Pakistan Burning: What Democracy?

As the violence starts to die down in some of the major cities of Pakistan, the massive tangle of Pakistani elections – to have them, when to have them, who will participate – catches up with the grief and shock of the Bhutto assassination. Wheels are starting to turn again: the Pakistan People’s Party is now chaired by the boy prince, 19 year old Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, and they have declared that they want elections on the 8th of January. Pressure from the international community, particularly the United States, for elections as quickly as possible comes into conflict with the security and logistical requirements of conducting free-and-fair elections, particularly a week after a national crisis.

Elections are not a silver bullet. They do not restore legitimacy in one swoop. And the actual business of electioneering is completely divorced from the dust-road, hardscrabble existence that most Pakistanis wake up to each morning. [I know this is standard roti on this site, but some masala in a moment].

I overheard talk at a lunch in an Islamabad restaurant between some favoured daughters and sons of families important in this town. These families often bet spreads: having one uncle with Nawaz Sharif, another with the PPP, a cousin with Musharraf, while bara bhai sahib cares for the family lands. Anyway, one of the diners mentioned how hard it is to campaign – that they have to pay these people all this money for their vote, and even then there’s no guarantee that they would vote the right way. The concern is to protect privilege rather than to promote any kind of political vision.

This is the way of politics in Pakistan, and the reason why I – like many other people – don’t get too excited about democracy here. The different political parties provide the same vision with different flavours, and none address even minimally the concerns of the ground-down. The groundswell of enthusiasm for these elections is a vote against the military more than it is anything else: civilian politics might be possible, but democratic politics are still a long way off.

In the meantime, inflation is reaching crisis levels in the country, even as the rioting over the past few days forced shops to stay shut and damaged food and utility distribution networks that might take more than a week to restore. What are Pakistani workers do until then? Eat cake?

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this Ayesha Jalal article is

this Ayesha Jalal article is free and might be of interest to some, though it's a bit dated (pre musharraf):

Democratic, authoritarian or democratically authoritarian, Pakistan in the short run can sadly enough only look forward to brutal structural reforms and more economic hardships on its people. The time is long overdue for its political leaders and senior military and bureaucratic officials to accept the ground realities and learn to address, not try and circumvent, problems. Neither its nuclear nor for that matter its Islamic qualifications can guarantee the survival of the Pakistani state and the federal union. It is only by accommodating the aspirations for greater provincial autonomy in the different regions and correcting the logic of a political ethos mired in corruption and conflict that the country can rise to the occasion and meet the twin challenges of its defiant nuclearization and impending economic ruin. For a government that has at least tried reversing the structural imbalances between key institutions, albeit at the expense of personalizing power in prime ministerial hands, knowing the limits of state authority and the virtues of political compromise may be the better part of valour. A significant change of tune even at this stage in the game may save the country the ignominy of seeing another government fall. With a few concrete gains and many avoidable losses on the stony road to democracy, the choice is Mian Nawaz Sharif’s even if the circumstances have never been of his own choosing.

i only have uninformed

i only have uninformed speculation :)
some hypotheticals for pakistan anyway:

the demilitarization of large swathes of the military (or at least their domestic political and economic functions) so that the same people could enjoy the same perqs, privileges, but just not at the same time they participate in militarism.

barring that, or perhaps in addition, an economic policy less dependent both on military institutional growth and consolidatiion of pakistan's position in the periphery.

concerted building of political parties as insittutions (rather than personality cults) in the public sphere. i don't know what the constraints are on this, but it seems that this hasn't happened before.

it seems like a prerequisite to all this might be the establishment of broader and more productive regional ties, but i don't know.

barring all this, a radical insurgency that has both discipline and a commitment to implementing land reform? :) this is more from the vantage point of 1950s indian politics, but maybe there are some common threads? :)

I was researching Bangladesh

I was researching Bangladesh over the past 3 months which i understand has a similar system of patronage politics at the local level as pakistan (with some researchers saying Bangladeshi parties promised a radical break from Pakistan-style military bureaucracy and ended up only with elite factions instead), and was also in the Philippines while doing the research- with many people there saying the same thing: politics is expensive, not principled; i asked myself over and over again- what breaks the cycle? are there factions in the military? how do civilians mobilize against milit factions? what really works to get the food to the table?

i completely understand the disillusionment with electoral politics - but i would be curious to know what might be a potential step one in the process - do you have any ideas?

also, am friends with dr. anonymous who tipped me off to this blog, thanks for writing.

you seem to be specialising

you seem to be specialising in pak.. your articles are well rserched and hold deepinsight.

Thanks, d! Situation's calmed

Thanks, d! Situation's calmed down some, as the election campaign heats up and Pakistan faces a gigantic flour (and) power crisis. Power cuts for up to 13 hours in rural areas.

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