A failed political party system

By Sohail Mahmood (for Safe Democracy)

Sohail Mahmood details the history of democracy in Pakistan since its independence in 1947. After half a century of a corrupt, self-serving, and authoritarian political party system, the public outcry for democracy, accountability, and social justice can no longer be ignored. In Mahmood‘s opinion, no single leader can rescue Pakistan from its current political crisis, nor should the baby be thrown out with the bathwater. Reform is needed, not revolution, in order to build a solid democratic foundation for the future of the country. Only by respecting democratic norms, reconstructing the political party system, and promoting national reconciliation can Pakistan find its way out of its current, multidimensional crisis.

Sohail Mahmood is the Associate Dean of the Department of International Relations at Preston University in Islamabad. With a Ph.D. in Political Science from Northern Arizona University, he is one of the leading experts in the world on Musharraf and Pakistan and has published dozens of books and articles on the issue.

AFTER FIFTY NINE YEARS OF INDEPENDENCE, the Pakistani government has failed to live up to the expectations of its people. Despite some positive economic growth under the Musharraf regime, the tremendous public outcry for democracy, accountability, and social justice can no longer be ignored.

Pakistan is hardly the failed state that many in the Western world envisioned it would become half a century ago. But, without deep structural and political reform, the country will not be able to pull itself out of its current, multidimensional crisis.

RECONSTRUCTING A FAILED SYSTEM In order for changes to be possible, the country needs to unite as never before. The Musharraf regime would be hard-pressed to institute reform without the support of other minority political parties. Pakistan’s society is fragmented, divided across linguistic, ethnic, and sectarian lines: a boiling pot for political conflict. A low rate of literacy restricts the free flow of information across cultural divides, thereby perpetuating the disunity. And so reconciliation on national issues, such as the strife in Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Provinces, should be at the forefront of governmental policy-making.

And since an amendment of the Constitution requires a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly, politicians across the board are urged to drop their partisanship, and lead with the public interest in mind. A new era of less-corrupt, cleaner politics should begin, while critics should be urged to be more constructive and charitable in their commentaries on the status quo, to engender more positive and hopeful attitudes toward recent developments in the country.

The people themselves should cautiously welcome some of the incontestable developments brought about by the military-led government, such as urgently needed economic and administrative reforms. And the leadership, in turn, must have the resolve to learn from its past mistakes and not repeat them. A strengthened and enlightened democratic order can quite possibly salvage the situation, provided the Musharraf government moves quickly on many fronts. Pakistan had already wasted enough time. After decades of systematic failures and structural faults, the political and economic system has failed. It’s time to pick up the pieces.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF DEMOCRACY IN PAKISTAN It has been argued that democracy has never been given a fair chance to take root in the country’s political soil. Unfortunately, Pakistan had been ruled by the military for nearly half of its existence. Pakistan became independent in August 1947. Yet, with the death of Jinnah in 1948, and his Chief Lieutenant Liaqat Ali Khan in 1951, the Pakistan Muslim League lost its most capable leaders, and the party began to flounder.

The first parliamentary period stretching from 1947-1958 was a game of musical-chairs: successive governments came and went. Finally, in 1958, General Ayub seized power through a bloodless coup, using the PML to prop up his regime. He ruled until 1969 when he abdicated in favor of General Yahya Khan. The Yahya interregnum lasted until December 1971 when the rulers were forced to resign having lost East Pakistan in a humiliating defeat to the Indian military. East Pakistan seceded to become Bangladesh.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who at one time had been Ayub Khan’s foreign minister, took power in January 1972 right after the debacle in East Pakistan. Bhutto, a gifted populist, was immensely popular with the people and his socialist vision was a great hope to the country’s impoverished masses. However, as is usual with populist leaders, Bhutto was not able to deliver the greatness he promised. Instead he turned dictator and abandoned the leftist orientation of the party he had created.

General elections were held in March 1977, the results of which were contested by the Pakistan National Alliance –an electoral alliance of nine parties opposed to the PPP– which resulted in violent protests. Finally, General Zia ousted Bhutto on July 5, 1977, and two years later, he was executed. The Zia era ended on November 1988, when Benazir Bhutto of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) swept the elections. Benazir was seen as a progressive reformer, who would lead Pakistan into a new era of economic progress and social and cultural modernity. Yet, when she failed to deliver this promise, she was dismissed on corruption charges in 1990.

Nawaz Sharif became President for the first time in 1990 but was dismissed in 1992. After winning the general elections, Benazir replaced him as chief executive in 1993. She was then dismissed again by Farooq Ahmed Leghari in November 1996 on identical charges of corruption. By 1997, Pakistan’s multi-party system had transformed into a two-party system based around the Pakistan Muslim League and the Pakistan People’s Party. General Musharraf, supported by the PML, is currently holding power. Yet, after a half a century of turmoil, democracy in Pakistan still fails to deliver.

It remains unclear whether the military is responsible for Pakistan’s history of failed democracy. Military apologists make the argument that the military only intervened when it was necessary to defend the country from an internal enemy. General Musharraf, they would claim, seized power yes, but reluctantly. But after seven years of military rule, Musharraf has failed to deliver on his promises, and the people are growing tired of his leadership. It is true that the previous civilian leaderships performed badly within Pakistan. Yet, the intervention of the military has stunted the growth of the political system again and again, and cast a long shadow over politics.

Many political parties contribute their existence to the intelligence services of the military, believing it to be indispensable for the establishment and continuation of political parties in the country. Yet, the military only contributes to the corruption of Pakistan’s political parties, which even during the so-called civilian period (1988-1999) failed to follow democratic norms, instead giving into authoritarian impulses, and personal benefit.

And as the people of Pakistan grow increasingly disenchanted with their government and its supposed democracy, the question as to whether any meaningful democratization can take hold in Pakistan is on everyone’s minds. The real test will be the fairness and credibility of the upcoming elections of 2007.

Some people argue that the tragedy with Pakistan is that there is no alternative to General Musharraf. After decades of military manipulation, harassment and intimidation, the political parties are enfeebled, and the leadership is in disarray. In the past, especially during the Benazir Bhutto era, Pakistan witnessed an unprecedented period of internal strife, lawlessness, high crime rates, a poor economy, and bad government on all levels. The leadership was incapable of creating order, and instead dedicated itself to personal profit. While the ruling elite accumulated luxury goods, the poor in Pakistan starved.

Although the two-party system has failed to deliver, the institution of the political party system cannot and should not be discarded. Political parties are a necessary institution for the proper functioning of democracy. Parties inform public opinion, provide platforms for political debate, and facilitate public participation in government. They must be carefully reformed, and created anew. It makes no sense to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The example of Quaid-i-Azam is before us. A true democrat, he insisted on following the norms of the constitution, despite the complete and unflinching support of the people to make him President. In his mind, he could not simply seize power without holding fair and just elections. To Quaid-i-Azam, upholding the public interest for democratic governance was more important than fulfilling his own self-interest. We must today emulate his example.

Let us join together to build strong parties and thereby establish strong democratic institutions in Pakistan. The days of great leaders riding in on horseback to save the day are over. With the complexity and corrupting power of the modern state system, no single leader can rescue a country from crisis. Instead, the entire country must unite as one in order to build a strong foundation for democracy, restore civilian control of government, and work towards a strong union. Only through democracy, can Pakistan progress towards the future.

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