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By Ishtiaq Ahmed
These are very exciting times for Pakistan. Despite my long absences, I can well imagine what must be going on in our major cities, especially in the lawyers’ bar-rooms and the tea and coffee shops where the ‘politics-walas’ congregate; one buzzword will surely be heard all over: democracy.
This is a good sign because if in the last 60 years we have not been able to appreciate democracy, there is no reason we will not be able to do so now or in the next 60. The life of nations is a long one, provided they take good care of themselves.
The first and foremost principle of modern democracy is one-person-one-vote. Pakistan fulfils that criterion admirably, although when it comes to putting value on the evidence of men and women in a court of law, we have a strange system that declares the evidence given by a woman half in value to that of a man.
But then we are not a democracy of the ordinary type but an Islamic democracy, which allows one-person-one-vote, but not a female witness being considered as reliable a witness as a male. From what I know, the arithmetic is that one man and two women fulfill the required minimum of two witnesses!
The second principle of democracy is open and free elections by secret ballot. We have been less keen on this kernel value of democracy. Our erstwhile legislators were elected in 1946 when Pakistan did not even exist. Thereafter, they were not sure if they would be elected to parliament and so they kept postponing elections.
However, when we did hold fair elections, we were not willing to honour the connected third principle of democracy. It is that the party, which wins a majority, has the right to form the government. In 1954, the so-called Jugtu Front, comprising disgruntled East Pakistani politicians, swept the provincial elections but were not allowed to last long in government.
In December 1970, when we had the only true, nationwide free election. The results showed a clear majority for the essentially East Pakistan-based Awami League. The Awami League won 161 seats out of 162 for East Pakistan in a National Assembly constituted by a total of 300 seats. It was denied the right to form the government by the West Pakistani power elite.
It provoked a popular uprising that resulted in a bloody civil war, which in turn provided Mrs Indira Gandhi an opportunity to order her military to intervene and help the Mukti Bahini rebels to come to power in what became Bangladesh. Pakistan was fractured into two.
When the mercurial Zulfikar Ali Bhutto became Prime Minister of Pakistan, he carried out some progressive reforms on behalf of workers and peasants, but then made a mockery of the fourth principle of democracy: that parliamentary majority should not be distorted to become the tyranny of the majority. He used his parliamentary majority to have the Ahmadiyya community declared non-Muslims in 1974. Such an agenda belonged automatically to extremist forces and not to one claiming to be a social-democrat, but Bhutto wanted to wrestle the initiative out of the hands of the former.
The outcome was just the opposite. The ulema were greatly emboldened to advance their own agenda by the oligarchy of senior civil servants and military officers. Both considered Bhutto’s Islamic socialism as an anathema. The Nizam-e-Mustafa movement they launched was hell-bent on getting him out of power and they succeeded in that.
Those forces brought General Ziaul Haq into power and Bhutto was hanged by a split Supreme Court verdict. The long years of the Zia dictatorship greatly undermined democracy and democratic values, although even he could not prevent some restoration of the democratic process.
Prime Minister Junejo was expected to play the role of a rubber stamp but he proved to be a man of substance and began to assert an independent rule-oriented line in his conduct of office. That resulted in his dismissal in 1988. General Zia perished in a plane crash soon afterwards.
New, elected governments again came into power. Both Benazir Bhutto and Mian Nawaz Sharif became prime ministers twice, but were dismissed by the oligarchy each time on charges of corruption. Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were ever so willing to conspire against each other during that period, which made the oligarchy despise them even more strongly.
While in office, Ms Bhutto sent General Faratullah Babar to the Talibans to assure them of Pakistan’s support. Nawaz Sharif tried another route to stardom. He introduced the 15th amendment, which if it had been passed by parliament would have made the dogmatic Shariat the supreme law of the land. This not even Zia had tried.
Both are now in exile, but not because they stood up as representatives of the people and champions of democracy against the oligarchy, but because despite their best efforts to appease the oligarchy they failed. They now live in exile and are outbidding each other as thoroughbred democrats.
There is no doubt that as long as the oligarchy enjoys an overwhelmingly dominant position, democracy in the sense of a government based on the will of the people, can never be established in Pakistan. It is, however, equally true that as long as the politicians do not distinguish between the interests of the nation and their own personal interests to remain in power, they will be easily expendable by the oligarchy.
I have a strong feeling that the oligarchy will be forced to review its own interests sooner or later. In particular, the military will have to do some soul searching. There is a widespread feeling in Pakistan that what was once one of the best fighting forces in Asia, has become a closed club of some generals who exploit their power and positions to amass great personal wealth and immunities.
Democracy in the 21st century must mean a form of government that upholds the rule of law, strict adherence to parliamentary procedure, and respect for human rights of all and sundry without any exception. We need to generate discussion on this theme. If I were to say what is the best legacy of General Pervez Musharraf, it is undoubtedly the freedom of expression. I hope it survives when he leaves, now or later.
The author is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore. Email: isasia @ nus.edu.sg