Recent Elections and Future of Democracy in Pakistan
"In the eleven years of dictatorship that followed Bhutto's term, the country witnessed Gen. Zia-ul-Haq's constant and often successful attempts to depoliticize the masses, eliminate all political parties, and make the electoral process completely based on money"
The fifty years of Pakistan's existence have meant a constant struggle for the institution of democracy in the country. Continuous political chaos and successive martial law regimes have successfully hindered the evolution of democratic or civil tradition. The election of Zulfiqar Bhutto was seen as deliverance from Ayub Khan's long dictatorship. However, the hopes of millions failed, as Bhutto, was removed after a military coup and subsequently hanged.
Bhutto's five years as the leader of Pakistan People's Party from 1971 to 1976 were a landmark in Pakistan's brief history. He made several contributions to the democratic tradition. The structure of institutions of power in the country, however, had evolved over many years and was pre-disposed towards a concentration of power in the country. The PPP cadres were not organized enough to change, or even resist, this setup. A corrupt and bureaucratic organizational structure can only be overcome by an impenetrable party organization, which unfortunately was not PPP's strongest point. PPP's leadership failed to make a dent in this autocratic setup of power.
In the eleven years of dictatorship that followed Bhutto's term, the country witnessed Gen. Zia-ul-Haq's constant and often successful attempts to depoliticize the masses, eliminate all political parties, and make the electoral process completely based on money. His islamization campaign left the country hostage to fundamentalist beliefs; the society was armed to the teeth, and all ideology had been diluted. On top of all that there was economic chaos due to constant acquisition of external debt to finance the country's apparent affluence. An entire generation grew up under massive censorship, complete absence of democratic institutions, and an all powerful and corrupt bureaucracy, both civil and military. This generation was socialized into accepting the absence of democratic political institutions as normal, which is the worst aspect of Zia-ul-Haq's legacy.
Following Zia's death in a mysterious plane crash, elections were held which Benazir won by a close margin. There is little doubt that PPP won on a sympathy vote in 1988. The PPP was only a remnant of its old self. There was a complete absence of any organizational coherence within the party. Benazir was the party. After two years in power, her government was dismissed on charges of corruption, and Nawaz Sharif won the elections that were held by a caretaker government. Here was another cosmetic change in the political scene. The structure at the top, the power of un-elected institutions and a dearth of economic or nationalist ideology remained unchanged.
After Nawaz Sharif was dismissed and Benazir came back into power, what had changed? Essentially nothing, except that the society had become more accommodating of corruption, unethical behaviour, and arbitrary exercise of power, and the elected members of the assembly more adept at these practices. The inability of the Benazir's government to resolve the grave political and violent crisis in Karachi has been an important factor with her popularity. The disillusionment of people with the electoral process in these circumstances was natural. The political scene had become a game of musical chairs. There was no prospect of any radical change for the better; the 25% voter turn-out in the recent elections was a manifestation of the fact that people had finally given up hope. However, since most voters that abstained were PPP's, there arose a unique situation. Nawaz Sharif was able to clinch power by a majority that was much greater than he had imagined. This outcome gives him power unprecedented in the history of the country. The people of Pakistan, by not voting, had turned the political scene around.
The un-elected institutions of power such as the military and the bureaucracy at once found themselves in a weak position. Although the military had already institutionalized its role in the country's politics, the bureaucracy found
itself under threat. The power of the individual was reduced and that of the party strengthened. In a way, this was a stronger version of the 1971 situation when Bhutto had swept the elections. Bhutto failed to convert the massive grass root level support that he enjoyed into district and local level organization. Coming from the same undemocratic tradition, we cannot expect any better from Nawaz Sharif.
However, unquestionably the first few days of Sharif's government have come as a breath of fresh air. He has made a few symbolic moves which, to many, herald a new era in Pakistani politics. The institutionalization of Sunday as the weekly holiday instead of Friday is definitely a step towards less tolerance of fundamentalism, even if it is merely symbolic. Similarly, the debt reduction campaign has served to mobilize the people towards a common, nationalist goal. However, bigger and more formidable challenges remain in the shape of the defence budget which is a huge drain on the country's resources, and a rapidly deteriorating economic situation. But in the final analysis, Sharif's success will be determined on the basis of whether he is able to increase the strength of the elected institutions of the country.
- Kamal Munir