New Internationalist

The democracy killers

Issue 349

Pakistan’s élites have perverted the country’s politics, argues Aasim Sajjad Akhtar.

The presidential referendum in Pakistan has come and gone. As quickly as the drama enveloped the country it has been forgotten. The Pakistani nation is disappointed and fed up with the antics of the ruling classes and the referendum served only to confirm their suspicions. As expected, General Musharraf made a heap of populist promises. But sadly, till now, these promises have proven to be nothing more than meaningless rhetoric. It seemed impossible for the already dysfunctional Pakistani political culture to degenerate further. Yet this is exactly what has happened in the past two months – considerable effort will be needed to repair the damage. That said, it is important to look at global trends and draw comparisons. Despite the widespread practice of electoral democracy, there is considerable disillusion amongst citizens the world over about the responsiveness of formal politics. The recent presidential election in France is a good example of how extremist exceptions are becoming more popular in electoral polls.

More than anything else such occurrences reflect a narrowing of the political spectrum and homogenization of thought processes and ideas. In other words, ‘liberal’ market democracy has become the coveted political system of choice around the world (with Europe the exception to a certain extent). Politicians from social democratic parties espouse many of the same values that politicians from conservative parties do. In India for example, while it is the right-of-centre BJP that has unquestioningly moved toward privatization of major state-owned enterprises, it was the left-of-centre Congress government that signed loan agreements with the international financial institutions (IFIs) that set the stage for these enterprises to be privatized. All in all then, it is not surprising that extremists such as Le Pen are suddenly default beneficiaries of intense voter reaction to post-election inertia.

So maybe Pakistan’s political culture is not so dysfunctional after all. Who needs electoral democracy if it turns out to be just tokenism? The fact is that political culture cannot be judged on the elusiveness of electoral democracy. It needs to be judged on the basis of factors far more important than elections, factors that are the foundation of a robust democratic culture. A nation with a democratic culture is not necessarily one that has achieved economic democracy – no country in the world has. Similarly, a democratic culture does not necessarily mean that extremist thought and action are eliminated.

A democratic culture allows space for ordinary people to articulate themselves and their politics. In other words, the struggle for economic democracy is facilitated by a democratic culture which both acknowledges people’s basic economic rights and provides a channel to promote such rights. A democratic culture permits the rejection of extremist ideas and actions, without having to resort to other extremes to suppress such ideas and actions. In France, Le Pen was routed in the run-off election and the country’s flirtation with extremism was doused. If France were not home to a relatively evolved democratic culture – which promotes difference but also sanity – maybe Le Pen would have fared better against Jacques Chirac.

There are spaces and yes, movements of opposition. But few people challenge the neoliberal paradigm that underlies General Musharraf’s economic policy

In recent times, India’s democratic culture has been seriously questioned. The fact that thousands of Muslims have been massacred at the hands of extremist Hindu mobs in Gujarat is bad enough. That the state government of Gujarat can be accused of complicity in these massacres is despicable. Why in the world has the pogrom in Gujarat been possible? This is a question that India will have to answer. But at least civil society in India is asking the question. That is a step up from Pakistan which only started to question extremism in the shadow of 11 September when Uncle Sam made it clear there was no other choice. The religious right has never been successful at the polls, yet it has a pervasive influence on Pakistani society. There has been no consistent political opposition to extremism. That’s because the Pakistani state which nurtured the extremists also de-politicized the country to the point that no alternative has sprung up in opposition.

That said, it should be reiterated that we live in a unipolar world and this brings with it a uniformity of thought and action that is almost unprecedented. The onslaught of corporate globalization, powered by the neoliberal politics of the G8 and IFIs, is without doubt a victory for global capitalism. There are very few countries that are resisting this market madness and these countries stand isolated from the world community. Cuba comes to mind – a country that’s made great progress in literacy and basic healthcare. But also a country with its economy in tatters because it does not subscribe to the US-sanctioned market model.

Nonetheless, alternatives do exist in many parts of the world. The burgeoning movement against neoliberalism has emerged out of spaces for dissent. This movement has been most vigorous in the belly of the beast (Seattle, Davos, Genoa). The battlefield may have been fundamentally altered, but at least a battlefield still exists. In Pakistan, the battle is being waged by a very small number of people – the spaces, movements and alternative debates are still sadly ignored and marginalized.

The struggle for economic rights is often framed as a direct challenge to the state. Essential civil and political liberties have been denied so systematically that they may as well be luxuries. Even though Pakistan is just months away from general elections basic political rights remain suspended. And when the military does talk of ‘genuine democracy’, ‘checks and balances’ and ‘participation of ordinary citizens in decision-making’, the fundamentals of the system remain intact and the security paradigm unchallenged. Ultimately, the military government is implementing the overall agenda of the IFIs, as most governments are across the world. With a military government in power dissenting voices are easily muted. Electoral political parties continue to play a regressive role but ultimately they too will only be made accountable once alternatives take centre stage.

There is no reason to believe that alternative spaces, ideas, and therefore movements, cannot be promoted. But there is a need to realize that a democratic culture takes time to develop. And Pakistan is indeed still in the infancy stage. The persistent interference of the military in the political process has meant that this culture has never really flourished. The level of tolerance for different ideas remains low. Any suggestion that the nation’s raison d’etre – the two nation theory – is obsolete is greeted with cries of betrayal. Indeed, challenging the security paradigm that gives licence to the military to ride roughshod over civil rights is considered heresy.

While you might expect the élite to resist democracy, it’s ordinary citizens who have succumbed to the prevailing political culture that are the biggest barrier to change. Virtually all Pakistanis rely more on sifarish (personal contacts) than they do on merit. Most importantly, virtually all Pakistanis are convinced that bogus presidential referendums are just part of their destiny.

There are spaces and yes, movements of opposition. But few people challenge the neoliberal paradigm that underlies General Musharraf’s economic policy. The Government taxes the poor because there is insufficient political will to tax the rich; the food security of small and landless farmers is undermined by withdrawing price supports and subsidies; downsizing is promoted while the corporate sector receives further concessions. These are some of the reasons that an alternative must be pursued. But to challenge those in power is risky.

There are not many in Pakistan willing to support the Anjuman Mazarain Punjab (Tenants Association of Punjab). Almost a million landless tenants in 10 districts across the most populous and richest province in the country have come together to demand rights to land they have tilled for a century. Their struggle directly confronts the military authorities that operate these farms. The struggle should strike at the moral conscience of this society because it illuminates the amazing resilience and resistance of those who have been oppressed for generations – and the kind of vision that this country should be built on. Scores of tenant farmers have been killed, imprisoned and harassed.

Others that deserve wider support include so-called ‘informal sector’ workers. Standing up to summary evictions of katchi abadi (squatters) or harassment of rehri walas (street hawkers) involves challenging the state and its élite-biased planning. Movements for housing and livelihood rights in the urban informal sector have developed. The All-Pakistan Alliance of Katchi Abadis is a nationwide coalition of squatters’ groups that have engaged in civil disobedience regularly over the past three years and have challenged the notion that development can be achieved by bulldozing homes. Such groups should be applauded for their resilience in coping with their surroundings when formal service providers have failed.

In southwest Punjab, the Greater Thal Canal is a disaster-in-process. This mega-irrigation project will displace thousands, destroy the livelihoods of thousands more, disrupt an eco-social system that has existed peacefully for centuries and deprive millions of their traditional water rights. Meanwhile, retired army officials are allotted state lands in the areas that will benefit from this canal. The passive resistance of local communities and the active resistance of Sindhi civil and political society should clarify to us who the priority in ‘development’ should be.

There are hundreds of examples of alternatives to the development priorities that define the Pakistani nation. It is just that these alternatives are not written about, reported on or celebrated. Instead, they are discarded and suppressed, sometimes watered down by promises made during presidential referendums.

There can be no quick-fix solutions to Pakistan’s problems and it is time we stopped searching for them. One need not aspire to be like the Western democracies or like the Asian tigers – there are many visionaries in Pakistan itself. It is time to acknowledge them and be courageous enough to join them. Solutions conceived by the IFIs or a handful of generals are no match for those home-grown democrats. To accept this would be half the battle.

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar is a writer and social activist based in Islamabad.

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