False choices and realistic options - Najam Sethi - Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Source : http://thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=33730&Cat=9

The word “inqilab” or “revolution” is on everybody’s lips. A majority of Pakistani “have-nots” is hoping for it while a minority of the “haves” is fearful of it. One caller to my live TV show asked: “what is the use of making all these atom bombs if they can’t be thrown on anyone,” to which another angrily provided an answer: “throw them on the poor people of Pakistan so that poverty can be eradicated in one fell blow!”

Last month, Mr Altaf Hussain added his two bits worth by exhorting “patriotic generals” to launch a “bloody revolution”. Now Mr Nawaz Sharif has decided to usurp popular sentiment and is thundering “Damadam Mast Qalandar” in his public gatherings.

So, is a “revolution” about to engulf Pakistan as in the Middle East? No, it isn’t. The collapsing autocratic kleptocracies in the Middle East are being rocked by populist forces for democracy and freedom, much like absolutist Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and Communist Eastern Europe in the late 1980s at the fag end of the Cold war. Each revolutionary wave was secular and each changed the global balance of power in the world.

But no such secular revolutionary movement for “liberty, equality and fraternity” is churning in the bowels of Pakistan. Indeed, Pakistan’s history is littered with relatively successful but non-secular popular movements for democracy and liberation from dictatorships, even if none quite managed to live up to the promise.

The first student-led revolt in 1968 ousted the secular military government of Gen Ayub Khan. The second multi-party led agitation in 1977 chucked out the secular autocratic regime of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The third popular revolt was only three years. Young lawyers backed by a free media swept the moderate government of General Pervez Musharraf from power.

That’s why despite three decades of military rule and one decade of fascism under a civilian government, and unlike the states of the Middle East where non-Islamist (but not necessarily secular) democratic change is in the air, Pakistan has an established multi-party political system, regular and broadly acceptable general elections, a fairly consensual constitution, noisy federal and provincial parliaments, fiercely free media and an independent judiciary. So we have none of the political suffocation and repression that has characterised much of the Middle East.

Does this mean that Pakistan is immune to the winds of change blowing in the rest of the Muslim world? No, it doesn’t mean that at all. There are some striking similarities with the Middle East. Over 60 percent of the population of Pakistan, like most Middle Eastern countries, is under 30 years. Most of it is unemployed, alienated and angry because the democratic system is not delivering. Like the ME, anti-Americanism is rife. And like the Middle East, there is outrage against the double standards of the west in supporting decadent, exploitative and oppressive ruling elites in the Third World while simultaneously exporting ideas of democracy, freedom, human rights and liberalism. This suggests that the idea of “revolution, people’s power and radical change” is in the air even in Pakistan.

But the growing tragedy is that this sentiment is anti-democracy, anti-secularism, anti-liberalism and anti-pluralism because the system of political democracy a la Westminster has only served to sustain a game of musical chairs for corrupt politicians and grasping soldiers who have been living off economic rents and military handouts by the United States in pursuit of its foreign policy objectives in South and West Asia. Pakistani democracy is characterised by three Ds – dynastic, dysfunctional and discredited. So is Pakistan headed for an “Islamic revolution” like Iran under Ayatollah Khomeni in 1979? No, it isn’t.

Iran lent itself to an Islamic revolution because it was uniquely different from other Muslim countries. It is ethnically united and religiously homogenous. Also, it had a class of religious scholars who were all united behind one leader. But Pakistan is not ripe for such an Islamist state. It is ethnically divided and intensely sectarian, with dozens of groups or parties constantly squabbling over religious and political issues. Strong regional sub-nationalisms and ethnic loyalties also cut into religious unity, as demonstrated by the secession of East Pakistan in 1981. In 2002, all the major religious parties formed an umbrella organisation (MMA) to contest the elections but still did not make any dent in the political system. In fact, the MMA lost badly in the 2008 elections and the religious parties are squabbling again.

Under the circumstances, what sort of change is possible in Pakistan? The obvious expectation is regime change via elections later this year. But if that merely serves to replace one dysfunctional coalition government with another, there will be more popular frustration with “democracy” and we will have merely postponed the day of reckoning.

Another option is for the military, judiciary and media to implicitly join hands against discredited politicians and political parties by propping up a civilian regime of technocrats to set things right. But keeping the PMLN and PPP out in the cold for any length of time and disqualifying their leaders won’t work. Sooner than later, the media will switch sides and start criticizing the new regime and hankering for “accountable democracy” again.

MeanwhileThe various flash points in Pakistan will continue to undermine the economy and disrupt foreign polity. Unemployment, inflation and shortages will keep tempers on the boil. Increasing religiosity and anti-Americanism will keep foreign investors at bay. The mad scramble to stockpile nuclear weapons will continue to ring alarm bells in and outside the region. The proliferation of armed and organised jihadi and Taliban groups will pose severe problems for installing liberal democracy, building peace with India and doing business with the west, all of which are necessary for rejuvenating the state and society of Pakistan.

If a war with India is provoked or there is conflict with the US, then all bets will be off. Elements of a failing state are anarchy, civil strife, war, economic meltdown and secession. The only realistic option is for our political leaders to keep religious passion out of law and politics, anti-American outrage out of economic and foreign policy, and unaccountable corruption and inefficiency out of government. We must make democracy work so that Pakistan can survive and prosper as a nation-state.

The writer is Jang Group/Geo adviser on political affairs.

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