Pakistan ‘Democracy’ brings no benefit for the poor

FRFI 215 June/ July 2010

As the summer begins in Pakistan, soaring temperatures are matched by rising prices and increased electricity black-outs. For the people of Pakistan, everyday life has yet to see the promised benefits of the transition to democracy. This is not surprising: the movement that ousted General Pervez Musharraf in 2008 lacked any clear ideological vision for Pakistan. Necessary though it was to end Musharraf’s dictatorship, the vacuum created by his removal was filled by the same corrupt and discredited political elite that has historically dominated Pakistan’s politics.

In the two years since it came to power, the government of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has made limited progress in some areas. Through a consensus on the perennially problematic National Finance Commission Award, which divides financial re­sources between the different pro­vinces of Pakistan, the PPP has been able to defuse some of the tension between Pakistan’s smaller ethnic groups and the federal government. Similarly, the decision to change the name of the North-Western Frontier Province to Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa, in line with the wishes of the predominantly Pukhtun population of the province, has also addressed one of the longest standing issues in Paki­stan’s provincial politics. Most importantly, by passing the 18th Amend­ment, the PPP has managed to bring about important changes to Pakistan’s constitution that undo many of the anti-democratic laws introduced by the Musharraf regime.

However, these achievements pale before the problems that continue to beset Pakistan. The PPP continues to confront an energised judiciary; over the past couple of months, the PPP and the Supreme Court have appeared to be on a collision course over the implementation of the court’s verdict on the National Reconciliation Ordi­nance (NRO). This illegal measure was introduced by the Musharraf government to facilitate the return of corrupt politicians barred from holding office. Much of the top leadership of the PPP, including President Asif Ali Zardari, benefited from this law and continue to resist attempts by the Supreme Court to reverse the NRO’s effects. Given the fragility of democratic politics in Pakistan, this clash could jeopardise attempts to manage the different crises faced by the country and could even provide the pretext for yet another intervention by the military.

In the north, the Pakistani army continues to wage its campaign against the Pakistani Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). As always, information remains strictly regulated, yet amidst army claims of victory and progress, evidence continues to emerge of the tremendous human cost of the operation. Civilian casualties continue to mount, and the hundreds of thousands of people displaced from their homes continue to live as refugees in camps scattered across the country. Meanwhile, in the areas the military claims to have ‘liberated’, targeted killings and assassinations herald the return of regrouped factions of the Taliban. Despite dozens of drone strikes by the United States, as well as months of fighting by the Pakistan Army, the war in FATA does not seem to be any closer to an end.

Part of the problem lies with the entire strategy of using military force in the region. There is no room for negotiation nor, indeed, for addressing the root causes of militancy in FATA: poverty, deprivation and decades of political marginalisation. The millions of dollars of aid granted to Pakistan for reconstruction in the war zone remain unaccounted for, and the state harbours no apparent interest in implementing a non-military solution to the problem. This is undoubtedly because of US influence which has pushed Pakistan to fight in FATA to achieve its imperialist objectives in the region, especially in Afghanistan. The futility of this approach is evinced by the weakness of the Karzai government in Kabul as well as the military stalemate in FATA.

By subordinating itself to the military interests of the US, Pakistan continues to ignore the need for a broader-based approach to combating religious extremism. As the recent ban on Facebook shows, the religious right continues to exercise disproportionate control over the country’s politics. Coupled with mounting evidence of the existence of militant groups in Punjab, Pakistan’s largest and most populous province, it becomes clear that the ideological threat posed by the right is one that must be urgently addressed.

The religious right in Pakistan is a reactionary force completely detrimental to the interests of Pakistan’s people. However, in the absence of a credible progressive alternative, it is to the right that Pakistan’s dispossessed and disenfranchised turn when all other options fail. That the government has done nothing for the people is not surprising given the interests of the elite who constitute it. Yet, unless measures are taken to change the current status quo, Pakistan will continue its inexorable drift towards violence and fanaticism.

Hassan Javid


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