“Democracy is in our blood.  Indeed, it is in our marrow of bones”

Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah

Pakistan is a product of democracy, whose freedom struggle was led by a politician heading a popular political party, rooted in the Muslim masses, whose legitimacy flowed from the sanctity of the ballot box.

The Father of the Nation, Quaid-i-Azam Muhammed Ali Jinnah, was a constitutionalist, a committed democrat whose belief in the rule of law was a cardinal principle of his politics. A man of unimpeachable integrity, Quaid-i-Azam had no army, no atom bomb, no Establishment to back him and no Big Money to promote him and he was no general or cleric or businessman or feudal. A very gifted lawyer par excellence, he was probably one of the twentieth century’s most principled politicians, who, like Lenin, Chairman Mao and Imam Khomeini, changed the course of history with the support of the people.

So, Pakistan’s roots are democratic emanating from representative rule through the ballot box, unlike such modern Muslim Republics like Turkey, Indonesia, Egypt, Iran or Algeria, which emerged from the barrel of the gun or armed struggle. Hence, diversity, dissent and culture of resistance remain an abiding ingredient of Pakistan’s ‘political DNA’ and despite the creeping authoritarianism, Pakistan is probably still the freest and most open Muslim democracy.

When Pakistan’s current state of democracy is analyzed in this backdrop, the context of this situation is noteworthy, particularly, developments in the past decade.

Actually, it started post 9/11, when military coups, regime change and an organized assault on civil liberties in the name of national security increasingly became the norm.  Thailand, Egypt and Mali, politically polarized entities, are examples of successful military coups that have faced little domestic resistance or international censure.  Similarly, there were abortive coup attempts against established democracies in Venezuela and Turkey, and regime change via a “soft coup” has been successfully undertaken in Brazil 2016 (via the parliament) and Pakistan 2017 (via the judiciary).

In neighbouring India, Modi’s ruling BJP backed by the RSS storm-troopers are transforming India from a vibrant, pluralist and secular democracy to a neo-fascist ideological majoritarian state. As the famous Indian writer Arundhati Roy wrote in The New York Times on August 15, 2019 that in India today, ‘an architect of fascism is being erected’ and ‘RSS is the State’. Referring to India’s annexation of occupied Kashmir on August 5, 2019, Ms. Roy wrote that “there was a whiff of colonialism in the area”.

In the United States today, as it heads towards Presidential election on November 3, the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, Joe Biden, on June 11, 2020 even raised the prospect that President Trump may “steal the election” and in that case, Biden even talked of the hitherto unthinkable possibility of the US military intervening to forcibly evict Trump from the White House!

In their article, “The Fragile Republic”, published in the September-October 2020 issue of Foreign Affairs, Suzanne Mettler and Robert Lieberman write that “American democracy has never faced so many threats all at once” and they add: “the situation is dire and to protect the Republic, Americans must make strengthening democracy their top priority”.

In Pakistan, there have been important periods when key decisions on national security have been taken by elected civilians through consensus and consultation.  For instance, most important national security decision in Pakistan’s history: the decision to go nuclear in 1998 was entirely a civilian decision. Even the decision to embark on the quest for nuclear weapons in 1974 was undertaken by the democratically elected government of the period.  Similarly, the National Action Plan of 2014 initiated to combat extremism and terrorism is another example of a successful civilian-led initiative. The key role played by parliament and political parties in the signing of the Geneva Accord in 1998 on Afghanistan, the Salala standoff in 2012, the decision to oppose the Iraq war in 2003 and the decision not to send troops to Yemen in 2015, are all part of this pattern of civilian political leadership and parliamentary oversight.

However, regrettably, the major political parties were unable to formulate “new rules of the game” post-Musharraf. They not only reneged on their commitment to the ‘Charter of Democracy’, which PPP and PML-N signed with much fanfare in 2006 but they even resorted to repeating mistakes that they had made in the 1990s. In a return to the tit-for-tat politics of the past, Memogate 2011 was politically exploited by the PML-N, and the PPP too was complicit in the 2017 ‘regime change’.

This absence of ‘rules of the game’ among the two major political players of Pakistan created a political space and an environment conducive for the emergence of “Naya Pakistan” in the 2018 elections, with a “New Narrative” based on corruption, cronyism and capitulation (‘security risk’ vis-a-vis India).

This also provided an opportunity for the cobbling of an informal “New Establishment” that has now snatched the political initiative away from the two well-established political parties that had dominated Pakistan’s political landscape from 1988-2013.  This ‘New Establishment’ is more effective than the narrow-based traditional Establishment of the past. The ‘New Establishment’ comprises a broad-based coalition encompassing the military-bureaucratic complex, newly-empowered politicos, judiciary, business barons, media moguls, rich influential Overseas Pakistanis, plus sections of the co-opted traditional political elite.

The ‘New Establishment’ can count on an organised force of youth and women activists whose supportive voices resonate primarily through the Social Media and an increasingly-entrenched Anchorocracy of highly paid anchors, political pundits and professional analysts peddling the “New Narrative” day in and day out as the unofficial Ministry of Propaganda of ‘Naya Pakistan’, which itself is a motley combination of populism, patriotism and patronage. Moreover, there is the successful ‘weaponisation’ of the once ineffectual institutions like NAB, FIA, FBR, SECP, PEMRA, etc., who can act as force multipliers.

This is not the first time that Pakistan is experimenting with such populist authoritarianism.  In post-1971 Pakistan, a similar streak of populist authoritarianism tried to create a “New Pakistan”, erected on a tripod of charismatic leadership, populist policies based on personalization of power and a zero-sum-game mindset that sought to marginalize the opposition. The result was a deep divide in the political spectrum that eventually resulted in the demise of democracy. The question is: will our ruling elite repeat old mistakes or learn from those mistakes?