it is a fine day when the people of a country are able to oust a military dictator through sheer gumption and tenacity – congratulations to the people of pakistan on this unprecedented achievement. i am no fan of asif ali zardari (or of his late wife benazir bhutto or of his soon to be coronated son bilawal) but i applaud the lawyers, journalists and activists of pakistan who stood up to musharraf’s disregard for the law, forced him to hold elections, enabled elected political parties to think impeachment and finally got rid of musharraf in direct defiance of the u.s. government’s plans for pakistan. well done!
some americans, but more surprisingly, many pakistanis (who are not lawyers, journalists, activists or sometimes even residents of pakistan) take issue with the concept of democracy as it applies to pakistan. many of their questions and fears are expressed in an interview i saw on pbs several weeks ago. filmmaker sabiha sumar was interviewed by david brancaccio on NOW about her film “dinner with the president“.
in a prime example of insipid, armchair journalism and of lazy paraphrasing rather than incisive questioning, brancaccio lets sumar pass off her misguided personal impressions and inaccurate statements of fact as unchallenged truth. in her interview, sumar said some things that made sense (e.g. the u.s. should stop interfering in pakistan) but much of what she declared with complete confidence was ridiculous. here are some of sumar’s problems with democracy in pakistan:
(i have used excerpts from an article called “pakistan’s politics and the urban middle class” written by an anonymous contributor to the blog pakistaniat.com to address some of sumar’s issues with democracy – in italics)
1) pakistan is feudal. the business class hardly has any say. there’s not one political party in pakistan that represents the interests of the business class.
nawaz sharif, head of the pakistan muslim league (one of the strongest political parties in pakistan) was elected prime minister twice. his father established the ittefaq foundry in 1939, now the ittefaq group, which happens to be one of the largest business conglomerates in pakistan.
2) democracy is born of a certain struggle in society. in pakistan, we don’t have a very developed, industrial base. it’s really a feudal country.
i will go back to barsamian’s analysis of how a latin american model of sustaining and working with the military has led to the stunted development or in many cases the deterioration of civic institutions. the military is the source of the problem, not a solution. as far as the oft-repeated accusation of being “feudal”, here’s the beef:
Quite often, the middle class critique of Pakistan’s politics is based on rejecting its “feudal” nature. Urban professionals tend to describe any rural politician who owns some land as ‘feudal’, which is incorrect. Feudalism refers to a system of land tenure that creates reciprocal obligations upon Lord and Vassal. It exists in parts of Pakistan but in many cases, those described as feudals in Pakistani political discourse are simply influential landowners who succeed in politics by acting as intermediaries between poor peasants and the overbearing (and in many cases ‘external’) state machinery. Thus, the landed gentry of Sindh and Punjab do not “own” their peasants or sharecroppers. They earn their loyalty by creating a parallel system of dealing on behalf of “natives” with the civil service, police and military that usually comes from outside the local area. […] It is interesting that even non-feudal rural politicians are identified by urban professionals mistakenly as “feudals.” Thus, Tehmina Daulatana who ran a school in Lahore before entering politics is identified through her relationship with the erstwhile Punjab Chief Minister and Ambassador to London rather than as an educator. Nisar Khuhro, a humble self-made lawyer from Larkana who studied in England on scholarship, is often confused with the feudal Khuhros because of the same last name. No one recalls that the Chaudhries of Gujrat and their rivals the Pagganwalas and Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar are not feudals but industrialists. The original feudals from Gujrat district, the Nawabzada family, has long been marginalized in politics.
3) the idea of democracy is quite alien to pakistan.
actually, only when the u.s. is engaged with pakistan on some level – because of america’s need to deal with and lavish money on the pakistani military exclusively. when america was not interested, for example after the end of the cold war and before the inauguration of the war on terror – democracy flourished in pakistan. it wasn’t all that pretty to start with but then there is an inherent messiness that accompanies democracy everywhere in the world. the democratic process can only be somewhat tidied up through practice, not abstinence. look at the last two elections in america – both less than kosher. does that mean that we should root for a military coup?
4) ballot box democracy is really about legitimizing feudal rule through the ballot box, which is a very dangerous idea.
Many of the famous feudal names have been marginalized since independence but the myth of feudal dominance endures. Among those wiped out electorally (except for occasional inclusion in caretaker cabinets by the army): Khuhros of Larkana, Tiwanas of Sargodha, Daulatanas of Vehari, the Qazi Fazlullah family of Sindh, the Gardezis of Multan, the Nawabs of Qasur and the Mamdots of Ferozpur/Lahore. […] Reform of the feudal structure in Pakistan is important and desirable. It is equally important to stop using it as an excuse to put off democracy in Pakistan, which unfortunately urban professional supporters of military rule have consistently done since 1958. If India, Sri Lanka and the US can evolve democracies with political dynasties so can Pakistan. Reform of land tenure and feudalism can be part of the democratic process, not something that must precede democracy. The remaining feudals would lose influence over time and after successive (and honest) elections. Considering that successive military regimes have failed to accomplish it, quite clearly a non-democratic approach to ending feudalism has not worked.
also, isn’t the political system in america set up to legitimize corporate rule? same difference! and aren’t people pressured to vote a certain way by their church or synagogue? how informed is the average american voter and therefore how independent, how well-thought out and how transformative is his or her vote?
5) there has been a triumvirate which has been dealing with pakistani politics all along – the feudals, the army and the mullahs. after musharraf took over, he started banning jihadi organizations.
just to refresh everyone’s memory – who created the taliban in the first place? the isi – pakistan’s military intelligence. when? during general zia ul haq’s military dictatorship in the 1980s. how can the army disengage from the monster it thought up? musharraf is well-known to have negotiated with radical elements. their very existence ensured his own power and the leverage he enjoyed with the u.s. how else could stick-wielding ninjas take over the red mosque in the middle of islamabad, the nation’s capital, kidnapping policemen, amassing weapons and harassing the populace at will for months on end? musharraf had to finally grapple with the problem when some chinese were abducted and china got miffed. since the situation had been allowed to grow out of hand, the final confrontation was unnecessarily bloody. yet musharraf emerged as a hero, especially in the eyes of an american government eager for a good show to justify the millions of dollars it pours into the pakistani military.
6) musharraf is a very democratic-minded person even though he is uniform. that really doesn’t make any difference because his policies, his actions really show him to be very democratic.
even if we make a huge leap of faith and decide that a dictator who came into power thru a military coup and removed an elected prime minister from office, can somehow be democratic, are human rights violations the laudable actions sumar speaks of? is declaring a state of emergency, firing the supreme court and refusing to resign in the face of massive street protests a sign of being democratically-minded? this leads us to sumar’s most egregious assertion:
7) we have to see this whole crisis of the judiciary in the context of the fact that in pakistan, the judiciary is really not as independent as you would imagine a judiciary in america. it’s still very feudal minded. and it was very much against the modernization that musharraf was part of.
this is simply delusional. here is the real story on why the supreme court was fired. three points of contention between musharraf and chief justice iftikhar chaudhry and his supreme court:
(1) instances of “enforced disappearances”, or extrajudicial detentions and extraditions: many of the “disappeared” later resurfaced in guantanamo. these were not terrorists but activists and journalists who were a thorn in musharraf’s side, or sometimes just people with beards. at the behest of families looking for their disappeared husbands and sons, the chief justice ordered all “missing” persons to be produced by the government. investigations ensued. musharraf was cornered. so much for musharraf’s democratic policies! check out this terrific documentary by ziad zafar called “missing in pakistan“. this film, and not sumar’s vapid ode to musharraf, should have been shown on pbs, except that “missing in pakistan” does not fit washington’s promotion of musharraf as a “good guy” fighting terrorism.
(2) the sale of pakistan’s mammoth steel mill: pakistan’s only steel mill was being privatized by musharraf and his citibank-trained prime minister shaukat aziz. the supreme court refused to ratify the sale contract when it was discovered that huge kickbacks were involved and pakistan steel was being sold way below its market valuation.
(3) chaudhy had made the case that musharraf would not be able to contest the upcoming elections as he could not be chief of army and president simultaneously.
so if we can say anything about pakistan’s judiciary, it is this: the judiciary is more independent, more concerned with the rights of citizens and more brazen about standing up to the government (a military regime no less) than the american supreme court can ever be. that’s why the chief justice has become a hero of the people.
if you ask me to go back to the tribal areas, i think i’d be very hesitant. because, today, the government is actually working together with islamic extremists.
sumar blames the recently elected govt for the advance of the taliban in the north western frontier province of pakistan. the elected govt hasn’t really had time to establish new policies and begin to see results. the taliban had already started their takeover. in fact the northern region of swat had already been lost to the taliban during mush’s rule – the pakistani flag having been audaciously replaced by the taliban flag. mush’s military rule also saw the beginning of suicide bombings – something alien to pakistan before this time.
encouragement is being given to islamic extremists by politicians saying, “let’s have a dialogue. let’s not fight.” they’re really emboldened by this because they know that politicians can’t survive without their support.
first of all neither can the military, because of its incestuous relationship with the extremists. secondly, it has to be understood that a war against a specific group like al-qaeda was first expanded to include the taliban and then the entire pushtoon population. the pushtoons live both in pakistan and afghanistan. they make up most of the north western frontier province of pakistan. all of them are obviously not “extremists”. they have their own culture. they are a very proud and independent people. they have always enjoyed autocratic rule, even during 200 years of british rule in the sub-continent. having the pakistani army killing pakistani citizens indiscriminately, under the command of a foreign power that understands little to nothing about that part of the world, is probably not a good way to go. but the proof is in the pudding. this has been mush’s strategy since 2001 (for 7 long years). has it worked? have we marginalized the radicals? have we been able to garner the good will of the pushtoon people in order to isolate a few violent elements? and how has it been for the pakistan army: unprecedented losses, demoralization, massive defections from its ranks. and what about the resulting suicide bombings – in peshawar of course but also in lahore, in islamabad. musharraf has started a civil war. just imagine what would happen if the american army attacked the state of ny, killing american citizens randomly under a military strategy drafted by pakistan…
i don’t see any role for america in trying to bring values of freedom or individual rights to any other country because it’s just not your business to do that. it’s for each country to decide for itself how it wants to find its own way towards more freedom. and i think that’s a process, and every country has to go through it.
agreed, but how can that process evolve if civil society is permanently choked by dictatorships. the army’s penetration in pakistan’s civic life is quite astounding. mush went farther than previous military dictators. he replaced pakistan’s bureaucracy (a constant in the country’s eventful history) with military personnel. this had never been done before. the civil services academy, the national institute of public administration, and pakistan’s administrative staff college were all brought under the military. this kind of parasitic takeover is not conducive to building strong civil institutions which can then produce a struggle for freedom and democracy from within.
sure america can’t help, but neither can their proxy army-wallas!