Towards a Pakistani Spring

Bilal Ahmed argues that the discourse surrounding democracy in Pakistan is flawed, and that its liberal republican articulations will come to provoke additional mobilization in future years.

It was the end of January. Tahir ul-Qadri’s Long March had just ended in Islamabad. There were inspirational images of tens of thousands cheering on his fiery speeches, but we were all aware of what was happening. Qadri had strong links to General Pervez Musharraf. His  populist stance against Pakistani political dysfunctions meant that the entire event was likely a performance to strengthen military influence on the civilian government. Many Pakistanis read the Long March along these lines, depriving it of mass support.

And yet, the Pakistani government did not take any chances. I was in Rawalpindi during the Long March, and the twin cities of the capital were essentially on lockdown. Security forces were deployed en masse, highways were shut down, mobile and Internet services were suspended, and schools were closed along with many businesses. Even if we wanted to participate in the protests, it was logistically impossible.

Foreign coverage dominantly reflected this paranoia. Although some coverage was sympathetic, other analysts were transparently hostile. They took aim not only at Qadri’s problematic ties to Musharraf, but also the very idea that further democratic mobilization is necessary in Pakistan. After the Long March ended, Michael Kugelman quickly wrote an article for CNN entitled, “The Myth of an Arab Spring in Pakistan.” His article betrays the fear that resonated in both Islamabad and Washington: that even if Tahir ul-Qadri didn’t resonate, his message of combating Pakistani dysfunctions directly could lead to massive problems in the nuclear-armed state.

One specific quote from his article is most telling, as it reflects an attitude among many circles within Pakistan and abroad: “Some may argue that Pakistan doesn’t need an Arab Spring because it has already experienced something approximating one — a pro-democracy movement in 2007.”

Consider this statement for a moment, that Pakistan already had its spring in 2007 when the Lawyers’ Movement galvanized popular dissent against General Musharraf. What is this argument actually about? How did Saturday’s elections factor into it?

Historic Step Towards What?

Saturday’s elections helped to satisfy these preconceptions of how democracy is supposed to function. Pakistan Muslim League leader Nawaz Sharif is back in the leadership position he has occupied twice before. It was predictable. Sharif’s brother Shahbaz, who ran the provincial government of Punjab for several years, staged an unofficial election campaign in the months leading up to the vote. Budgetary funds were poured into infrastructure projects in Lahore, leading to popularity throughout the province as the Sharif brothers won a reputation for accomplishment.

None of this is deserved. The Sharifs are an industrialist family, and Nawaz Sharif has been a politician in Pakistan since the era of General Zia ul-Haq. Although his previous dances into executive power were interrupted by military coup d’etats, Sharif is known for pursuing business rather than the public interest. Their victory is only welcome because it ended the disastrous rule of Prime Minister Asif Zardari and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

The PPP, an avowedly social-democratic party that is now a virtual fiefdom for the cosmopolitan Bhutto family, found its popularity plummeting as quickly as the Sharifs’ rose. Its defeat is welcome, as it provides at least some accountability for the PPP’s abysmal leadership in the past five years. However, let us not have illusions about what has happened. The 2007 revolution was co-opted by Pakistan’s moneyed democratic elite which fled the country during Musharraf’s 1999 coup. As a result, this election has essentially been one political dynasty losing to another, with election violence in Karachi and allegations of fraud being flashpoints in this greater farce.

There has been extremely vague praise for this “historic step” in Pakistan’s history, as one civilian government transfers power to another for the first time. However, this achievement is marginal when we consider that the exchange is between two established dynastic elites. The scope of a democratic project that gives much power to the Bhuttos and Sharifs is extremely limited. This is in addition to many other systemic issues.

Military-brokered intrigues did not end with Qadri. Amidst ongoing election violence, General Musharraf returned to Pakistan on March 24 in order to mount a civilian campaign and political comeback. He was denied of a chance to run by the court, and has now been arrested pending trial.

But perhaps Musharraf’s short campaign may not have mattered as much, as the country’s elections are primarily about back room intrigues such as private deals with landholders and seat-leveraging schemes. These processes are an underpinning of Pakistan’s current electoral system, and cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s refusal to participate in some of these conventions (though not all) is at least partially to blame for his Pakistan Tehreek-Insaaf’s third place finish.

The results of these mechanisms are obvious. Pakistan currently has a rank of 139 in the Corruption Perceptions Index; rolling power outages paralyze areas for as long as eighteen hours a day, and there is massive social inequality in which the Sharifs and Bhuttos are both billionaire families.

And yet, the fact of the matter is that governance in the country cannot proceed without them. Pakistan’s civilian-military elite have always used national institutions as a platform for debating and consolidating its own interests. Elections may occur now, but they are muddled by a political culture and flawed structural approach that has passed through civilian and military leadership with continuity.

They are a formality, in a sense. Future cycles will affirm the fact that simply having elections is not enough to deliver on issues of social change. These intrigues are able to occur because class warfare is an inherent part of liberal republican democracy. Thus, many analyses of the country are actually attempts to legitimize this structure of governance, as future democratic upheaval is likely to aim at the entire socioeconomic system.

Unfinished Revolution

Democracy is unlikely to work in Pakistan under the conditions of resource scarcity that are integral to liberal economic structures. Scarcity reduces Pakistan, a modern construct that cuts across diverse populations, into a battleground for state resources. Organized efforts to gain these resources have come to fall back on more ancestral ties such as ethnicity, especially since endemic corruption helps produce a situation where resources are primarily consumed by a specific politician’s constituents. Rigid identities have also been given new primacy in reaction to globalized heterogeneity.

Pakistan has an additional problem: its national identity as an Islamic Republic is much debated and contested. Minority conflict occurs in defense of a state-circulated narrative of Salafi-Sunni nationalism, with Ahmadiyya, Shi’a, and Christian populations often being targets. This is often stoked by the state, such as in the casual use of the pejorative “Qadiani” in reference to the Ahmadiyya on government documents. Its bloody consequences are part of a deliberate attempt to exploit the nascent suspicion of this contest for state resources. The violent energies generated by liberal scarcity and national uncertainty are directed away from the power structures that are actually responsible.

It has become a common habit during the War on Terror to localize issues such as these to inherent failures in its religious culture. However, specialists like Kugelman are a different breed. They seek to ignore the important issue of class that threatens to tear Pakistan apart, as confronting them requires more participatory forms of democracy.

Pakistan is entering a terrifying age. Among the various issues that the government faces is the fact that separatist parties have gained control of numerous seats in the troubled province of Balochistan, which has been the site of four military conflicts with the Pakistani government. Combined with the continued problems of the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan, Sharif could very well face revolt, or outright war, in these areas.

However, his main concern is the same as Pakistan’s entire political elite: social upheaval. One of the fears surrounding Qadri’s march in January was that he would inspire an Islamist-dominated uprising similar to the 1979 Iranian Revolution (a constant concern for Pakistan’s mostly secular upper class). It requires more subtlety. The most likely scenario is that Pakistan’s swelling population will begin to consider other possibilities as its political dynasties lose their legitimacy. Figures such as Prime Minister Sharif and the systems which give rise to them will be held in greater levels of mass scrutiny.

This is the real reason that Kugelman argues that Pakistan already had its democratic spring in 2007. These arguments are actually about whether or not democratic revolts will necessarily end with liberal republican models. It is an anxiety that also permeates coverage of the emerging democracies that were birthed in the Arab Spring, particularly in Egypt. The type of spring that questions liberal republican movements would resonate among grassroots dissenters all over the world, ultimately taking aim at wealthy European and American interests in an era of neoliberalism. Thus emerges the need to assure the reading public that it is never going to happen.

There is reluctance by many Pakistanis to challenge mainstream notions of how democracy is supposed to be constituted. Massoud Raja perfectly exemplifies this in his rebuttal piece to Kugelman, “Arab Spring in Pakistan? No, thanks,” where he writes: “Is there corruption? Yes, certainly. But all democracies have a set of illegalities that exist at legal and quasi-legal levels.” Such statements are tied to arbitrary presumptions about what democracy is.

Why should democracies have a set of illegalities at all? Why should a democratic revolt end with liberal republican democracy, the implied conclusion of “[…]the Arab Spring already happened in Pakistan, it is also no longer necessary”? Why should democracy come with a set of presumptions about a population’s control over the socioeconomic approaches that actually affect it?

Raja anchors his argument in a firm belief that Pakistan’s existing institutions need to develop themselves. However, as Prime Minister Sharif prepares to negotiate a bailout from the International Monetary Fund, Pakistan prepares itself to be further exposed to neoliberal forces. Neoliberalism holds exactly these types of institutions in contempt as limits on foreign investment. So are we stuck? No, but many of us refuse to be imaginative.

Pakistan’s democratic future is not likely to be driven by elections that only affect its elites on a surface level. It will be pressed forward by our willingness to be imaginative. Strikes and protests often meet severe backlash from authorities if they grow too large because of a fear that they may capture the popular imagination. Though events such as the July 2010 Faisalabad loom workers’ strike were put down, social turmoil seems inevitable as long as cities like Karachi continue to pursue unstable fiscal policies and Pakistan’s political process stifles necessary change. All that remains to be seen is how this will come about, and what will come of it.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Image: Copyright © Shutterstock. All Rights Reserved

For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.

In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.

We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money. Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.

Leave a Reply