Normative Narratives

Conflict Watch: Pakistan; Modernization v. Vested Interests, Effective v. Formal Democracy

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Today, Pakistani’s are voting in a milestone election. Before diving into specifics of how effective Pakistani democracy may be, some background on the lead-up to the election:

The election is Pakistan’s 10th since 1970 but only the first where a civilian government has served a full five-year term and is poised to peacefully hand power to another political administration.

Unlike previous elections, in which the military’s Inter Services-Intelligence Directorate had been widely accused of vote manipulation and intimidation, there was little evidence of involvement in this campaign by the military, which has ruled Pakistan directly for more than half its 66-year history.”

“The election has evoked a rare sense of enthusiasm for politics in Pakistan. Some 4,670 candidates are fighting for 272 directly elected seats in the national Parliament, while almost 11,000 people are battling for the four provincial assemblies. Aside from more traditional politicians, candidates included astrologers, openly transgender candidates, former models and the first female candidates in the tribal belt along the Afghan border.

Also standing for election are dozens of candidates from Sunni sectarian groups, some with links to violent attacks on minority Shiites.

But the sense of a vibrant, if flawed, democracy has been tempered by Taliban attacks throughout the campaigning. The militant movement’s ability to derail wide tracks of the campaign, particularly in the mountainous northwest, is being taken as a signal that it has evolved beyond its nihilistic guerrilla roots and has become a powerful political insurgency bent on upending Western-style democracy in Pakistan.

In a statement on Friday, the Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud ordered his commanders to attack the “infidel system” of democracy, warning that teams of suicide bombers would hit targets across the country.

At least 17 people were reported killed in attacks across Pakistan on Saturday, including a gunfight and an attack on a polling station in the western province of Balochistan, and two explosions in the northwest, including Peshawar, that left several people injured. The deadly bombing in Karachi appeared directed at a candidate from the Awami National Party, one of three secular-leaning parties that have borne the brunt of Taliban attacks in the last month that have killed at least 110 people.”

But after a slow start to polling, large numbers of voters emerged by midmorning, including many women. About 300 burka-clad women stood in line outside the Lady Griffith High School, where policemen warned photographers not to take their picture.”

“There were also signs of irregularities that have tainted some past votes. At least one party, Jamaat-e-Islami, withdrew its candidates from Karachi and Hyderabad to protest against alleged rigging of the elections at different polling stations of the city.

“The votes of J.I. are being frightened and harassed by MQM armed activists in different parts of the city,” said Muhammad Hussain Mehanti, the party’s chief in Karachi, referring to the party MQM, which has traditionally dominated the city. He called for a peaceful strike on May 13 as a sign of protest against alleged rigging in the polls in the city.

Prominent officials of both Mr. Zardari’s PPP party and Mr. Sharif’s PML-N party lodged accusations of vote rigging in Karachi, saying they would reject results in the city.”

While time will tell whether the claims of J.I. party have any truth, and violence surrounding the elections is troubling, overall the elections seem to be going very smoothly. It would be naive to think that nobody would try to play “spoiler” in the first true democratic election Pakistan has ever had.

But Pakistani’s, who have “election fever” remain undeterred. It will be interesting to see what the overall voter turnout is once the election is over. Modernization and democratization cannot be imposed from the outside, they have to come from the will of the people, and it seems that Pakistani’s have fulfilled this important prerequisite for sustainable democracy.

The question now can turn from sustainable democracy to effective democracy—the existence of democracy on paper does not ensure it will work in practice. To this end, there are mixed signals for what to expect. I will base effective democracy on the following criteria; the ability of people to vote and run in elections, indiscriminate protection of human rights, an independent judiciary system, and the existence of independent media outlets. There are certainly others, but I had to draw the line somewhere for the sake of writing this piece. I left out military control, as the NYT article already highlights that the military has remained uninvolved in this election (perhaps too much so, as the military arguably should be providing security and not letting 100+ people die during the buildup to the election).

Ability of people to vote and run in elections: As stated in the article, “Some 4,670 candidates are fighting for 272 directly elected seats in the national Parliament, while almost 11,000 people are battling for the four provincial assemblies. Aside from more traditional politicians, candidates included astrologers, openly transgender candidates, former models and the first female candidates in the tribal belt along the Afghan border.” Clearly the right to run for office has been upheld.

As far as voting rights, while the system is not perfect, steps have been taken to make the voting process indiscriminate. “In January 2002, President Musharraf introduced a “joint electorate,” lifting the requirement to declare religion when registering to vote. Millions of Hindus and Christians in Pakistan were listed along with Muslims, and could vote in general elections.”

“Pakistan’s constitution sets aside 10 seats in Parliament for religious minorities, but they are not filled by direct elections. After general elections, each political party nominates candidates from minority communities for the seats based on the party’s proportional representation in the new Parliament.”

Women are also voting in this election, while expatriates will not have their votes counted. The system is not perfect, but it is certainly heading in the right direction.

Indiscriminate protection of human rights: In this sense, the country is not doing as well as it could be. Deaths surrounding the election (over 110), show that the right to life is not being protected indiscriminately. The Ahmadi community is particularly disenfranchised:

“Pakistan’s Supreme Court took up a petition against the practice last month, but neither Pakistan’s Attorney General nor the Election Commission replied to the court’s request to explain why Ahmadis were being listed separately. The listing could also allow religious extremists to easily identify Ahmadis in each electoral district, the Ahmadi spokesman said. In 2010, 86 Ahmadis were killed in attacks on worshippers in two mosques in Lahore.  Last year, at least 20 Ahmadis were killed in Pakistan”

Effective democracy must uphold the will of the majority and the rights of the minority. A national human rights institution (NHRI) passed parliamentary voting late in  2011, but has yet to be operationalized. Having such an institution in place would go a long way in making Pakistani democracy more effective. Assuming the election goes as planned, operationalizing the NHRI should be one of the first objectives of the new Pakistani government.   

Independent judiciary system:In Pakistan, neither the judiciary as an institution nor the individual judges are independent… Independence of judiciary is the hallmark of liberal democracies. On the other hand, our judicial process is based on arbitrary principles, from the appointment and removal of judges to the process of deciding the cases. And particularly, the absolute powers of the chief justices to grant cases to different benches.”

Independent media outlets:Since 2002, the Pakistani media has become powerful and independent and the number of private television channels has grown from just three state-run channels in 2000 to 89 in 2012, according to the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority.

Pakistan has a vibrant media landscape and enjoys independence to a large extent. After having been liberalised in 2002, the television sector experienced a media boom. In the fierce competitive environment that followed commercial interests became paramount and quality journalism gave way to sensationalism. Although the radio sector has not seen similar growth, independent radio channels are numerous and considered very important sources of information – especially in the rural areas.”

However, recent news that a NYT reporter was expelled from Pakistan on the eve of elections has to draw concerns about media independence. Certainly this one instance does not undo recent gains in Pakistani media independence, but it does question the countries commitment to media’s role in providing information transparently and indiscriminately.

There are many signs suggesting that Pakistan is ready for democracy. However, there are still hurdles to be cleared. The first is obviously a smooth transition of power following elections. After that, judicial reform should be pursued and a NHRI must be established. These two actions will ensure that human and civil rights are upheld indiscriminately. Additionally, the independence of media outlets, both domestic and international, should be reaffirmed (an official apology, explanation and invitation back to Pakistan for the expelled journalist would be a good start).

An effective democratic government must also protect personal and societal security. The newly elected leaders must figure out a way to reduce the homicide rate, which has been a problem since before the recent uptick in violence surrounding the elections began . 

What do my readers think? Is Pakistan ready for effective democracy? Will vested interests whom oppose democracy (for example, the Taliban) allow a peaceful transition to democracy? This is an exciting time for the sixth largest country in the world, with a population of 180 million people. A democratic transition in Pakistan could greatly shift the geopolitical landscape in the Middle-East and Southern Asia. I will try to update the Pakistani shift to democracy whenever a relevant story presents itself.

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