Democracy in Pakistan: a wolf in sheep's clothing

In Pakistan, the west has always turned a blind eye to the civilian deployment of all the ingredients of dictatorship.

There has been hysteria in the west, especially in Europe, on Pakistan’s fragile political situation. The west sees Pakistan’s ‘democracy’ in grave danger as it believes there might be a ‘subtle’ coup, this time by what Europe perceives as the ‘politically partisan judiciary’.

Europe believes this because the Supreme Court has decided to charge Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani on Feb 13 with contempt of court for failing to ask a Swiss court to reopen corruption cases against President Asif Ali Zardari, despite court orders. The apex court stuck to its order, rejecting on Feb 10 an intra-court appeal by Gilani’s lawyer to suspend the decision of framing charges in the contempt case.

The west is apprehensive that the ‘judiciary-military nexus’ might end up by showing Zardari and Gillani the door, thereby destabilising Pakistan. The west is once again taking upon itself the role of a knight in shining armour, out to save the democratic set-up in Pakistan. The west should take several other factors into consideration when it throws its weight behind democracy in Pakistan.

Gillani has made statements against the army before retracting them umpteen times, realising his folly. His outburst against the army over the Memogate scandal is the most recent example. He first declared the army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Director-General Lt-Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha’s statements regarding Memogate in the Supreme Court as ‘unconstitutional and illegal’. With the army obviously irked, Gillani sacked Defence Secretary Lt-Gen Khalid Nadeem Lodhi (retd) for ‘misconduct, illegal action and creating misunderstanding between the institutions.’

Wasn't it appropriate for Gillani to probe the matter before hurling wild accusations against the army? Why is Gillani still reluctant to ask the Swiss court to reopen graft cases when his lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan has conceded that it would make no material impact on Zardari’s presidency?

Now crying wolf, implying that the army is about to impose martial law any time, doesn’t make any sense, especially when Gen Kayani has categorically stated that the army had no intention of taking over the reins. Given the public’s anti-government sentiment, the tough stance of the judiciary and the sabre-rattling, it certainly seems the ruling Pakistan People’s Party is heading straight for political ‘martyrdom’.

In this scenario, the western narrative regarding democracy in Pakistan raises some questions. Gillani’s repeated claim that the army is about to oust the government does not hold water it seems. The military is already bogged down in operations against militants, and is concerned that martial law will further tarnish its image. Of course, given Pakistan’s weak and corrupt democratic institutions, a future military coup can never be ruled out. But after Gen Kayani’s assurances there hardly seems to be a current threat.

Pakistan lived under successive military rulers from 1958 to 1971 and then from 1977 to 1988. If we take Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s ‘civilian regime’ from 1971 to 1977, the west always turned a blind eye to his deployment of all the ingredients of dictatorship, whether we look at the military operation in Balochistan, a Gestapo-style Federal Security Force used for subduing and terrorising political and non-political opponents, or his founding of the political wing in the ISI. The west lauded the ‘left-leaning’ Bhutto, who despite his slogans of land reform and socialist ideals, bequeathed thousands of acres of land to his family, as a champion of democracy.

If one analyses the period from 1988 to 1999, Pakistan, under so-called democracy was hardly better off than under the Bhutto regime. Under Bhutto’s daughter Benazir, Pakistan saw one of the worst records of violations of human rights and extra judicial killings of political opponents in the history of the country. She was elected the prime minister twice but sacked on corruption charges, while Nawaz Sharif was also removed twice. Ironically, Benazir, who is still hailed as a pro-democracy icon in the west, returned to Pakistan after an underhand deal with Musharraf – the ‘military dictator’ – before being assassinated in 2007.

Now under Zardari, Pakistan is going through the darkest period of its history. His government has been flouting Supreme Court orders with contempt, there is unprecedented inflation, fuel and power shortages, bad governance, rampant corruption, while nepotism is at its peak. It was a cruel joke against the 180 million people of Pakistan when Zardari not only used his discretionary powers to pardon his close aide Rehman Malik in May 2009 in a corruption case, despite the high court sentence, but also decided to retain his convicted friend as the interior minister.

During Musharraf’s ‘dictatorship’ some 50 TV channels and over 100 radio stations were launched in Pakistan. But there was little rebuke  from the west when Zardari blocked the broadcast of two private channels  for reporting on an incident in which shoes were thrown at him in a protest  in Birmingham. And now there is government and military/judiciary standoff.

Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry was hailed as a hero by the west when he fought a battle through whirlwind tours and speeches after being suspended by Musharraf. But the west considers the same judiciary ‘politically partisan’ when it takes a tough stance against the corruption of the civilian leadership which grabbed the reins after 2008 elections in which half of the voters (37.18 million) were found by the Election Commission of Pakistan ‘dubious’.

In fact, if the government is toppled because of the face-off between the government and judiciary, a new civilian set up will take over – a process which can hardly be described as undemocratic or anti-democracy. Early elections is what Pakistan needs. Further delay in elections might indeed lead the country to anarchy and chaos. Showing concern for the present rulers in the name of ‘saving democracy’ in Pakistan can only be counter-productive.

Pakistan’s military has been such a dominant force in Pakistani politics because of corrupt civilian leadership and misrule.

Leaving the masses in the developing democracies at the mercy of civilian rogue governments can only increase anti-western sentiment. Democracy is about people, their sentiments and wishes. The west, which has a flawed understanding of issues in Pakistan, must interact directly with the people of Pakistan and try to comprehend their wishes rather than patronise corrupt civilian governments in the name of democracy.

India is considered one of the biggest democracies in the world. The judiciary is an essential element of democracy. If the Indian prime minister could face the charge of contempt of court and yet the country could remain democratic, then why can’t Pakistan? Nobody is above the law.

So it is time that the west stopped lecturing the Pakistani nation on democracy. Instead of all the half-hearted paying of lip-service, it should start mounting pressure on the Pakistani politicians-cum-feudal lords for more transparency, rule of law and good governance if it really wants to see democracy flourish in Pakistan.

To start, the United States and the European Union should ask Zardari and Gillani to declare their assets at home and abroad and from where and how they accumulated so much wealth. More importantly, Zardari should be asked to present himself to the Swiss court voluntarily, brushing aside his immunity. While this is his moral obligation in the present scenario, if he is really innocent, it will exonerate him.

About the author

Shazad Ali is a contributing analyst at Open Briefing, the civil society intelligence agency. He is also a journalist with nearly 20 years experience in print and online journalism. He has been the assistant editor of the Vienna-based journal Perspectives on Terrorism and now serves as a member of its editorial board.