Monday, April 02, 2007

Liberalism and Democracy in Pakistan

Unless I am drastically unaware of the pasts of Messrs F-machine and Adeel, this comment was the first Five Rupees has received from a former government official and adviser to both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. I'm reproducing the relevant parts of it here followed by my response.
Thank you for crediting me with making the distinction between social/Cultural liberals and Political liberals.

As we discussed three years ago, and you mention in your blog entry, the distinction is very important. There are many Pakistanis who fail to understand that the future of a nation and a state depends on its politics because nation and state are both political concepts. It has taken some effort and much experience on my part to understand the value of political liberty. Rule of Law, freedom of belief and opinion, and transparent contestation for power are essential to the idea of political liberalism. In most cases, political liberty paves the way for culutral liberty.

On the other hand, we have many compatriots who measure liberty by cultural indices alone. I once wrote in my column that these people do not object to military rule per se, for example. They dislike Ziaul Haq because he imposed restrictions on their cultural freedoms and like Musharraf for allowing these freedoms back. Thus, the easy availability (or not)of alcohol and the right to party serve as criteria for determining whether a government is liberal or not instead of the government's adherence to the law and constitution.

Also, to think that freedom of the press and acceptance of women's rights could somehow be a gift from a military ruler is also incorrect. Musharraf embraced the idea of pluralism in the media as a substitute for freely contested elections. The media reciprocated by using the freedom selectively. The moment the freedom of the media threatened the survival of military rule, the crackdown started.

Only when freedoms (of individuals and of the media) are seen as a right, flowing from law and the constitution and not as the gift of a 'liberal' ruler will they be real and lasting.

The apolitical approach of our elites is only likely to cause grief to Pakistan and Pakistanis.

These comments raise a couple of interesting issues that I'd like to deal with. First of all, I don't think that cultural liberty necessarily flows from political liberty. More importantly, I'm not even sure that political liberty flows from political liberty. Let me explain.

The four most common complaints vis-a-vis Musharraf's violations against political liberties are: interference with the independence of the judiciary, the disappearance of innocent citizens at the hands of police and intelligence agencies, the lack of free and fair elections, and a crackdown on the press. Though these constitute far from an exhaustive list of the criticisms - and failings - of the Musharraf regime, they represent the four most relevant to a discussion of political liberty in Pakistan, which is why I have chosen them.

The problem with subscribing to a Manichean army-bad-democracy-good view on Pakistani politics is that the presence of democracy in no way guarantees that these political freedoms will be upheld in any way. The last twenty years alone show myriad examples of the aforementioned four types of transgressions - those against the judiciary, against the common citizenry, against transparent elections, and against the press - by democratically elected politicians. For instance, many people (including me) are railing against the blatantly political - not to mention shameful - "suspension" of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, but does anyone remember an even more shameful assault on the judiciary exactly ten years ago? It was in 1997 when supporters and members of the PML stormed the Supreme Court during the hearing of a case against the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. A prolonged crisis ensued, eventually resulting in the dismissal of both Chief Justice Sajjad Ali Shah and President Farooq Leghari. If ever there was a slap in the face to the very concept of an independent judiciary, this was it.

What about the victimization of innocent civilians? The Musharraf regime has made a nasty habit of settling political scores and suppressing dissent under the guise of the War on Terror by having intelligence agencies pick up opponents or mere everyday protestors after which they "disappear". Dispicable, right? Absolutely. But let's rewind twelve or thirteen years. Anyone remember the MQM-MQM (Haqiqi)-Army-Police-PPP civil war in Karachi? I do. Government forces regularly shot and killed MQM workers in Karachi like they were cracking peanuts. This was around the time when the infamous term "police encounter" came into vogue: the police or the army would extra-judicially wipe out gangs of MQMites and then claim that the killings happened during the course of a fierce gun battle between them and the MQMites or that the killings took place to prevent prisoners escaping, even though there was significant evidence disputing these claims. Who was by and large responsible for the "cleaning up" of Karachi in the mid-90s? General Naseerullah Babar, the interior minister. Whose government was he interior minister for? Madam Benazir Bhutto, who at best gave indifferent countenence to the practice and at worst actively encouraged it.

Let's move on to the third political un-freedom under Musharraf: the lack of transparent, free, and fair elections. Everyone and their grandmother knows the 2002 elections were rigged, which by itself is bad enough, but when you combine that with the fact that the country's two most popular politicians were not allowed to contest, it assumes even greater importance. The 2004 referendum was such a farce that Musharraf himself tried to distance himself from it. And now the air is thick with rumours of Musharraf being elected by the existing assemblies for a further five years. That's a pretty damning set of indictments. But can anyone honestly say the democrats of our country have done better? This country has not had one transparent, free and fair election since Zia's plane went down. Benazir and Nawaz took turns in rigging elections and stuffing ballot boxes to counter the other in the 90s. Furthermore, it is only slightly ironic (and infinitely more tragic) that today Nawaz kicks and screams against the role of the army in the country's politics. Can someone please remind me who it was that gleefully accepted the Rs. 140 million that former Chief of Army Staff Mirza Aslam Beg procured from Habib Bank to ensure the PPP's defeat in the 1990 elections? Oh yeah, it was the IJI and Nawaz Sharif.

Finally, let's talk about the freedom of the press, or lack thereof. Under Musharraf, we have seen an explosion of private television channels. We have also witnessed more criticism of the government than was ever even imaginable under previous regimes. These developments have to be tempered by the fact that journalists in Pakistan face the danger of "disappearing" or, worse, getting killed if they venture into no-go areas like Balochistan or Wana. The question to ask, however, is how were the Benazir/Nawaz governments any different? They too used intimidation to silence the press, especially Nawaz who had Najam Sethi as well as our commenter beaten and jailed. Even if they were different, how different were they? After all, they too had their no-go areas. I challenge anyone to find me an article, editorial or op-ed in any mainstream Urdu or English newspaper through the entire decade of the 1990s criticizing our Kashmir policy. The only people who could take an unorthodox view on Kashmir were columnists whose disappearance/confinement would have been a true international incident, the Cowasjees of the world, in other words. No one else could.

All of this is to dispute the claim that democracy will somehow be a panacea for all that ails us. As I said, if political liberties like the independence of the judiciary, freedom from arbitrary arrest, free elections, and a free press are not natural implications of democracy, then what course of action or thought is one left with? That is why I do not agree with the assertion that the elite in Pakistan support(ed) Musharraf because he allows drinking and partying per se. The elite in Pakistan support(ed) Musharraf because in real terms, he really is no different from what we've seen for twenty years and, hey, they're getting filthy rich in the process too, so why not just ride the bandwagon for a while? It also bears mentioning that Musharraf rode a wave of widespread popularity - not restricted to the scotch-drinking elite by any stretch of the imagination - in the first few years after the coup mainly due to the fact that, rightly or wrongly, the general populace was exhausted and exasperated with the politicians of the day.

I should caution any reader from inferring I am a Musharraf supporter. I am not, though I do appreciate his efforts on women's rights, which, as I have said earlier, go further than any other leader's actions even if they do not go far enough, and the Kashmir issue. I think Musharraf is at heart a good man who means well. If that sounds like faint praise, it's meant to be. He has made too many mistakes in the last eight years for me to support him wholeheartedly. But it is more than simply the mistakes he has made. It is the fact that I do not believe that there exist any set of circumstances under which an army man should be in power for eight years (and counting). I believe sometimes coups are necessary (ask the 1799 French or the 2006 Thai or, yes, the 1999 Pakistani, populations) but I certainly cannot support a military dictator who has been in power this long. If Musharraf wants to continue as President, he should give up his post as Chief of Army Staff and stand for elections as a political candidate (one day, please remind me to tell you a funny story about Musharraf. Just mention the words Chief of Army Staff and I'll remember. Thanks). I might even consider voting for him, though I would eventually vote for Benazir because my politics are closest to hers. But the point is that if he wants a political future, he should go about it the right way. This is not just a philosophical point but a practical one. At this point, Musharraf's dual-role is more a liability than a source of strength. Domestic political parties know this, the Americans know this, the average person on the street knows this. The question is, does Musharraf?

A final point before I end this post (if you're tired of reading, imagine how I feel writing this nonsense). The fundamental difference, as I see it, between democracy and military rule is that the former is a dyanmic concept. Democracy grows, it adjusts to circumstances, it feeds on itself and, purely as an idea if not a political structure, becomes stronger the longer it is in force. To illustrate this claim, consider the 2000 elections in the U.S. Which other country, other than other perhaps a handful of Western liberal democracies, could have survived that sort of crisis without descending into, at the very least, chaos and disorder, if not outright civil war? That election was a testament to the strength of democracy in the U.S. which is as it is only because it has existed for so long.

This may strike some as a tautological argument - democracy in Pakistan is weak because it is weak - and in some senses it probably is. The point to be made is that one completed term by a Prime Minister and parliament would do wonders for our political culture. Two would be a Godsend. There is a certain amount of path dependence when it comes to the success of democracy, especially in developing countries. Success begets success. On the other hand, military rule is inherently static in nature. It can't go anywhere except in time. Democracy, despite all its (and the democrats', no doubt) faults, presents opportunities for progression. Military rule does not, except in the most rudimentary of senses (economic growth, for example). That is why I support the idea of democracy. It is not because of disagreements with a military ruler's policies per se, or even a particular emanorment with our politicians - though I am cautiously optimistic at the prospect of a third Benazir term. It is because democracy as an idea, as a concept, and as a political philosophy, represents Pakistan's best chance at political stability and viable statehood on account of it being self-correcting in a way military rule, or any despotic rule for that matter, can never be.

4 comments:

Husain Haqqani said...

Dear Ahsan,

You are right that some actions and results under army rule and democracy can be similar. There can be economic growth under army rule, proliferation of mass media or even relative cultural freedom over a 5-10 year period. Similarly, there can be corruption, misgovernance and restriction of freedoms in a democracy. But political analysis should not be just within 5-10 year timeframes. There is a big picture here and that is the long-term viability and effectiveness of a system.

Without getting into an argument about your narrative of recent Pakistani history (on which I have already published a book), let me make one point: There is a Manichean dichotomy between army rule and democracy as systems and processes.

The whole point of my comment was to argue that the state of a nation or state is a political matter and should be assessed in the context of political systems and processes.

You and I do not seem to be in disagreement about the value of democracy. But as is often the case with political discourse on Pakistan you feel compelled to extend the discussion of system to a discussion of failings of individuals within a system. Perhaps we need to discuss the system separately from individuals under each system. If democracy is the better system then we must have patience with flawed individuals produced by democracy or find more effective replacements within the democratic system.

Pakistan will never be rid of army rule as long as we keep on arguing that the incompetence or failure of civilian leaders somehow justifies military coups.

Let me illustrate my point. In India, Indira Gandhi turned authoritarian from 1974-77 during the 'Emergency' period. It was a deviation from democracy comparable to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's authoritarianism and Nawaz Sharif's strong-arm tactics during his second term. But a free and fair election helped chastise Indira Gandhi without the need for army intervention. Mrs. Gandhi was voted out in 1977 and when she returned to power in 1979, she avoided the blunders she had previously made.

In the United States, the Nixon and George W. Bush administrations can be singled out for curtailing civil liberties in the U.S. by interpreting the constitution in a certain way. The curtailed freedoms returned after Nixon's resignation and will most likely return after change of administrations now. The continuation of the process of democracy provides an opportunity to clean up the mess created by democratic governments.

Pakistan’s dilemma is that we have near consensus on the need for democracy but the Pakistani elites do not like the people democracy brings to power. So our discourse focuses extensively on the merits and demerits of individuals in power. Take your statement that “Musharraf rode a wave of widespread popularity.” How can we empirically determine that when Musharraf failed to hold (and win) a free election after his coup? Compare that with Charles De Gaulle in 1958 or Turkey’s last military ruler General Kenan Evren who demonstrated their popularity in fair polls immediately after the coups that brought them to power.

In a country where the intelligence services manipulate elections and influence the media and politics in invisible ways, it is quite possible to create the illusion of widespread popularity even though one’s popularity might be limited to the elites. The empirical demonstration of popularity could only have been a fair election and by avoiding it Musharraf clearly demonstrated his fear of putting his fate in the people’s hands.

So, my five rupees worth is that the army’s intervention in politics must not be condoned and the inadequacies of politicians must be dealt with within the context of the democratic political process.

Finally, I read dozens of blogs but hardly ever post comments on them. I only posted a comment on your blog because of your unusual (in Pakistani terms) courtesy about acknowledging my role in drawing your attention to the difference between social and political liberals. I did not comment as “a former government official and adviser to both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif,” only as Husain Haqqani, whom you met and chatted with a couple of years ago

The last time I was a government official was in 1996. That is almost 11 years ago. I have other aspects, too, that you could have recalled. These include being a regular columnist and University professor. But, then, does any of these things matter? Would my argument be less valid if I had been, say, an elementary school teacher and not a former government official and adviser? Why is it difficult in Pakistani political discussion to focus on what is being said without getting bogged down with who is saying it?

As I said earlier, Good Luck with the blog.

Ahsan said...

thanks for your comments. instead of writing another post, i will respond only briefly to some of the issues raised.

first of all, you completely misunderstood why i cited you being a govt official and adviser to ns and bb. it wasn't meant to discredit your argument in any way (as you have surmised) but to draw a pretty stark distinction between you and the regular people who comment on this blog, which usually include (a) my friends and (b) my friend's friends. no "important" person reads this blog (our readership is currently around 15 i would say) which is why i highlighted that. if anything, it was meant to add credibility to your arguments. i'm sure if you re-read the post, you will see that is the case.

second, i completely take your point about democracy being useful in throwing out leaders that have erred. that is why i ended my post with a discussion about how democracy is self-correcting in a way that army rule can never be. as i said, democracy is dynamic, despotic rule is static. that, for me, is the main difference between the two.

third, i never argued that the incompetence of democrats and politicians justifies army coups. my argument was that based on the last 10-15 years (which you have rightly argued is probably too small a window but one i nevertheless have to use given my age and lack of deep understanding of what happened before zia), the politicians acted in despotic ways themselves (esp ns in his second term) to the point where there was no real difference between them and the army in terms of political liberties afforded to the population in general. democracies do tend to throw up people who act dictatorially but there are usually checks and balances that is meant to curtail them. however, esp in ns's case in his second term, these checks and balances (the judiciary, parliament, and media) were neutered to the point of non-existence. so even if it was labelled "democracy" it was essentially one-man, unaccountable rule. and given that had there been a re-election, it would probably have been rigged as much as musharraf rigged the 04 referundum, i see no difference, in political structural terms, between ns from 97-99 and pm today. do you? like i said, neither has/had checks and balances against his own power, independent media was/is curtailed, poltiical opponents were/are victimized, and elections were/are rigged. what am i missing?

fourthly, and lastly, i am inclined to concede the point that there was no "real" indicator of musharraf's popularity in 1999. however, i do think he was more popular than you are making him out to be. since neither of us can have statistical or empirical support for our respective arguments, we will simply have to agree to disagree.

once again, thanks for your comments. here's hoping you become reader no. 16.

NB said...

From my understanding, it seems that alot of what is being debated is whether institutions can be better built within a Democratic Pakistan as opposed to say a Military Government. Plus incidentlally (but secondarily) theres some debate over the paradox(?) that a Military Government can simultaneously be undemocratic and popular.

On the first point, I should start by saying that I haven't studied enough history to have a very deep or informed opinion, and therefore an opinion which I can hold with that much conviction. But I am inclined to agree with the notion that some of Pakistans instituions have been built better under Musharraf, than they have been under other democratically elected governments. While there may have been some sort of quid pro quo (ie the media agreeing not to be too critical), the important bit for the institution is the consistant appearance of press freedom to the public, which then gradually becomes entrenched as a firm social value over time. Geo's Offices may have been attacked (and there is considerable debate as to the institutional culprit)but what was really very important to the institution was the hangama that followed, a President/COAS's immediate apology, and the Government of Pakistan's offer to compensate. The press may oddly enough have aquiried some strength through the incident. Hopefully in the future people will be cognizant, and consequently wary of trampling on press freedoms.

Democracy itself is an institution that also need entrenchment yes, but what im not so sure about is the sequence of things. Whether we should work on entrenching a social appreciation for the freedom of the press and the judiciary etc first, and then work on democracy, i.e. put the checks and balances in place prior to moving to a comlpete democracy. If so then Musharraf may present an opportunity in that regard if he is serious in his committment to our institutions. I'm inclined to think hes not serious enough at the moment.

Husain Haqqani said...

Dear Ahsan,

I am reader No 16, don't worry. :)

And I did not surmise that you were attempting to discredit my views by identifying me as a former official and adviser. I was merely making a broader point about considering opinions detached from the people who have them.

For NB my comment is that there are historic patterns of democracy building, which cannot be ignored. Attempts to build democratic institutions under military rule were popular in the 1960s and 1970s when Samuel Huntington's thesis about the suitability of men on horseback for leadership prevailed. It has now been proven that military rule only perpetuates itself and any institutions it builds do not last unless they are backed by civilian consensus.

Musharraf cannot be seen in isolation and must be viewed in the context of the collective thinking of the Pakistan army represented by Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan and Ziaul Haq. Despite their differences, the common thread running through their regimes is a contempt for civilian politicians.

We need not debate the failings, real or perceived, of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. But before them came Pakistan's founding generation that was disqualified by Ayub Khan and the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto generation of politicians, that was shunted aside by Ziaul Haq. If every ten years we will have a new set of inexperienced politicians serving alongside the army and then being shunted out, when will our political class gain experience and become mature?

Also, there is a tendency among Pakistanis to ignore evolutionary factors and allow military rulers to take exclusive credit for something that might have evolved over time.

Take the diversity of the media. Under Ziaul Haq no new newspapers were allowed (except The Muslim from Islamabad). Muhammad Khan Junejo created diversity of the print media by making it possible for journalists to start a new newspaper without prior approval of the government.

Then the Benazir Bhutto government allowed foreign wire services (Reuters etc.)to sell their material directly. Previously they could only sell through the government-run APP. The first Benazir Bhutto government also allowed the direct telecast of CNN and BBC and gave permission for NTM and STN, the first private television channels.

The second Benazir Bhutto government opened the market for private FM radio. The first license for an FM station was issued to FM 100 and before others could be processed, the government was thrown out.

The diversity of electronic media we now see is simply an extension of the process that started with Prime Minister Junejo. Had the civilians remained incharge we probably would have got here any way as that was the direction of things. Yes, Nawaz Sharif was very sensitive to the press and tried (like Musharraf) to influence it by behind-the-scenes arm twisting. But the simplified narrative that Musharraf has allowed free media when the civilians did not is historically incorrect.

Neither Ms Bhutto nor Mr. Sharif was allowed to remain in office for more than 36 months at any time. The military's advantage is its ability to hold on to power for longer and then take credit for progress in areas where progress was under way, any way.

I think Ahsan is right in pointing out the advantages of institutionalized democracy but I recommend a curbing of the tendency to ignore the obstacles faced by elected civilian leaders (such as constant manipulation behind-the-scenes by the army) and accepting the militarized version of Pakistan history. As Prof. Hasan-Askari Rizvi has demonstrated in his book on civil military relations, the flaws of civilians are not the real reason the army “has to” take over. The Pakistan army is Praetorian in character and steps in because it views that in its corporate interest.