Saeed Afridi |
Democracy is a complex and much misunderstood entity in countries with a history of authoritarian rule. Transition from authoritarianism can suffer distortions of the very basic principles that go towards the inception, propagation and strengthening of Democracy. In Pakistan’s case these distortions evolved an interesting brand of Democrat; zealously embracing the term Democracy and equally covetous of authoritarian practices.
Democracy has certain fundamental tenets that Democrats support and propagate, irrespective of the prevailing circumstances. Democrats stand for and defend a political system that allows the populace to choose and replace the government by way of free and fair elections, devoid of any manipulation form the government or state institutions. Democrats defend the right of all the citizens to participate, without coercion or manipulation, in politics and civic life.
They stand for the protection of the human rights of all citizens irrespective of their colour, ethnicity or social allegiances. They defend the authenticity and transparency of all public information and advocate the freedom of press from any and all manipulation by governments, institutions and private enterprise. Democrats advocate the equal application of law and due process without manipulation by an individual, group or institution.
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Often generalised by elitism, Pakistan’s Democrats are not a monolith. Their diverse political base includes localism, tribalism, ethnic racialism, feudalism, rentierism and near monarchical serfdom. That acknowledged, their collective stance on many fundamental ideas can be observed and scrutinised in aggregate based on what they have assented to through action, omission, acquiescence or acceptance.
Whatever may have haunted Marx’s Europe, the only spectre haunting Pakistan’s democrats is the semi ethereal being of Dictatorship; not however political, feudal or hegemonic dictatorships, these are neither opposed nor, to a great extent, even considered as dictatorships by most.
In Pakistan all ills associated with authoritarian are personified by one entity; the Military. Usually reduced to the Army, it’s assumed to be in predatory alert, ever waiting to see if democracy in Pakistan, however wonderful or despicable its rendition may be, can be thwarted. As Pakistan emerges from a decade of democratic rule, it’s probably apt to consider what, within this decade, Pakistan’s democrats stood for.
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The people, true sovereigns of the state, exercised a fundamental tenet of democracy, their right to free and fair elections, and Pakistan managed its first successful electoral transition, without Army’s overt manipulation.
It became clear on the very night of the election that this fundamental tenet had not been wholly met. The thrust of objections came from a generation that had neither lived through the Army’s heavily manipulated franchises nor, it must be admitted, shown any interest in the entire process of democratisation; until now.
They challenged the validity of the process with impromptu urban protests and sit-ins. Most of Pakistan’s democrats took a curious view. Rather than call for the accountability of possible process manipulation, they argued for acceptance, even if the alleged manipulation happened, and prescribed the aggrieved to ‘move on’ rather than object, protest or seek restitution.
Pakistan’s democrats, by enlarge, did move on; those aggrieved, did not. The following weeks saw greater public participation in peaceful protests calling for the accountability. Most democrats, even the celebrated Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, ridiculed the protests and sided, at least publicly, with the alleged manipulators who resorted to force in isolated incidents.
Those protesting were generalised as ‘burgers’, a derogatory colloquial substitute for ‘spoilt westernised rich brats’, too young to have sacrificed in the decades of democratic struggle yet now had the audacity to protest against systemic manipulation. For most democrats, democracy needed defending against one of its fundamental tenets, fair & free adult franchise, lest it endanger Democracy itself.
A year later, an overzealous, if not malicious, attempt to subdue a politically nefarious cleric led to government henchman destroying private property and the police murdering 14 unarmed people and injuring a further 100 on the streets of Lahore, the seat of the Prime Minister’s political dynasty. The incident was televised live. For Pakistan’s democrats denouncing the notorious cleric for destabilising and endangering democracy took precedent over the unarmed civilians’ right to life, security of private property and they remained largely silent over subsequent state refusal to hold an independent investigation.
Two months later, the electoral manipulation and Lahore murders aggrieved collectively besieged Pakistan’s capital city for three months. Pakistan’s democrats overwhelmingly came to the government’s defence claiming the siege a military orchestration against democracy. A truly gut wrenching terrorist attack killing 132 school children ended the siege but not before the government, ironically, requested a military facilitated compromise involving dual investigations.
The subsequent investigation vilified the electoral institutions for ‘gross irregularities’, yet no convictions resulted. Lahore murders’ investigation is still to produce results. For most democrats the rights to life and manipulation-free elections seemed inconsequential, democracy however, was saved.
For democrats, the right to human security is superseded by the right to favour patronage.
In another city three girls were kidnapped, subsequently one was subjected to an alcohol infused gang rape by six individuals who recorded her ordeal on their mobile phones. Three of these rapists were sons of a parliamentarian. When the victim filed a criminal report no less than the Provincial Law Minister claimed this a malicious attempt to malign parliamentarians, and thus democracy, and successfully pressured the victim to withdraw her complaint, publicly branding her a prostitute who admitted to a ‘consensual gang-bang’; despite recorded evidence. Pakistan’s democrats acquiesced to her treatment through their silence.
In less than a year the complaint of a sodomised young boy was withdrawn in similar fashion. The media eventually claimed nearly 400 cases of a 20 strong paedophile ring, operating under a parliamentarian’s patronage, that had kidnapped, drugged and raped children over a period of years, filming the rapes to extort the victims’ families.
After initial denials, the law minister condemned media hyperbole, presenting the government’s deplorable defence that the number of raped children was less than hundred. A hastily concluded investigation exonerated those under democratic patronage, claiming their inclusion as a malicious attempt to delegitimise the democratic government.
Sectarian outfits, through extortion and swing-votes in key constituencies, have carved out a patronage-protected niche in Pakistan, sharing the stage with prominent politicians at political rallies. The most notorious have brazenly killed thousands from Pakistan’s Shia minority. Military’s cherry-picked attempts to target them met with consistent protest by democrats as a veiled attempt to undermine democratic rule. For democrats, the right to human security is superseded by the right to favour patronage.
Seems democratic also subscribe to their oft decried military-mantra of Good Terrorists Bad Terrorists, in a milder form of Good Murderers, Bad Murderers; the good murderers operate under political patronage, the bad ones under military.
After the terror attack that claimed the lives of 132 children Pakistan’s military began a nation-wide assault on all terror related activities, including the harbouring, financing and aiding of terror-outfits. In a series of arrests senior political figures, including former-ministers and serving political appointees confessed to gross mishandling of hundreds of millions of public funds, some of which had been funnelled towards extortion, political assassinations and terrorism.
The identification of a nexus between political corruption, organised crime and terrorism should lead democrats to spearhead chastising the regime and demand convictions of all named in the confessions; not so in Pakistan. A London based self-exiled politician, wanted for directing political assassinations, extortion, financial corruption and organized crime, incited his political faithful to assault media outlets and paramilitary forces leading to the murder of at least one individual.
The subsequent para-military arrests led to a democratic uproar. For Pakistan’s democrats, irrespective of the legitimacy of the crimes, the para-military’s actions, nominally under the command of Pakistan’s democratic government, endangered the legitimacy of democracy. The accused political demigod was represented by the glitterati of Pakistan’s human rights’ activists and Pakistani democrats based in Washington and London. Democracy, again, needed defending; democratic accountability did not.
Panama Papers revealed the Prime Minister’s family’s vast, officially undeclared, fortunes outside Pakistan indicating the illegal pilferage and transfer of funds. Though alleged and denied for decades, this was evidence undeniably independent of Pakistan’s democracy victimising military and the family engaged institutional manipulation to avoid, delay and scuttle investigations.
The drive for political accountability was inevitable and seized by those aggrieved by ‘electoral irregularities’. Initially rebuffed by state institutions, impotent in investigating the Prime Minister’s family, political pressure led civilian investigative institutions declaring to a parliamentary committee that they are constitutionally unable to investigate the matter; some it seemed truly were above the law. This institutional failure opened the doors to street agitation and another promised besieging of Pakistan’s capital city.
Criminal convictions for corruption now seem inevitable.
A vocal majority of Pakistan’s democrats poured scorn and ridicule on the agitators, concentrating on their naked opportunism and not the demand for the democratic principle of egalitarian rule of law. The agitation was deemed the result of a military manufactured crisis and thus a threat to Pakistan’s Democracy and not the result of a months’ long breakdown of the entire system of accountability. Democracy needed defending from the principles of public accountability and egalitarian rule of law.
Despite the Prime Minister’s unequivocal denials in a public broadcast and a parliamentary address, the agitations resulted in a Supreme Court led investigation. The subsequent year-long circus, including a laughable letter of defence from a Qatari royal, eventually proved his denials to be untrue, documents presented in court to be forged and the unearthing of further assets abroad. He was disqualified from office for the highly immoral and illegal act of being a paid foreign employee while holding the Prime Minister’s office and criminal cases filed against him and his family in accountability courts. Criminal convictions for corruption now seem inevitable.
Buoyed by their anti-terror success and after tracing a spat of prominent Shia-killings to sectarian outfits based in Punjab, the military came knocking on the door of the largest province, ruled by the Prime Minister’s brother. At stake were the political alliances and power brokers who help solidify the governing party’s electoral success in specific constituencies. Faced with a possible crackdown against non-state actors enjoying political patronage the government tried to turn the tables by focusing attention on non-state actors enjoying military patronage and fed the press a news-story to that effect.
As admirable as this would have been, it turned out to be largely fictitious. The reaction from the military, was institutional outrage. The media house in question decided, courageously, to back the authenticity of its report and stood firmly behind its correspondent. Almost unprecedented in Pakistan’s history, almost the entire spectrum of media organisations stood with them. This time there would be no climb down from the journalists. The government was caught nullifying another fundamental tenet of democracy by indulging in the manipulation of the free press and maligning the authenticity and transparency of public information. This was a deplorable action worthy of the ire of democrats, however, when it came to choosing between the fundamentals of democracy or supporting an opportunist narrative opposing the military, the democrats chose the latter. Most democrats, in the defence of democracy, sided with the government against the authenticity and transparency of public information and the right of a free media.
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The promised second siege of Pakistan’s capital had ostensibly been caused by the refusal of one person among Pakistan’s democratic elite, all be it the Prime minister, to be held accountable for alleged misappropriation of public funds in acquiring undeclared assets. To pre-empt the protests, the government relied on arbitrary arrests and the detention of hundreds of citizens, many of them taken from their houses as well as detaining family members in order to coerce politically active citizens not to join the protests.
The government fell back on draconian colonial laws to restrict the freedom of congregation in public spaces and freedom of movement on main roads and highways, blocking some with shipping containers despite express court judgements ruling them illegal. These measures cost the lives of at least two citizens, one a mere infant.
Very few democrats in the world would subscribe to defend these measures under any circumstances short of an armed rebellion, however, most of Pakistan’s erstwhile democrats lent their wholesome support and were quick to chime in with the government’s seemingly benign label for these undemocratic actions by calling them ‘administrative measures’.
Autocracy in Pakistan, whatever its form, is acceptable as long as the person perpetrating it claims to be a democrat. The legality and democratic merit of the act itself seems immaterial, the perpetrator of the act determines its malignancy. There is a name for this practice, that name is not Democracy.
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After decades of opposing military interventions Pakistan has managed to produce a peculiar brand of democrat that bravely and unequivocally opposes the military’s shadow, real or perceived, but is flexible in its support, defence and embrace of Democratic principles. Pakistan’s democrats often justify this by proclaiming they are siding with the lesser evil, the greater evil being the military.
In doing so, through their actions, omissions and choices, democrats are popularly perceived as those who oppose the military and in doing so willingly defend the manipulation of elections, refuse to defend the comprehensive civic participation and institutional independence from manipulation. They acquiesce their support to those who violate basic human rights to life and security, including the protection of women from rape and the right of children to be safeguarded against physical and sexual abuse as well as exploitation.
Democrats are perceived to be among those who have opposed the accountability of public funds, defend the manipulation of public information and oppose the indiscriminate and egalitarian application of the rule of law.
We are defined by what we defend.
It is such a shame that most of Pakistan’s Democrats choose to be defined as those who defend systemic manipulation, pilferage of public funds, institutionalised corruption, dictatorial governance, sectarian slaughterers, extortionists, politically motivated murderers, rapists and worst of all paedophiles.
The writer is a former management consultant focusing on the Energy Industry and writes on Energy Security and the politics of Energy Resources. He is conducting research related to role of Central Asia’s energy resources in China’s Energy Security at the University of Westminster, UK. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.