Pakistani Democracy Is Elusive, So Why Push For It?
It’s a mistake to think that a thriving democracy is right around the corner for Pakistan. The announcement recently that the former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, would be allowed back into the country (after many years of forced exile) was a step in the right direction, but a far, far cry from anything resembling a democratic realignment.
For starters, the Pakistani military stands right in the middle of any transition to democracy. It largely dominates the government, and has done so since the country’s formation. Musharraf is himself a product of the military establishment and many of his key advisers are directly affiliated with it. Outside of politics, the Pakistani military controls major assets in many parts of the economy. The book Military Inc has suggested that the military controls 70 percent of the gas stations in Lahore, and that it runs as much as 7% of the countryâ€™s private-sector assets. Some reports indicate that it controls up to one-third of all heavy manufacturing and that it owns a $20 billion business portfolio of â€œbanks to real estate developers to bakeries.â€ With such an extensive system of control in both political and economic life, it’s clear that the military will prove a huge barrier to a transition to any kind of accountable, democratic government in Pakistan.
The other major impediment to democracy in Pakistan is the corruption and undemocratic nature of the country’s major political parties. The Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Muslim League (controlled by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif respectively) have been riddled with corruption scandals, and not unjustly so. They are controlled by a very small number of elites who largely maintain their positions through acts of patronage and cronyism. Furthermore, they are highly undemocratic organizations whose decision-making process is dominated by a very small clique of party officials. Although both parties often paint themselves as on the forefront of the democratic struggle in Pakistan, their goals are much more opaque.
Although most Pakistanis want representative government, healthy democracy is undoubtedly a long way in the coming.
While there is little disagreement on this point, a disturbing trend has emerged in the thinktank world and amongst academics: many analysts are now using the elusiveness-of-democracy argument to suggest that the United States should not even bother pushing for democratic reform in Pakistan. Anatol Lieven’s writings are a case-in-point. Although an extremely intelligent South Asia analyst, Lieven’s views typify this disturbing trend; repeatedly, he has disregarded democracy in Pakistan as unachievable, and therefore not worth pushing for. Daniel Markey, a prominent former State Department official, has adopted a similar line. He wrote a long article in Foreign Affairs recently arguing that democracy in Pakistan is unfeasible, and that democracy-promotion should therefore not be a part of American policy in the region. (He goes on to suggest that, in fact, the United States should actively work to build up the country’s military.)
The problem with this line of reasoning, however, is twofold.
First, the argument is misleading and somewhat dishonest. From what I’ve read of Lieven and other analysts of his ilk, it’s not that they think it’s impossible to create a more representative and healthy political system in Pakistan, it’s just that they don’t believe promoting democracy (and human rights) should be a central focus of American policy. For many of these hard-line realists, democracy promotion is a long and arduous process and should only be pursued when it directly serves American interests.
Furthermore, contrary to what is often said, the United States could have a tremendous impact on encouraging the growth of democracy in Pakistan. With a long-term commitment, the United States could empower the civilian elites, work to build more accountable and democratic political parties, establish trade deals in order to grow the country’s middle class, and ultimately seek to return the Pakistani military to its barracks…
Second, refusing to support the democratic aspirations of the Pakistani people would be immoral and inconsistent with our nation’s values. We must consistently (albeit strategically) promote democracy throughout the world. Indeed, it’s probably clear by now that I think that these hard-line realists take the America-first argument too far. Put simply, it’s callous and cold-hearted to deny the democratic aspirations of the vast majority of Pakistanis purely out of America’s short-term security concerns.
Ultimately, America’s international relations must be about striking a balance between national interests and the promotion of our ideals. The Lieven-school of realism tends to disregard this balance, promoting the notion that American security, particularly in a time of war, must be our only concern. But, although it’s tempting to become wrapped up in the drama of fighting terrorism, we should not forget our ideals along the way.
(Originally posted over at Foreign Policy Watch)