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A Hopeful Time America Must Respect Pakistan's Democracy

America Must Respect Pakistan’s Democracy

by AYESHA IJAZ KHAN

A few years ago, a friend presented me with Fareed Zakaria’s book, "The Future of Freedom," in which he argues that "liberal authoritarian regimes" augur better for developing societies. By drawing a distinction between constitutional liberty (in which he includes some protection of rights of speech, property and religion) and democracy (which he defines as "open, free and fair elections"), Zakaria continues to make his case against the latter. He cautions that western powers should not push for democracy in Middle Eastern countries as fundamentalists would take over and that democracy cannot function well without education and economic development.

I found Zakaria’s reasoning faulty and vain and his entire concept of essentially waiting for a benevolent dictator highly unrealistic. I was surprised also that Indian-born Zakaria would author such an undemocratic work. So much for the New York Times’ bestseller list!

More recently, Henry Kissinger in his piece, "Two Paths in Pakistan: Security and Democracy" (Washington Post, March 10, 2008), lobbies for national security (America’s) as a priority to democratic evolution (in the Muslim world). Apart from Kissinger’s ignorance on several key aspects of Pakistan’s internal affairs and raison d’etre, his efforts to spread fear in the minds of western readers and to posit democracy as an aim entirely different from ensuring security is censurable.

The result of the 2008 Pakistani election flies in the face of both Zakaria and Kissinger’s rationale. The over-exaggerated threat that if democracy were to flourish in Pakistan, the influence of Islamic radicals would strengthen has been proven conclusively false. In fact, in Pakistan’s history, the only time the Islamic parties gained any significant votes was in the rigged election of 2002, when Musharraf ensured their victory in large numbers by taking measures to facilitate their candidatures. The religious alliance, for their part, ensured Musharraf of their tacit support in passing constitutional amendments to greatly strengthen Musharraf’s powers as President. Simultaneously, the victory of the religious party also sent a convenient signal to the outside world that Musharraf is the west’s best bet against the growing tide of extremism.

Musharraf and his cronies had been so successful in convincing the world of this convoluted image of Pakistan that even some Pakistani expatriates were fearful of the results the election may yield. But, the poverty-stricken, semi-literate citizens of Pakistan spoke with grace and sophistication on February 18, 2008. They voted against the incumbents and for change. They voted against the religious parties and for secular ones. A referendum against Musharraf, some say. Or, perhaps, could it be a referendum for an independent judiciary?

Important as education is, the people of Pakistan have shown it is not a precursor to a functioning democracy. What in fact may have been crucial is access to information. An educated person who is denied objective media reports is as likely to squander his vote as an uneducated person who is not given all the facts.

Therefore, the February 2008 election and its aftermath are notable at several different levels. Politics had always been a topic of great interest for Pakistanis but in recent years the obsession to discuss politics was taken to the television screen. In spite of threats and restrictions, talk shows stretched the limits and discussed controversial subjects that led Pakistanis, as a group, to conclude that military rule is not the way to progress. In 2007, the highly publicized issue of the deposed Chief Justice grabbed headlines and became the catalyst for several new organized civil society groups, the most eminent of course is the lawyers’ movement itself, which demonstrated the importance of supremacy of the rule of law and Constitution so irrefutably that even simple village folk are awaiting the restoration of an independent judiciary.

It was curious in fact that while western press often reported on renowned politicians in covering the 2008 election focusing primarily on which personality could best cooperate with NATO forces, in Pakistan, voters were far more concerned with party ideology. The PML (N), for instance, led by Nawaz Sharif, secured far more votes than expected in spite of the fact that both Nawaz Sharif and his brother, Shahbaz Sharif, were not allowed to contest elections. It is widely commented that the reason for their success was their clear stand on the issue of restoration of the deposed judiciary.

In the North West Frontier Province, the religious parties had ruled for five years, much to the chagrin of average people, who had become the targets of increased violence by radical elements and suffered economic depravation as a result of backward policies. So, not only were the religious parties defeated definitively, but the ANP was voted into power, which has historically held amongst the most secular of views. Maulana Fazlur Rehman, head of the religious alliance, contested from two seats and lost one, barely winning the other. All four of his brothers lost in the elections.

In fact, the collective will of the Pakistani people has been completely contrary to Musharraf’s assertions that Islamic radicals may be voted into power, or short of that only those with a feudal background or large amounts of money may win. Of course there are politicians with feudal backgrounds and large amounts of money who have been elected. But it is nevertheless interesting to note that several political bigwigs lost this time around and amongst them, many who spent countless rupees on their election.

For instance, both Pervez Elahi and Chaudhry Shujaat (Musharraf’s right-hand men) suffered defeats. Moonis Elahi, Pervez Elahi’s son, supposedly gave out a bicycle (his election symbol) to every potential voter in an effort to lure them to vote for him. Several voters rode off on the bicycles but voted for his opponent. Humayun Akhtar Khan, also one of Musharraf’s men, allegedly handed out Rupees 2,000 (about $35) to every potential voter. He too lost-to PML (N) candidate Saad Rafique, who had not contested from that constituency previously, and is nowhere near as wealthy as Mr. Khan. Mr. Rafique has now been appointed Minister for Youth Affairs in the new cabinet.

Ejaz-ul-Haq, previous dictator Zia-ul-Haq’s son, lost; as did Omar Ayub Khan, former dictator, Ayub Khan’s grandson. Those with army connections were not the only ones to go. Owais Ahmed Leghari, former President Farooq Leghari’s son and a feudal by heritage, also lost. Interestingly, Abdul Qadir Gilani, the son of newly-elected Prime Minister, Yusaf Reza Gilani, lost as well. And thus, the contention that votes are cast simply on tribal or feudal affiliations is simply not correct.

Yet, apart from the euphoria caused by the new victories and losses, the most promising aspect of the current political climate in Pakistan is how mindful the newly elected government is of public opinion. None of the ministers named to the cabinet thus far have been the beneficiaries of the highly controversial and hotly debated National Reconciliation Ordinance, as a result of which Musharraf had pardoned several allegedly corrupt politicians prior to the elections, expecting that they, in return, would have to support him as President. In his first address to the nation, moreover, Prime Minister Gilani freed all deposed judges and stressed that they would be restored to their rightful positions within one month.

It is a hopeful time in Pakistan because people are relishing a new era of participatory governance. The lawyers’ movement, in the guise of a public interest pressure group, is keeping a close watch on the freshly inducted government, giving them thirty days in which to reinstate the judges Musharraf had deposed prior to the emergency he declared last November. The newly elected government has to deliver on that promise or risk break-up of the fragile coalition that has temporarily placed political differences on hold and come together to fight dictatorship.

For the first time in Pakistan, civil society groups find themselves in a position to dictate terms to an elected government. For the first time, political parties have allowed leaders to emerge who are not related to the founding members of the respective parties. Assistant Secretary of State, John Negroponte’s recent visit with Musharraf and the politicians led to resentment within the country, with many pointing out his efforts to sabotage democracy in Honduras previously. Pakistan is learning to assert the strength of its 160 million plus population. America will have to live with and respect its new found sovereignty and commitment to democracy.

AYESHA IJAZ KHAN is a London-based lawyer and writer and can be contacted via her website www.ayeshaijazkhan.com