particularly cellular phones. In 2002, there were 1.2 million cell-phone subscriptions in the country. By 2008, this number had risen to 88 million -- an increase of more than seven thousand percent. In addition, more than one in ten Pakistanis had access to the internet by the end of the decade; low by advanced countries' standards but an astronomical rise by Pakistan's. These developments in communications meant that political narratives became congealed and disseminated at speeds never heard of before, and that information and the wider "war" for public opinion became incredibly hard to win if a battle was lost at any stage.

The third major factor is the economic growth that took place in Pakistan in the first half of the 2000s. Pakistan's GDP doubled between 1999 and 2007, and more than kept pace with population growth, as GDP per capita increased by almost sixty percent between 2000 and 2008. More to the point, this growth was overwhelmingly powered by expansion of the service sector, which is concentrated, quite naturally, in the urban centers of the country. For the first time since independence, the term "Pakistani urban middle class" was not a contradiction in terms.

This development had two effects. First, and more trivially, the urban middle class did what urban middle classes do: they bought televisions and computers. In turn, that allowed them to plug into the private media explosion in ways simply unimaginable previously. Second, it shattered the elite-only edifice of Pakistani politics, and made challenges to government based on Main Street issues -- the price of flour, the lack of electricity, the selective application of the rule of law -- a viable process. Fifty years ago, Seymour Lipset wrote one of the canonical articles in Political Science on the process of democratization, its relationship to urbanized middle classes, and how the demands and values of the latter lead almost inexorably to support for the former. Here was living proof of Lipset's analysis.

Riaz Haq said...

Here's an LA Times Op Ed on US democracy groups working in developing nations:

Now that seven American pro-democracy workers have been allowed to post bail and return to the United States, perhaps we can examine what the U.S. was up to in Egypt using reason instead of patriotic emotion. The Egyptian furor over such seemingly idealistic work may strike us as wild and idiotic, but in fact, the Egyptians have a right to be suspicious. America's attempt to promote democracy around the world through private organizations has unsavory beginnings and a sometimes troubling history.

The program stems from a discredited CIA operation. In the 1950s and '60s, during the Cold War, the CIA set up a group of phony foundations to funnel CIA money to private groups that were either anti-communist or, at least, non-communist. Among the recipients were the AFL-CIO, the National Student Assn. and the magazines Encounter in London and Transition in Africa. Some did not even realize they were operating with CIA subsidies. When the secret operation was exposed in Ramparts magazine and other U.S. publications, there was great embarrassment, and President Lyndon Johnson put a stop to such CIA funding.

But many in Congress felt that the program's problem lay only in its ties to the CIA. Cut those ties and make everything aboveboard, they argued, and the attempt to win hearts and minds to the American way would be useful and benign. In the 1980s, during the Reagan administration, Congress created the National Endowment for Democracy to take the place of the defunct CIA program.

Under the law, the endowment divided its money among four new institutes created to sponsor programs encouraging democracy throughout the world. The four institutes were run by the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, supposedly ensuring the participation of the major American ideologies and interests.

Riaz Haq said...

Here's David Brooks' New York Times' column on inadequacy of democracy in solving problems:

The people who pioneered democracy in Europe and the United States had a low but pretty accurate view of human nature. They knew that if we get the chance, most of us will try to get something for nothing. They knew that people generally prize short-term goodies over long-term prosperity. So, in centuries past, the democratic pioneers built a series of checks to make sure their nations wouldn’t be ruined by their own frailties.

The American founders did this by decentralizing power. They built checks and balances to frustrate and detain the popular will. They also dispersed power to encourage active citizenship, hoping that as people became more involved in local government, they would develop a sense of restraint and responsibility.

In Europe, by contrast, authority was centralized. Power was held by small coteries of administrators and statesmen, many of whom had attended the same elite academies where they were supposed to learn the art and responsibilities of stewardship. Under the parliamentary system, voters didn’t even get to elect their leaders directly. They voted for parties, and party elders selected the ones who would actually form the government, often through secret means.

Though the forms were different, the democracies in Europe and the United States were based on a similar carefully balanced view of human nature: People are naturally selfish and need watching. But democratic self-government is possible because we’re smart enough to design structures to police that selfishness.

James Madison put it well: “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind, which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust: So there are other qualities in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.”

But, over the years, this balanced wisdom was lost. Leaders today do not believe their job is to restrain popular will. Their job is to flatter and satisfy it. A gigantic polling apparatus has developed to help leaders anticipate and respond to popular whims. Democratic politicians adopt the mind-set of marketing executives. Give the customer what he wants. The customer is always right.--------
Western democratic systems were based on a balance between self-doubt and self-confidence. They worked because there were structures that protected the voters from themselves and the rulers from themselves. Once people lost a sense of their own weakness, the self-doubt went away and the chastening structures were overwhelmed. It became madness to restrain your own desires because surely your rivals over yonder would not be restraining theirs.

This is one of the reasons why Europe and the United States are facing debt crises and political dysfunction at the same time. People used to believe that human depravity was self-evident and democratic self-government was fragile. Now they think depravity is nonexistent and they take self-government for granted.

Neither the United States nor the European model will work again until we rediscover and acknowledge our own natural weaknesses and learn to police rather than lionize our impulses.