Dictatorship In The Garb Of Democracy
September 15 is commemorated throughout the world as the International Day of Democracy. Yet, for a majority of South East Asians a true representative democracy remains an illusion. The “elected dictatorship” as is most often practiced in these regions allows the people to vote once in four or five years, they have no say in the decision making process, in matters of governance or in development in their area. Pakistan is no exception. In this regard, the concept of democracy “the rule of people, by the people, for the people” has drawn more skepticism than perhaps any other region in south east Asia. According to a survey conducted by International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 60% of the respondents in Pakistan supported the army rule.
The day holds little significance for the country that has seen more years of military rule or soft coup than true democracy. Any dissent on the military rule is silenced or duly censored by the so called free media in Pakistan. Recently, Pakistani school girl and youngest Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai was censured for saying during an interview with Aaj News that Pakistani premier Nawaz Sharif has told her that he is unable to spend more on the education budget because of pressure to fund military operations. The democratic process has time and again been derailed in this country in the name of national security and glory of Islam. Civil society activists who play a pivotal role in the way of the dictator have either been jailed or killed, while many have been forced into self exile.
The theme of this year’s International Day of Democracy emphasizes upon “Space for Civil Society”. According to a statement by UN “(The day)… is a reminder to Governments everywhere that the hallmark of successful and stable democracies is the presence of a strong and freely operating civil society in which Government and civil society work together for common goals for a better future, and at the same time, civil society helps keep Government accountable“.
In his message to mark the day, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated: “Civil society is the oxygen of democracy. Civil society acts as a catalyst for social progress and economic growth. It plays a critical role in keeping Government accountable, and helps represent the diverse interests of the population, including its most vulnerable groups.”
Pakistan has a chequered history of democracy and dictatorship. Military intervention in civil matters forms the crux of all political turmoil suffered by the state. Democratic and parliamentarian form of governance as envisaged by the founding father failed soon after Pakistan’s inception as political parties were weak and prone to corruption. Public confidence in the electorate and the electoral process has always been dismal.
Pakistan in ranked at 108 in the world by the Democracy Index of 2014. According to the Economist’s intelligence unit the ranking is based on the electoral process and pluralism, the functioning of government, political participation, political culture and civil liberties. It is pertinent to mention that Pakistan was classified under hybrid regimes that are not considered fully functional democracies. Democracy, in its real essence, was never allowed to trickle down to the general populace by the elected dictators who were more worried about retaining their seats in the national and provincial assemblies and therefore did not let people decide their future for themselves.
In its 60 years of history, Pakistan had four military dictators with their rule expanding over more than the half of the total years since its independence, with three coup d’etat, three unsuccessful coups and numerous indirect interventions in the government. Historically martial law has been imposed across the country thrice (occurring in 1958, 1977 and 1999, and led by chief martial law administrator-generals Ayub Khan, Zia-ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf respectively). Until 2013, Pakistan had not experienced even a single democratic transfer of power from one democratically elected government that had completed its tenure, to another. All of its previous democratic transitions have been aborted by military coups.
The judiciary in Pakistan has also been complacent in the derailment of democracy in the country. The Dosso case (PLD 1958 SC (PAK.) 533) that paved way for military intervention in the name of national interest and state necessity, became a land mark judgment that tarnished the image of the judiciary as an independent institution and important pillar of the state. Military coups have always been validated by the judiciary thereby making a mockery of democracy and all that it stands for. When the guardians of the democracy themselves are not ready to protect the sacrosanct principles of freedom, statehood and democracy, who will protect the common man on the street? Who will ensure that his basic rights are not infringed upon and that his liberty is safeguarded?
It is appalling to note that women in Pakistan, especially those living in the tribal regions, are denied the right to vote, making the whole electoral process a farce in the name of democracy. In the 2013 General Election, women from Gilgit Baltistan were not allowed to vote by the tribal elders who considered it a disgrace for the family to allow women to step outside the house to vote. Upon pressure from different rights groups, the state and Election Commission of Pakistan took notice of the case and announced re-election but it was too little too late. Barring half of the population from casting their vote is a clear mockery of democracy and speaks volumes about the state of women in Pakistan.
Civil society for its part has always maintained its stance of opposing military rule. Their unwavering support for the cause of democracy and independence of state institutions, particularly the judiciary, has played a pivotal role in ensuring that a semblance of democracy – in whatever state – sustains in the country. The civil society that showed its mettle during the restoration of judiciary, is a case in point. It was the civil society that waged a long struggle to get the pernicious system of separate electorates for Ahmedia to be abandoned in 2002. The state for its part has maintained a hostile attitude against activists who are critical of the government and its policies. The growing militarization of state institutions and the retreat of civilian political leadership, combined with the rise of quasi-religious forces that are fiercely hostile to democracy, has created an environment in which taking up the issue of democratic governance is becoming increasingly hazardous. Yet even in such hostile conditions the civil and political activists of Pakistan have refused to budge and are continuing their struggle to protect the vulnerable and the marginalized against state atrocities.
The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) pays tribute to all the brave soldiers of change who are unwavering and relentless in their struggle for democracy and an egalitarian society. The state must ensure that the principles of democracy are followed and people are afforded the right to enjoy their basic fundamental rights, which is the true essence of democracy.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any organization with which she might be associated.