Pakistan’s Case For Democracy

Pakistan’s Case For Democracy

The American diplomat Richard Holbrooke pondered over a problem on an evening of September 1996 during the elections in Bosnia which were meant to restore civic life to that ravaged country.

“Suppose the election was declared free and fair” he said, and those elected are “racists, fascists, separatists, who are publicly opposed to peace and reintegration. That is the dilemma.”

Democratically elected regimes, often the ones that have been reelected or reaffirmed through referendum, are routinely ignoring constitutional limits on their power and depriving their citizens of basic rights and freedoms. This dilemma is known as ‘illiberal democracy’.

Political scientist Philippe Schmitter has pointed out that, “Liberalism, either as a conception of political liberty, or as a doctrine about economic policy, may have coincided with the rise of democracy. But it has never been immutably or unambiguously linked to its practice.”

Today the two strands of liberal democracy, interwoven in the Western political fabric, are coming apart in Pakistan. Democracy is flourishing; constitutional liberalism is not.

One has to understand that free and fair elections are the essence of democracy but the governments produced by elections may be inefficient, corrupt, shortsighted, irresponsible, dominated by special interests and incapable of adopting policies demanded by the public good. These qualities make such governments undesirable but they do not make them undemocratic. Democracy is only one public virtue, not the only one, and the relation of democracy to other public virtues and vices can only be understood if democracy is clearly distinguished from other characteristics of the political system. The term democracy has to be distinguished from constitutional liberalism, which is not about the procedures for selecting governments, but about the government’s goals. It refers to the tradition, deep in Western history, that seeks to protect an individual’s autonomy and dignity against coercion, whatever the source — state, church or society. Constitutional liberalism developed in Western Europe and the United States is a defense of the individual’s right to life and property and freedom of religion and speech. To secure these rights, it emphasized checks on the power of each branch of the government, equality under the law, impartial courts and tribunals and separation of church and state. Constitution liberalism has led to democracy, but democracy does not seem to bring constitutional liberalism.

In Pakistan, dictatorship with little background in constitutional liberalism gave way to democracy in 2008 when President Musharraf was ousted from power, however, the results were not encouraging. The tension between constitutional liberalism and democracy centers on the scope of governmental authority. Constitutional liberalism is about the limitation of power while democracy about its accumulation and use. The tendency for a democratic government to believe it has absolute sovereignty can result in the centralization of authority. Pakistan is a state with divided society — little background in constitutional liberalism and the introduction of democracy has actually fomented nationalism and ethnic conflict. Elections require that politicians compete for peoples’ votes. In societies without strong traditions of multi-ethnic groups or assimilation, it is not difficult to organize support along racial, ethnic or religious lines and this further divides the society. It is easy to conduct elections in a country, but it is more difficult to push constitutional liberalism in the society. The process of genuine liberalization and democratization is gradual and long-term based, in which an election is only one step. Without preparation it might even be a wrong step.

The absence of elections or the absence of free and fair elections should be viewed as one flaw, not the definition of tyranny. Elections are an important virtue of government, but they are not the only virtue. Governments should be judged by yardsticks related to constitutional liberalism as well. Economic, civil and religious liberties are at the core of human autonomy and dignity. If a government with limited democracy steadily expands these freedoms, it should not be branded a dictatorship.

What Pakistan needs is a revival of constitutionalism. Constitutionalism is a complicated system of checks and balances designed to prevent the accumulation of power and the abuse of office. This is done not simply by writing up a list of rights but by constructing a system in which the government will not violate those rights.

Illiberal democracy gains legitimacy from the fact that it is reasonably democratic. The downside is that an illiberal democracy discredits a liberal democracy itself, casting shadow on democratic governance. This is not unprecedented in Pakistan. Every wave of democracy has been followed by setbacks in which the system has been seen as inadequate and new alternatives have been sought by ambitious leaders and restless masses. We can see this restlessness currently on the streets which has been led by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf. One may disagree with their tactics but the the fact remains that the current government has itself created the crisis. Investigation with regard to Panama Leaks should have been initiated as early as May 2016, instead, the policy of lingering-over-the-issues-till-people-forget-about-it has been adopted. The situation was further complicated with a news item being published by DAWN News regarding civilian government taking military leadership to task over the issues of terrorism and the so-called isolation of Pakistan in international politics. The current Prime Minister yearns to become Erdogan of Turkey who took military leadership head on, but at what cost?

There are certain realities in Pakistan’s political system that one has to learn to live with. There cannot be an overnight change in dynamics and the power structure in Pakistan’s political system. What Pakistan needs is the decentralization of power, an effective local government system and strong institutions which can work as a good check-and-balance on the abuse of power by any office. Democracy without constitutional liberalism is not just inadequate, it is dangerous, bringing with it the erosion of liberty, the abuse of power and ethnic divisions.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of or any organization with which he might be associated.

Umer Abdullah

Author: Umer Abdullah

The writer is a Barrister and a partner at Abdullah & Hussain where he heads the Litigation, Arbitration and Dispute Resolution Department. He focuses his practice on Constitutional, Employment, Commercial, Corporate and complex Civil litigation.