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Democracy’s failure in Pakistan | CSS | Essay

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The new conventional wisdom is that democracy has failed in Pakistan. Yet again. It seems so obvious to everyone that this is now the overwhelming, unquestioned, uncontested consensus. Even very honorable and well-meaning members of the National Assembly, the main beneficiaries of democracy, have announced its failure.

Some concerned citizens and analysts have, as always, asked the military to intervene, yet again, while others have suggested that this would have happened many months ago, but that it is the military which is reluctant to take on such a huge mess supposedly created by elected representatives. The list of democracy`s failures is extensive and impressive.

The economy is usually at the top of the list to accentuate democracy`s failure. Pakistan`s economy is said to be in a crisis since the day the PPP government has been in power. Everyone who knows absolutely nothing about how the economy functions has an opinion on it, arguing that it has hit `rock bottom`, it is facing its `worst crisis` ever, and other such colorful, descriptive terms.

But, the broad consensus is that the economy has collapsed completely. Lawlessness and growing ghunda gardi at the local level is another manifestation of the failure of democracy as is always Karachi`s ethnic and political strife. One cannot mention democracy and not mention corruption, of course, for it is assumed that democracy in Pakistan is a system which is just another name for corruption.

The fact that the rupee has fallen some 30 per cent is also democracy`s failing, and of course, the power crisis, for which only democracy must be held responsible. Baloch separatism? Of course, due to democracy`s failure. Militancy, and `religion-based enthusiasm`? These have to be democracy`s biggest failures. How could one disagree? This is just the very top of a list which runs very deep. This ability of democracy to do such extensive damage to the economy, society, even to politics must surely be the envy of every other system known to society.

Yet blaming everything that has gone wrong with Pakistan on democracy only emphasizes the fact that those who do so fail to understand what democracy is supposed to be, what purpose it serves and, importantly, how one evaluates successes and failures.

It also reveals a complete absence of a reading of how history has affected, and continues to affect and burden, the present, and amnesia about the past. Or, how social forces and social structures influence, even determine, current outcomes and a host of other social phenomena which have a bearing on social and political relationships.

The expectations from democracy in Pakistan have been highly and unrealistically exaggerated. To expect that democracy is a solution to any of Pakistan`s economic or social problems, or a counter to militancy and `religion-based enthusiasm`, is to misunderstand what it is that democracy ought to deliver.

More importantly, it is to be completely unaware of the structural and social conditions which constitute Pakistani democracy: messy, compromised, reconciliatory, inefficient, just like the rest of society, and which explain so many of Pakistan`s recurrent failures. To expect Pakistani democracy to be some angel-like, ideal, pristine system of government is foolish. Pakistani democracy only reflects what Pakistani society is.

For a country which has only known either military rule or electoral politics dominated by the military in the last 35 years to suddenly expect democracy to `succeed`, without any historical precedence, is equally absurd. Importantly, one needs to compare similar forms of representation from the past to evaluate the current form of governance rather than some abstract notions of democracy.

There is no denying the fact that the current government has been an abject failure in addressing many of the issues mentioned above. However, to hold democracy responsible for this failure is to confuse form with content. It is the government which fails, not necessarily the system which brought it to power.

Also, if one considers previous manifestations of representative and electoral government in Pakistan, the 1990s for example, despite its assumed failures most people would still consider today`s elected form of representation far better than the miserable 1990s. Democratic traditions, practices and outcomes evolve over time. By all accounts, Pakistan`s democratic system, while still starkly inefficient, has noticeably improved over the last two decades. All those writing about the `failure of democracy` in Pakistan must recognize this fact.

If one examines any of the supposed failures of democracy outlined above in a historical spectrum, we will learn that many of the problems which have exacerbated now have deeper roots. Pakistan`s economy, while not in a crisis, is in a mess because of the absence of policies and neglect not just of this government, but very much so of at least the two that preceded it.

The power crisis is not new either. Even critics of this government date it to 2006 or 2007. Clearly, neither democracy nor this government was to blame for this. Militancy and `religion-based enthusiasm`? Surely, a more objective and honest assessment to locate their genesis in a previous era is needed. There is no doubt that this government has made things far worse, but can one really call this democracy`s failures?

When people talk about the failure of democracy, they ought to mean that the government has failed their expectations. Whether their expectations were realistic and such that could be met by any form of government is never questioned. Democracy is not a solution to problems; it only allows us greater freedoms to recognize and articulate them. It also allows us to vote out those governments which have failed.