Is Pakistan ready for democracy?

By Bilal Qureshi

“The Canadian military planners expect that Pakistan will collapse by 2016, and the territory will be occupied by India. Sound bizarre? Not so to the security analysts in Ottawa.” Downhill for Pakistan? (Dawn) Tariq Amin-Khan. Tuesday, January 19, 2010

For the record, I want to make clear that I am a staunch supporter and promoter of democracy, but lately, I have started to wonder if Pakistan is ready for democracy after all. I don’t mean to agree with or advance the argument that Islam has no room for democracy. My argument is based on entirely different set of circumstances and it has nothing to do with religion.

We all know that unfortunately, Pakistan has been deteriorating for some time. Unlike what most anchors and jihadi elements in Pakistan would have you believe, the reality is that Pakistan has almost run out of options in terms of second and third and fourth chances. Today’s Pakistan is actually on life support (thanks to Washington) and we have to see how long would the Western world keep replenishing Pakistan’s depleted oxygen tank. And, even if this artificial support continues, it will end one day because everything comes to an end, eventually. So, will Pakistan be ready when the flow of aid will stop? This is the question that frightens a lot of people, including myself.

Even if Pakistan manages to survive despite awful shortage of food items that are vanishing from the country i.e. sugar, flour, and manages to find work for millions and millions of untrained, and uneducated youngsters in the country, and somehow, connects every house hold in to an electric grid and provide non-stop electricity, gas, water and petroleum to every citizen, the prospect of religious zealots taking over the county and destroying the society is very real. Religious gangsters have already declared war on Pakistan and these thugs are carrying out vicious attacks across the country every single day.

The rise of extreme religion is not on the rise because mullah is forcing everyone to embrace their version of religion, but the society is evolving and drifting towards hard core Wahabi school of thought. Everywhere in Pakistan you look, religious symbols have become the norm and it seems that pretty soon, every woman in Pakistan would be either in burqa or wearing a hijab and every man would be supporting long un-kept beard. And, not only is the society gravitating towards hard-core religion, but ‘I know what is right’ attitude has given a new dimension to religious bullying in Pakistan, which has forced moderate and sometime secular individuals and families to conform in order to avoid being a target or draw attention to themselves.

Add to this volatile mix of lack of economic, social and cultural depression and shrinking energy reservoir the intense and unyielding anti American sentiment across Pakistan and it is a recipe for a complete catastrophe. Pakistan, in my opinion has become a ticking time bomb.

So, in order to turn around Pakistan, can we rely on democracy? Can democratic institutions provide relief and answers for the challenges that the country faces today? Or perhaps, we should ask – has democracy been able to provide any assistance to the ordinary Pakistani? Of course not if one examines the evidence.

Therefore, if the country sticks to democratic means, it might take years, perhaps decades to make a simple decision. Take Kala Bagh Dam. It was in the pipeline for decades before The World Bank pulled its support for this vital project. Similarly, there are other examples where a quick decision is needed to save the future, but democracy dictates that you consult, debate, consider all sides and in the end, reject what is plausible and start again while the problem becomes a crisis. And, it is not only energy crisis – it is almost everything in the country that needs urgent and solid decisions without any compromise, but, we don’t see anything positive happening. The current government is struggling to stop attacks for all sides – army, judiciary, opposition, MQM, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, population explosion, and so forth. And, democracy is not providing any answer, let alone solution for Pakistan.

Can it go on like this forever?

Maybe Pakistan’s democratic transition should be gradual. Maybe Pakistanis should be trained and educated in understanding what it means to live in a democratic society. Maybe, it would be helpful if Pakistanis were first prepared to live within the frame work of democratic traditions. The list of prerequisites can go on and on, but I think you get my point. So, given all this, I ask you to think about it.

Is Pakistan really ready for democracy?

“ Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.” Voltaire


Filed under Democracy, Pakistan, Society, state

21 responses to “Is Pakistan ready for democracy?

  1. Mustafa

    If democracy is not the pancea, then military dictatorships have also brought havoc to the country. It was Zia ul Haque’s 10 years military dictatorship which changed the face of Pakistan. Pakistan was more radicalized, religiously politically and socially.
    I do agree when you say that Pakistan is drifting towards religious anarchy, it is so. Unless Pakistan’s elite, which include military, Judiciary, Bureaucrats, and politicians agree on one thing, that is to change forever the constitution of Pakistan in secular way. Do away with all religious clauses, sharia laws, sharia courts and so forth and so on. Pakistan military like their Turkish counterparts make sure that any future government will not deviate from its secular properties.
    Pakistan’s elite also undertake, that law enforcing agencies will be independent and accountable to law and Judiciary is independent and not a political movement.
    But Pakistan’s future in its present shape do not look good.

  2. Ahsan K

    The real question is: Do current Pakistani’s deserve a nation of their own?

    We keep elected corrupt, inefficient governments. We keep listening and allowing extremist mullahs to dictate our personal lives. We keep blaming others even when it’s our fault.

    The Japanese have a saying: Fix the problem not the blame.

    Would we, as a nation ever learn? No. Not unless we stop The Saudi’s from providing financial assistance to madrassa’s and encouraging their extreme religious views in our country.

  3. PMA

    The countdown to the post-Zardari era begins:

    Reuters: Jan 21st 2010 | LAHORE
    The Economist

    THE Supreme Court of Pakistan has made its intention clear. It wants to turf Asif Zardari from the presidency and compel him to return the wealth that he has allegedly looted and stashed away in Switzerland.

    In a 287-page judgment released late on January 19th the court explained why it had ruled the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) unconstitutional. The NRO, promulgated by the ousted dictator, Pervez Musharraf, in 2007, cleared Mr Zardari and his wife, the late Benazir Bhutto, of all corruption cases against them. The court’s lengthy arguments pave the way for challenges to Mr Zardari’s right to sit in parliament.

    Morality, said the court, cannot be divorced from the constitution. In order to be a member of parliament, a person must be of “good character”. So anyone commonly known to be disreputable can be chucked out even if there is no conviction against him. Mr Zardari ’s reputation, fairly or not, is that of a “Mr 10%”.

    The Supreme Court cited at length the successful legal battles fought by the governments of Nigeria and the Philippines with the Swiss authorities in their bids to get back the billions looted by Sani Abacha and Ferdinand Marcos. It has ordered Mr Zardari’s government to apply to the Swiss authorities to reopen the money-laundering case against Mr Zardari and Ms Bhutto.

    Political pundits foresee the end of Mr Zardari’s presidency. He has thundered about a conspiracy against his “people’s government”, alluding to a nexus between the army, the judiciary and a section of the press. The army resents him as too soft towards both America and India. His efforts to bring the generals under civilian control have earned their hostility. The judges are on the warpath. And the opposition is fanning the conflict, hoping for a mid-term election and the rout of Mr Zardari’s party.

    The court battles ahead are going to be nasty. Sooner rather than later, the army is likely to step in try to break the deadlock between the judiciary and the executive. Pakistan’s enduring tragedy, however, is that its record is no better than that of the civilians.

  4. hoss

    No politics = authoritarian rule.

    Those who are scared of politics actually support authoritarian rule. People who live in the US and watch the daily charade of political maneuvering on media, House of reps, and Senate should be more open to the back and forth that is part of the politics.

    Pakistan is making efforts to be a democratic state. Right now it is a joint effort between the Army and the politicians. It is at best a civilian government not a democratic gov.

    There are problems and hurdles that have to be overcome. The biggest stumbling block is Pakistan being in the eye of the war on terror storm. With a super power knocking at the doors and supporting the army more than the civilian gov, it is not easy to maintain the compromise that the US itself imposed on Pakistan.

    Politicians are corrupt but can any one show where they are not? Zadari may be fighting a losing battle right now but the battles like this help the democracy cause. The next rulers would be more careful and a system of accountability will take hold.

    Democracy in even the US is imperfect.When we see that one president lied his way to a war and the other is lying even more to continue another war and the Supreme Court legitimizes the corporate take over of the democracy, we know how difficult it is to have a perfect democracy.

    Pakistan is headed in the right direction. The path to democracy is full of people like the author of this piece who would rather see the army rule back than have patience.

  5. AZW

    Maybe Pakistan’s democratic transition should be gradual. Maybe Pakistanis should be trained and educated in understanding what it means to live in a democratic society. Maybe, it would be helpful if Pakistanis were first prepared to live within the frame work of democratic traditions

    Who will train the poor Pakistanis for democracy. How do you train for democracy, other than experiencing democracy? How do you do gradual democracy? Who decides the degree of democracy that needs to be introduced at a gradual pace? And who said democracy is a path without the hiccups.

    This is a shallow article at its shallowest. Kindly, let democracy evolve. Democracy needs perseverance, not some lectures of a guided hand a.k.a benevolent highhanded democracy-conscious-autocratic ruler or a regime. Right now, judiciary is acting independently of the government. Army is going after the extremists, governments are functioning at the federal and provincial level. Civilian rule can go on if government keeps at its prime responsibility; governance. It still has recourse to the courts to face the judicial cases possibly facing the President. But this friction does happen in a democratic framework when courts are not subservient to the rulers.

    Pakistan can survive democracy, it won’t survive another autocracy. Kindly stop lecturing how Pakistanis need to be prepared for democracy; this is exactly what the midget of dictators thought of for Pakistani society, assuming the mantle because the country was not prepared for democracy. Pakistan will do just fine without these empty arguments garbed in the form of a helpful analyses.

  6. AZW

    Cyril Amleida has a much cogent perspective on democracy and the inherent friction that comes with it.

    According to Cyril:

    But few seem to believe another possibility: that far from an either/or choice, democracy in Pakistan is a project that does not begin or end with Zardari. And that, if you can remove your ideological/political/ethnic blinkers for a minute, democracy doesn’t appear to be in such bad shape after all.

    First things first: the existence of dissent, rabid, paranoid, even flat-out maniacal dissent, isn’t automatically a negative in the democracy stakes. If that were true, then a few hours of watching Fox News and MSNBC would convince you that America is about as undemocratic as it gets. And a half hour spent watching PM’s Questions in the UK Commons would make you wonder if the mother of all parliaments was stillborn in 1707.

    Democracy isn’t supposed to make dissent fade away. That would actually be undemocratic. Democracy is supposed to provide a framework for the peaceable resolution of different viewpoints. Colloquially, the minority gets its say, the majority gets its way, and a periodic appeal to the public in the form of elections is made to figure out who is in the minority and who in the majority.

    Second, democracy does not always produce the right outcome (even where everyone agrees what ‘right’ is — itself a big ask; see the previous point). It is terribly clichéd, but since I’m dabbling in basics here, allow me to quote Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

    Of course, we are light years away from either the American or British version of democracy (though, arguably, in some ways that isn’t necessarily a bad thing) and it would be plain stupid to pretend that democracy is in great shape in Pakistan.

    But what has troubled me of late is a national inability to switch perspectives, to zoom out from the micro, to understand that there are different categories. A commentary on Zardari’s performance, negative or positive, isn’t the same thing as a commentary on democracy. Of course, Zardari’s moves and mistakes can and do have an impact on the trajectory of democracy, potentially knocking it off course. I enjoy charting them, and clearly hordes of others do, too.

    But since I joined the tribe of writers on national politics, I have been struck by an inability or unwillingness on the part of the majority of our punditry, intelligentsia, call it what you will, to zoom out and try and figure out how the pieces fit together.

    And when it comes to that great, amorphous, hard-to-pin-down thing called Democracy, there are more green shoots than yellow weeds to be found at the moment.

    You can’t talk about democracy in Pakistan without factoring in the army. It alone can interrupt that fundamental requirement of a democracy: periodic elections leading to the orderly transfer of power. But thanks to Musharraf, we don’t have to stay up at night sweating over what lies in the hearts of Kayani & co: Musharraf created such a mess that an army takeover has become a remote possibility.

    Yet, happy as democracy lovers may be that the army’s political ambitions are neutralised for the time being, they should be no less happy that the army has proved handy in carrying out its core function: fighting. Had the territorial ambitions of the Taliban been left unchecked, debates about democracy would have been beside the point.

    On another important, democracy-sustaining front, the political class isn’t looking especially worrying. Two years since the astonishing success of the PML-N, its performance in office has taken some of the sheen off its brand, which means we don’t have to worry immediately about a Nawaz Sharif with a two-thirds majority in hand. Neither has support for the PPP imploded the way some predicted.

    So if coalition politics is here to stay, then the last few months shows that raucous and messy as it may be, it can and does work. The NFC reached a consensus, the coalition in Sindh is still hanging on, the centre is holding, heck, even the coalition of the unwilling in Punjab is in place nearly a year since governor’s rule.

    Have a look at the judiciary. The cynical view is that it is just doing Kayani’s and Sharif’s dirty work for them (don’t bother to ask the conspiracy theorists when it became clear that Kayani and Sharif have the same agenda). But even if the judges get rid of Zardari or the government, it’s unlikely they will cosy up to the next lot.

    The judges know they are safe only as long as the public has their backs, meaning the judges will keep having to stand up to the executive on the people’s behalf. That’s a good thing — I’ve yet to meet anyone who can tell me why the executive and the judiciary should be friends (which isn’t the same thing as saying they should be enemies).

    Of course, much of what I have said about the army, the political class and the judiciary was applicable at various points in the ’90s, and we all know how that decade turned out.

    What is different this time round, however, is that all those constraints exist at the same time and they appear to be trends not wholly dependent on key individuals.

    Kayani or not, the Musharraf legacy still casts a long shadow. Zardari or not, the PPP is not imploding and the PML-N is not growing decisively in popularity. CJ Iftikhar or not, the lawyers’ movement has bought the judges space to adjudicate more independently.

    Additionally, it’s not apparent that the quadumvirate of Zardari, Sharif, Kayani and CJ Iftikhar is about to be split into alliances that will lead to Project Democracy being scuttled.

    Of course, none of this means that the coming-out party for democracy is imminent. There’s plenty of reason to jeer and bite your fingernails. But the positives need to be understood and acknowledged, too — democracy isn’t the kind of destination you can reach without knowing how to get there.

  7. Bilal Qureshi


    I regret that you find my piece “ shallow article at its shallowest” and later you state that “Kindly stop lecturing how Pakistanis need to be prepared for democracy.” Personally, I never engage anyone on one on one level because I find it distasteful and quite honestly, beneath anyone with any sense of decency, therefore, I will ignore your unwarranted attacks.

    However, to the serious readers who are intellectually capable of comprehending complex issues, I’d say that my effort is to generate a dialogue and it should not be construed as ‘lecture’. After all, Pakistan is experiencing extremely turbulent ride and something has to be done rather quickly. I welcome open, serious and meaningful debate, even if I don’t agree with you, or you don’t agree with me. In the end, all of us want Pakistan to be a strong, peaceful and prosperous place.


    Bilal Qureshi

  8. Gorki

    Good intentions will always be pleaded for every assumption of authority. It is hardly too strong to say that the Constitution was made to guard the people against the dangers of good intentions. There are men in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good masters, but they mean to be masters. – Daniel Webster

  9. karun2

    My 2 cents:

    1.) on the question of poverty, governance, time to implement projects, these certainly canot be an excuse to have ‘democracy’

    2.) However ‘Religious fundamentalism’ is quite a different thing, and is especially fuelled by mass sentiments. Democracy might not be the best tool to deal with it in early stages

  10. karun2

    errata : to not have democracy i/o to have

  11. yasserlatifhamdani

    I second AZW’s sentiments and comments.

    I am not sure why we give Mr. Qureshi so much space.

  12. B. Civilian

    Democracy itself is the only school where they train you for demcracy. it is a schooling without which no nation’s education is complete… or even worthy of the title.

    moreover, even those with no (conventional) schooling at all have all the basic skills to practice democracy. you do not have to be literate in order to know and understand what is good or bad for you, both as an individual and as a community, at a local (ie constituency) level (at least).

    recalling the author’s previous contributions, it would seem he belongs to the school of thought that believes that only when all pakistanis will be unquestioning jayalas can they be considered trained enough to deserve democracy.

    luckly, not all jayalas think like that.

  13. Majumdar

    but lately, I have started to wonder if Pakistan is ready for democracy after all.

    I am reminded very much of our own Riaz Haq sahib of the Pak Alumni Worldwide fame.


  14. Ammar

    The trust deficit needs to be addressed so that we are on the same frequency when it comes down to fighting this war, while Pakistan needs to take ownership of this war.

  15. Sadia Hussain

    Quote “Maybe Pakistan’s democratic transition should be gradual. Maybe Pakistanis should be trained and educated in understanding what it means to live in a democratic society”.

    Now how would this gradual transition take place? Such an experiment has failed in Bangladesh where a technocratic regime was installed as a transition. Democracy will take its roots but for that we need to let it flourish on its own and be patient with the setbacks. On a different tangent why is it that under an authoritarian regime we raise no voice for 4-5 years and after then some quarters would start a restoration movement, whereas the agitations would start right after 2 weeks under a democratic regime. Free speech perhaps?

  16. Suv

    In democracy decision making may be slow but it acts like a safety valve. Things like 30 Mn dead in cultural revolution in China, millions killed in Stalin’s starvation of Ukraine, extermination of 21% of population by Pol Pot, Nazi Holocaust would not have not have taken place in a genuine democracy. In autocracy there is a big risk of a maniac running wild and inflicting a big damage to country as Zia has done to Pakistan.

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  18. AZW


    Your article does come across as a weak argument, if there is any argument. You regurgitate the mess in the Pakistani society and jump to a rhetorical question about whether Pakistan is ready for democracy. In this bland leap of thought, you never pause to ponder if it was the lack of democracy, or indeed the very same line of thinking employed by you (masses are not ready for democracy), that got Pakistan to this mess over the past six decades.

    I have pointed out the gaps in your argument and posed some questions that are unanswered in your loud wonderment about the necessity of democracy. I have also quoted Cyril Almeida’s article that gives some answers to the dissention and temporary instabilities that democracy invariably engenders. To have a good dialogue, you will need to stop taking things personally right away, also assume that a criticism of your article as shallow cannot be levelled only by intellectually challenged persons, and may be try to ponder and answer the opposing arguments.

    @ Sadia:

    Humans crave stability. Unfortunately, democracy does not force down stability right away and frightens us with its loud dissentions and competing ideologies. Pakistan has fallen again and again for a forced, guided autocracy when democracy is found too slow and wanting. It only takes a bit longer to realize that an authority above the law, is bound to make things worse without the checks and balances that a democratic setup requires.

    We have argued on this forum before that a prosperous society requires rather two simple pillars 1) Fair laws and their complete implementation 2) Strong democratic institutions with checks and balances. Both of these pillars are dependent upon the other, democracy being more so than the Rule of Law. But Bilal never took up that thought; instead he jumped straight to whether democracy is indeed needed in the country. Failure of democracy happened when rule of law was made subservient to the governance. This failure does not invalidate democracy; the problem in fact gets compounded in guided and so called benign autocracies.

    Challenge is to recognize that democracy is a evolutionary process, and despite the pains suffered along the way, has still been able to deliver the best results. Of course the recipe requires governance accompanied by the unfettered rule of law. And for those who believe in a society revolution by trusting autocrats to set the society right, I would compare this attitude to planning your lifestyle by trusting a lottery win to happen sometime in the near future.

  19. Mustafa Shaban

    First of all the collapse of Pakistan has always been predicted since 1948 and still continues till today based on foolish analysis. Pakistan will not break up, its a strong country that has big problems but had the potential to get back on its feet and it will! Time for everybody to accept this.

    To counter deviant ideologies the education system needs total reform and there needs to be one strong system for the entire country. At the same time people are rejecting the extremists schools of thought, religious parties dont get votes anymore and people are becoming more aware of the real and moderate Islam. It is only that they are a silent majority and that is why we cant see them sometimes.

    Pakistan can get off aid once it utilizes its natural resources, cuts costs, increases credibility so that it can collect more taxes and remittences, reduces curroption to a manageable level. This alone will help solve most financial problems that we have today.

    It is very good that civil society has become very aware of whats going on especially from the youth that are the best hope for Pakistan.

  20. AZW

    Bilal Qureshi:

    For a dialogue to establish, you will need to come out with arguments explaining your position as to why Pakistan is not probably ready for democracy, and what constitutes a viable alternative. Equally importantly, why do you diagree that your original argument should come across to many here as dangerously naive and that the argument follows the very same dictum espoused by many of the previous tinpot dictators that Pakistan have had.

    However when you write a few lines, complain that you would rather not debate with people calling it shallow, not contest points they raise, and and then go completely quiet is not going to help. Dialogue doesn’t develop by itself; it will need your participation to understand the reasons behind your argument. No one has monopoly on truth here, and only by challenging each others’ ideas we can learn further.

  21. rex minor

    Pakistan is facing problems at several fronts including those from within the society.
    The elected should generally be in a position to overcome them. If the leaders are not competent then they need to be replaced.
    In order to get rid of the General, the country was asked to pay the price of taking Mr Zardari and his compatriots currently spread within and out side the country in Embassys. They need to rertire asap.
    The conflicts within the society have to be resolved by the people and therefore you need democracy. It is a difficult but very basic and natural for the human being.
    For God’s sake do not explain to people the Western definition of the word “democracy”And do not expect from the military ruler to introduce democracy. In many of your institutions there is a democratic process for resolving differences. Why not build on it. The institutions must be strong, the rest would follow over a time. For democracy, you need education,education,education for the people. Do not fear the religious institutions as the West does. Try to introduce additional subjects in the Madrassas which appear to be flourshing in your country. By the way Turkey is not a good example which some of you and most of the military praise. Mr Kemal Ata Turk was a military man and until recently the country has suffered on account of the military hegemony. It is broken now with the help of a prolonged democratic process and today the religious party has managed to gain the upper hand and hence the entire new outlook for the country. Many of your Generals have visited Turkey for staff officers course and had the illusion of creating a similar Govt. always under the control of military and I am not sure if the current military has altogether given up this concept.