Global Policy Studies & International Security

The Dry Seed of Democracy in Pakistan

“My mother always said democracy is the best revenge,” remarked Bilawal Bhutto Zardari after reading his mother’s will, which declared him Chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). Like her son, Benazir Bhutto was also appointed chairman of the PPP without elections. It is somehow ironic that these strong advocates of “democracy” were not themselves elected.

Democracy is not a tree that can be transplanted in new soil. It needs to grow from a seed planted within that soil. While much has been written about the importance of democracy in Pakistan, not much has been said about the preconditions required for this system to work. For too long, it has been easy to blame the system without regarding what is wrong with the underlying societal factors.

Political participation is low for different groups in Pakistani society for many reasons, but with two underlying themes—the first being mistrust and the second lack of hope. The root of these themes can be traced to the lies and neglect people have been subjected to for so long from their leaders. The poor are willing to sell their votes and their futures to gain a little food or money as they have no hope for long-term benefits, while the majority of the middle class refuses even to participate due to the lack of trust they have in their leadership.

A brief view of history also helps explain why the people lack hope and do not have trust in the political process. The movement for a separate state for Muslims was driven by a small, educated middle class who wanted to secure their economic standing in society once the British withdrew from the subcontinent. They had to compete fiercely with a large number of educated Hindus. They feared that they would be penalized for being a minority once the British withdrew. However, when they managed to secure a separate state for Muslims, these individuals with the landed elite filled the political vacuum that had been created. They replaced the British leadership and had the same elitist attitude that the previous administration had towards the locals. The people too were used to being governed like this. The sheep were the same, it was just the stick that changed hands.

The word democracy is too often used to tempt and manipulate the masses. It is certainly not akin to rule by the people, for the people. If I were to return with my graduate degree in public affairs and decide to run for political office, I would run uphill all the way.

I could campaign to inform constituents how I would represent them fairly and effectively. But even if they believe me, it wouldn’t matter. Everyone already knows who will win in my region: the candidate who owns the textile factory. To keep their jobs, poor laborers will vote for the factory owner. Cloth making has nothing to do with being a competent leader, but owning the textile factory earns someone a lot of votes. Even in rural villages, tenant farmers, sharecroppers and villagers all owe their political allegiance either to a creditor or an employer.

In a system where caste, lineage and patronage matter more than performance, the regulation of government that elections can provide breaks down.

The seed of our democracy still goes un-watered. The person who sells his or her vote for money, food or other favors has no right later to complain about the performance of his or her chosen leader, or the direction of the country. The middle class chooses not to vote, even though growing corruption and worsening socioeconomic conditions are always a favorite topic in dining rooms and at tea tables. And the Pakistan Peoples Party, a coalition partner in the new “democratic” government and once the strongest opponents of Musharaf’s “dictatorship,” are in power because of their ability to gain enough sympathy from Bhutto’s assassination.

Democracy without essence is like bottle without water. The empty shell with a label saying “water,” will not quench thirst. This sham democracy is no different than authoritarian rule. In both cases the leadership is not representative of the people and is not accountable to them. Such a sham democracy can be worse than a benevolent dictatorship. A benevolent dictator, although not accountable to the people, might still have the interest of the population at heart, as opposed to a corrupt elected leader in this setup, who might only think about his personal interest. Accountability of the government, political maturity amongst the masses and the choice of leaders are perhaps more important factors than simply holding elections and voting.

We need more leaders to choose from, people who are capable of delivering to the public. And the middle class and the poor need to get more involved and start believing in the power of the population and public opinion.

Rehan Zahid

Rehan Zahid is first year student at the LBJ School interested in economic and social policy. He has an undergraduate degree in economics from the Lahore University of Management Sciences in Pakistan.


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