Democracy is an evasive idea, an ideal that all polities are trying to achieve but somehow fall short of. Countries in transition to a democratic rule, presumably from authoritarianism, use the term democratization to describe their journey.

It would be interesting to situate Pakistan in this gamut of aspirational democracy, and see where exactly it stands today. In all honesty, despite carrying all trappings of democratic governance, it appears to be democratizing less and returning to authoritarian rule more.

Meanwhile, the evolution theory — that the cure for ills of democracy is more democracy — has been put under question almost everywhere. More recently Western democracies, that also happen to be capitalist economies, have put forth populist, at times fascistic, leaders. Democracy’s “egalitarian promise” is thwarted by huge amounts of money, shaping election outcomes in those countries.

Democracy is in a crisis the world over. Some of the best examples reached a pinnacle of sorts, and then faltered in some areas. There is serious scholarship on this phenomenon that makes use of political theory and historical analyses.

However, at this moment in Pakistan’s history, the fundamental concern for everyone should be that it is not in transition to becoming a full or better democracy. And that democracy does not mean mere absence of martial law and rule by civilians as is often presumed. It is interesting to see how China’s economic progress — that owes itself to one party rule and little freedoms — fascinates even our democratically elected prime minister.

Like many countries, Pakistan’s problems are rooted in the past. Here, the historical and geo-strategic dynamics played a significant part in creating a national security state. The jury is still out on whether this was an existential necessity; scholars have noted the role of civil and military bureaucracy in weakening the political system in its first decade.

In a new country comprising areas that had existed on the margins or periphery of the British empire, the imperatives of an insecure security state, helped in no mean way by the ethos of its twenty percent migrant population, determined the shape of the polity in the decades to come.

It is impossible to make an assessment of the state of democracy in Pakistan without this necessary backdrop. Because, how else do you apply a textbook definition — rule by the people — in a country created supposedly in the name of religion and not for people who were going to live here?

Democracy assumes that every citizen is capable of self-governance, and government receives its authority from the governed. How would you judge Pakistan’s progress against equal citizenship, rule of law, equality before the law, protection of fundamental and human rights, accountability, protection of minorities and the marginalized, institutions, freedoms of speech and association, devolution and so on?

Since its inception, the idea of a centralized state has worked against the country’s democratic aspiration, at the expense of smaller ethnic and national groups. The expected homogeneity of religion, culture and language was articulated through a vague ‘Ideology of Pakistan’. The ethnicity of East Pakistan was sacrificed at the altar of this ideology, leading to dismemberment of a culturally rich, more populated part of the country. The restive nationalism of Balochistan, Sindh, and now of young Pashtuns expressed in Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), is seen through the lens of ‘national security’, making these nationalists ‘threats’ to the centralized state.

The state has responded through charges of sedition and terrorism, from within the law and Constitution. Outside the law, it has relied on Enforced Disappearances that keep taking place with complete impunity.

The political class claimed to know a solution or two: Having learnt its lessons from two martial laws post the 1973 constitution, it effected a transformative legislation in the form of Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 2010, and devised formulas for sharing of resources among provinces. The power-wielders of state, however, would rather have these rolled back sooner than later. That is how precarious Pakistan’s democracy is.

Any effort at devolution requires a strong local government system — or democracy at the grassroots, shall we say. Curiously enough, in this centralized state, dictatorships have sworn by local governments, that became conspicuously absent under civilian dispensations. Again, the colonial past and its notions of self-government to “coopt the native elite” came in handy for military rulers to create a loyal political class for themselves. They were also able to satisfy international donors’ demand for local governments.

Civilians mistrust the local tier only because the military-men cozy up to it. As a consequence, they have not been able to develop an alternative local government system to suit their needs. The only reason why they put one in place is because there are court orders they must follow.

Now to the most significant procedural trapping i.e. election. It appears that people’s faith in democracy diminishes with each successive general election. The money factor apart, there is a growing sense that fair election is not possible in this country; nor is there a mechanism to ensure the election is deemed to be fair. Each time this massive and expensive exercise is carried out, now every five years with regularity, the results are questioned by all stakeholders except the victors.

Some even argue that after the first free and fair general election in 1970 led to the separation of East Pakistan, it was decided (by we know who) that the country or what remained of it was too precious to be left at the mercy of people’s will through election.

With political parties being made redundant, each election is known to have been manipulated through political engineering of one kind or the other. The making of Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI), a rightwing conservative electoral alliance, in 1988 to prevent Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) from coming to power is just one example that came to the fore. Now the process is more discreet.

The lopsided nature of the polity, where one province dominates the electoral landscape in terms of population and hence seats, makes the task easier. All that needs to be ‘managed’ then is one province, or the so-called ‘electables’ in that province, and the desired outcome becomes possible alongside minor adjustments in smaller provinces.

Democratic societies develop and evolve through debate and difference of opinion. Here, the curbs on freedom of expression — the security state is always a step ahead in devising new laws for new means of expression — ensure that it becomes and stays a conformist society. Equal citizenship is an unrealized dream in a society that is bereft of equal opportunities. 73 years on, Pakistan has not been able to solve its minority problem. The religious minorities are both discriminated against and persecuted; the discrimination is built in into the laws and even the Constitution.

Democracy here will remain an evasive idea, till something gives way. The image of Pakistan as a failing, if not failed, and fragile state presses the need for a strong military — to keep its ideological and geographical integrity intact. It took 73 years and the might of a national security state to create a conformist populace that believes in this image.

A contrary consensus, a faith in people’s power, must be reimagined, because what is on offer is untenable.