The 2020 decade will likely be an age of ‘democracy in trouble’ across major parts of South Asia. Greater oppression, dictatorial policies, and leadership, one-party domination – the challenges are immense. In Pakistan’s case, the long-ailing democracy under the Imran Khan government is now dead. The country, in the aftermath of General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s tenure extension, signals a total reverse of American political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ thesis.
In the early 1990s, after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Fukuyama had predicted a phase of human history in which liberal democracy and economic liberalism will be the only flag flying throughout the world. Notwithstanding the growth of neo-liberalism, politically, the opposite happened in Fukuyama’s own country and other large democracies like India. But in countries struggling to find their way to democracy, it’s been a disaster.
Currently, the weaknesses of the political party system in Pakistan stands exposed with such finality that it’s no more possible for the civil society, including the liberal elements, to deny that the answer to their woes of fighting a military-dominated socio-political system does not lay with the present parties.
The weakness has permeated through the society that now finds itself in an abyss – no inspiration from outside and little movement within. While India is no more a mental stimulant as it used to be, domestically, the Pakistani military has neutralised almost all segments of the formal civil society. The media and the NGO sectors have turned hopeless. Some elements of the media that seem alive owe their existence (besides their bravery) to the Pakistan Army’s General Headquarters (GHQ), which allows some of them to speak so that a case could be made abroad, as General Bajwa did recently in the UK, that there is no censorship in Pakistan. Things have come to the stage that it is difficult to differentiate between genuine cases of political activism versus intelligence moles.
Political parties helmed the disaster
If Pakistan’s civilian side appears to have given up on acquiring any control whatsoever, then credit the political fraternity. This includes the Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), whose leader Imran Khan waited 20 years to come to power without having to show any plans for governance. The party’s senior leaders, both Prime Minister Khan and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, cannot possibly acquire the gumption to object when they are not even allowed to meet senior US leaders and security officials without military officers at their toes.
Sadly, PTI’s opposition is no different. Besides the smaller regional parties, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) have also demonstrated a near-total lack of political depth. The manner in which the PML-N abandoned its social media activists tortured by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies shows they were always going to succumb to any pressure. Similarly, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari’s grand pro-democracy statements do not translate into concrete action in the province of Sindh, which his party controls, because of corruption, nepotism, and poor management.
Democracy in Pakistan was sick since the country’s birth. From minor to major, all political parties in Pakistan were either created with the military’s help or are infested with their moles. Those with no links to the Pakistani military cannot grow beyond a point. Selected civilians are as much a part of the military fraternity as the men in uniform.
The top leadership of all political parties has willingly turned their organisations into patronage platforms, negotiating resources from the Pakistani establishment on the one hand, and supporting kleptocratic redistribution of the country’s resources on the other. Thus, political parties have become profitable ventures that remain tightly tied to the top leadership’s apron strings, or those of their progeny, with little desire to develop a multi-layered, class-conscious leadership. There is not a single political party in Pakistan today that has invested in generating its own narrative, given rise to a new generation of workers and student leaders, or established strategic forums that lend a voice to common citizens. These qualities are not something that the Pakistani military stopped them from acquiring; the country’s political parties just never thought or acted this way.
As for civil-military relations, a lot of attention went into ill-thought-out, temporary ways to push back the military instead of permanently unseating it from the position of power by investing in long-term structural formulas such as civilianising the Ministry of Defence or empowering it and the Defence Committee of Cabinet (now called Cabinet Committee on National Security). Ultimately, democracy proved to be the biggest revenge as Pakistan’s political leadership became increasingly irrelevant in strengthening democracy.
The new normal
Sadly, in Pakistan, oppression has become the new normal. Members of the media don’t actively take a principled position against their own for the rights of those who are not paid or are unjustly fired from the job. There is always someone to replace the other as it happens in soulless, power-hungry social systems. Societies capsize for very long durations after demise of politics. Stopping a Lahore-based university from holding a discussion on Baluchistan followed by killing of a social and political activist, Sabeen Mehmud in Karachi soon after she organized a discussion on the subject instilled silence on Balochistan or its disappeared men and women.
The military decides who can live in Pakistan and who cannot. Those it can afford to silence easily are made to disappear forever. Some return so emotionally mutilated that they would rather be dead. The struggle to control voices is a historic problem in Pakistan, aimed at generating a monotonous, established national narrative that everyone follows without question. In the past, many dissident academics worked from the comfort of foreign lands and could occasionally visit home or return after a regime change.
But now, many worthwhile dissident voices are actively stopped from returning due to threats to their lives. To those compiling files on dissidents, the alternative argument does not make sense. Nor do they understand why people want to come back, especially from the West. A big part of the oppression is to popularise the narrative that those who disagree with the deep state do not belong in Pakistan. It is assumed that any discussion of the country while sitting outside or desire to return is driven by ill will. There is an intertwining of oppressive power and class divide. The intelligence bureaucrat, whose notes make up the bulk of the content in the file on a dissident, comes from a socioeconomic class that, given a chance, would have gone abroad and never returned. Thus, this bureaucrat is unable to see ‘living abroad’ as anything beyond a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, or is unable to appreciate that people do return to or visit the homeland out of desire and without any malice.
It’s this mindset that former President Pervez Musharraf stuck to, despite his upward socioeconomic mobility. He believed that ‘Pakistani women get raped to get rich or obtain western visas’.
PTM, ray of hope
The brave and organic leadership of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) as well as the movement itself provides a ray of hope. As long as it can protect itself from the establishment’s penetration that most socio-political structures suffer from, remains a genuine movement with honest leadership at all levels, and doesn’t turn into a patronage-based party structure, the PTM will continue to inspire.
Although, the real difference will come when the PTM model is replicated in Punjab, which is the bulk of Pakistan and the heart of power. It doesn’t seem likely that the traditional parties have the capacity to inject fresh thought in the heartland of Pakistan. At best, they watch for signs of removal of the PTI government, which may or may not happen. In a situation where Pakistan is no more in the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force as a result of negotiations with the US, the Imran Khan government’s life could get prolonged. In fact, one should not wish for the PTI’s removal because its replacement will be one of the existing opposition parties, which will only prolong Pakistanis’ pain. A real change will only come when the cost of myopic politics increases for all stakeholders, to an extent that everyone agrees to withdraw to mutually agreed-upon lines.
The author is Research Associate at SOAS, University of London and author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy. She tweets as @iamthedrifter. Views are personal.