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Smokers’ corner: Controlled democracy

Smokers’ corner: Controlled democracy

Three days from today, Pakistanis will be heading to cast their votes in the country’s 11th general elections since 1970. This will also be the first time the country will elect a government after two previous democratically-elected governments completed their full terms. This is something to rejoice because till 2008 no other elected government — apart from the one that was elected in 1970 — managed to complete its five-year term.

However, even in 1970, the government which came to power could only do so after the country’s erstwhile eastern wing (East Pakistan) broke away to become Bangladesh in 1971. The new governing party, Z.A. Bhutto’s populist PPP, had actually won the second largest number of seats in 1970. The largest number of seats was won by the Bengali nationalist Awami League (AL) which rebelled against the Pakistani state’s hesitancy to hand over power to the AL. The PPP, on the other hand, refused to play second fiddle to a majority party which was entirely made up of Bengali nationalists.




The violent commotion following AL’s rebellion and East Pakistan’s deadly departure threw up numerous political, economic and social issues. Immense economic, ethnic and ideological polarisation in the country had already surfaced in the late 1960s — especially in the shape of a concentrated protest movement against the Ayub Khan regime. And it was correct for most political parties to demand parliamentary democracy as a way to resolve the problems emanating from the polarisation.

Democracy has always managed to resolve society’s most complex issues and tensions. But trying to control it has always resulted in disaster

Through concrete historical examples, one can quite convincingly assert that democracy has always managed to resolve a society’s most complex issues and tensions.

And, in theory, the results of the 1970 general election did just that. The AL’s sweep in East Pakistan clearly highlighted the fact that the state’s way of aggressively bringing Pakistan’s ethnic diversity into an undemocratically-conceived monolithic whole had failed. It had actually ended up creating severe ethnic fissures.

The PPP’s sweep in West Pakistan, on the other hand, highlighted the economic resentments which had reached a boiling point outside the cosmetic edifice created by the state. But in 1970, West Pakistan’s political and economic elite were not willing to accept the possible solutions delivered by the electorate. The results of this reluctance were disastrous.

This was so much so that even though parliamentary democracy managed to become the country’s post-1971 political system, the many issues that had cropped up in the late 1960s only managed to grow in intensity after the East Pakistan debacle.

In 1977, the people got another chance to resolve these issues through an election. But rigging engineered on some important seats by the sitting government, in Pakistan’s largest province, Punjab, triggered yet another disaster.

The urban middle, lower-middle, industrial and conservative sections of the society who were unhappy with the government’s economic policies poured out on the streets.

The commotion led to the toppling of the regime through a reactionary military coup.

The perception that Pakistanis don’t mind military regimes is entirely hackneyed. Had this been the case, no military ruler, from Ayub to Zia to Musharraf, would have been so desperate to get themselves “elected” as president — albeit through an engineered parliament — and pose as democratically elected figureheads.

In the excellent 2014 report by PILDAT, Pakistan’s First 10 Elections, the authors are of the view that when protests against the Gen Zia dictatorship (especially in Sindh in 1983) peaked, the regime decided to gradually lift the martial law and reintroduce democracy.

But as the report observes, unlike the brief Yahya Khan dictatorship (1969-71) which, through holding a free and fair elections, had tried to neutralise the massive pushback that the old order had begun to face, Zia called for an awkward “partyless election.”

The dictatorship believed that instead of the state’s polarising policies, the elections of 1970 broke Pakistan. But after realising that elected parliaments alone could address the people’s many grievances, this time the state planned to introduce a more controlled form of democracy.

State-owned media, the courts and members of the election commission were used in such a manner that many opposition parties refused to take part. They boycotted the elections in which, anyway, no political parties were directly allowed to participate.

This experiment of a controlled election produced a weak government but one which eventually began to grow its own wings. These were, however, soon cut to size just two years later in 1987. But the state saw this experiment as a success. The four elections between 1988 and 1997 were all largely part of this controlled strand of democracy that the establishment had concocted. Thus, the ethnic, sectarian, economic and political issues remained unresolved and continued to pile on.

As the PILDAT report correctly points out, such experiments not only fail to utilise democracy as a possible issue-resolving mechanism, there is also no guarantee that a controlled parliamentary set-up would not want to break away from the orbit of its controllers.

It happened in 1987 (the Junejo government) and happened again during PML-N’s second government in the late 1990s.

But instead of trusting a freer democratic process as a replacement, the 1985 experiment was repeated in 2002 by the Musharraf regime, even though this time with parties.

Nevertheless, the PPP and PML-N were aggressively sidelined and a “king’s party” was concocted as the new “democratically-elected” ruling party. The result: eventual political and economic turmoil due to the still unresolved issues of a growingly complex polity, much of which was not represented in the parliament.

The country needs a series of uninterrupted (and at least relatively free) elections and governments so the issues can be resolved without creating any more complications. But many parties and observers believe no such thing can be expected in the coming election. They are insisting that a 1985 and/or 2002 kind of a scenario is being created again. If so, then it can and will spell a major disaster.

The state already has a lot on its plate — the prevailing threat of extremist terrorism; vulnerable borders with India and Afghanistan; and so much more. Another controlled set-up will produce nothing but more turmoil.

But let’s hope this is not the case. The establishment disagrees with those who are accusing it of concocting another “democratic” puppet. Let’s hope fears of an unfair election do not come true. Let’s hope we have an election which is as fair as possible in a country that has had such a love-hate relationship with democracy. If not, then bear for impact. Again.

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 22nd, 2018

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