The road to democracy
By Dr Tariq Rahman, Dawn, February 26, 2008
ELECTIONS are an important means to achieve the end which is democracy. The people of Pakistan have always passed this test — that of casting votes for the right kind of political leadership — with commendable success.
In the 1970s elections they voted against Ayub Khan’s long years of dictatorship which had been unfair to the former East Pakistan and had increased the gap between the rich and the poor in the western wing. In 2008, as we have observed, the people have rejected General Musharraf’s policies and those figures of the PML-Q who were his most vociferous apologists.
One thing is common in both elections: the army and its intelligence agencies are said to have distanced themselves from the electoral process or, at least, have not indulged in anti-opposition rigging. This does not mean that there was no rigging — videos of such incidents are shown on TV — but it was not systematic and widespread as it used to be in the 1990s and so we have credible results.
The problem in 1971 was whether the establishment would accept the results of the poll? As it happened, it did not. All the major political parties of West Pakistan, and especially the Yahya Khan military government, did not want to accept the Six Points of Sheikh Mujeeb as that would have ended West Pakistan’s economic and political domination over the eastern wing of the country.
As the government was that of Yahya Khan it is he and his coterie of military officers who bear the major responsibility for alienating the East Pakistanis for ever and not the political parties.
The problem now is whether General Pervez Musharraf and his coterie of civilian hangers-on will really accept the message the election results have given. And this message is that General Musharraf’s policies should discontinue and that he should not hold any political office at present. There are indications that this has not sunk down into the collective mind of General Musharraf and his coterie. First, there are no signs of General Musharraf wanting to bow out while he may. Second, the restrictions on the deposed judges, and especially Aitzaz Ahsan, have not been eased. Third, there are covert threats to Asif Zardari and the Sharif brothers that various court cases may be taken up against them again. Fourth, the United States is still issuing statements in favour of the status quo.
Now if insanity prevails and the results of this election are not accepted in their true spirit, there will be another disastrous year like 2007 was. But 2007 was also a year which gave us the hope that the judges, the lawyers, the media and the students can defy martial rule in this country. Who knows what 2008 will be if the peoples’ voice is muffled again? If, however, they are accepted then we may see light at the end of the tunnel.
Some people, curiously enough, do not have faith in democracy even now. They predict that the PPP and the PML-N will split because they disagree on principles. Therefore, they imply, the present political set-up should continue in some form. However, the fear that a coalition will fall apart should never be sufficient reason to maintain a non-democratic setup in place. Coalitions are part of democratic governance and even if they do fall apart, the process continues. It is the process which is valuable not the continuity of one coalition or political party or the other.
Stability is necessary for economic progress but it should be stability which comes out of political maturity and the continuous change of faces which repeated elections ensure. It should never be the kind of apparent stability which Stalin or the Shah of Iran or Saddam Hussain provided. That is the stability and the peace of the graveyard in which free speech, free thought, original research, journalistic courage — everything withers away. We do not want that. Hence, all arguments to continue with the set-up which the people have rejected in the name of stability and continuity are wrong and must be opposed.
The problem is that the United States is giving arguments of this kind. Exactly what is at stake here? Obviously, the ‘war on terror’. General Musharraf’s mistake was to have made this war appear as a proxy war of the US and not something Pakistan had to do in its own self-interest. Firstly, the decision-makers never said that their past policies of supporting the Taliban in order to gain ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan were wrong. They never also acknowledged that the whole policy of using fighters in Kashmir, and even Afghanistan earlier, to fight in the name of Islam was deeply flawed.
Further, it was reported widely that some decision-makers at some level of the state machinery kept patronising the Pakistani religious militants somehow. Also, the action against the rebellion of the Lal Masjid and Swat was taken late and, when it was, it was unnecessarily brutal — at least in the Lal Masjid case.
All these disasters were never acknowledged, never accounted for and never rectified. That is why the ‘war on terror’ was associated with the US and with General Musharraf himself in the public mind. If it had been fought candidly, consistently and lawfully — that is without abducting people unlawfully at the behest of foreign powers or intelligence agencies — the people of Pakistan would have supported it in the interest of the country.
Even now, if the civilian government which is formed cares for the long-term interests of our own people, it will continue to fight those who challenge the writ of the state through violent means. But this should not be done to please Americans; it should be done to save our society from Talibanisation. Our people have never voted for the religious parties and may not do so unless non-democratic rulers force them to turn away from democracy.
In short, in the long-term interests of peace, tolerance and democracy it is necessary for the establishment to listen to the people for once. They want the judges to be restored; the president to resign; and the media to be free and if this is not done they will lose faith in the vote itself.
It is also necessary for foreign powers to do the same because, if they do so, a future government of Pakistan will be able to resist Islamic militancy otherwise the people will not let it do so. And, of course, it is necessary for the political parties to listen to the people even if their leaders have to suffer as individuals in the process and even if cooperation means strengthening traditional rivals.