PAKISTAN: Dictatorship is in the garb of democracy on International Day of Democracy

September 15 is commemorated throughout the world as the international day of democracy. Yet, for a majority of Asians, true representative democracy remains an illusion. 
The “elected dictatorship” most often in practice in these regions allows the people to vote once in four or five years, but they have no say in decision-making process, matters of governance, or development in their area.

Pakistan is no exception in this regard. The concept of democracy, i.e. the rule of people by the people for the people, has drawn much more than its fair share of skeptics in Pakistan. According to a survey conducted by International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 60% of the respondents in Pakistan support Army rule. 

This International Day holds little significance for the country that has seen more years of military rule or soft coup than true democracy. Any dissent for the military rule is silenced or duly censored by the so-called free media in Pakistan. Recently Pakistani school girls and the youngest Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai have been censured for saying in an interview withAaj News that Pakistani premier Nawaz Sharif has told her that he is unable to spend more on educational budget because of pressure to fund military operations.

Democratic process has time and again been derailed in the 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 been jailed or killed, many forced into self-exile.

The theme of this year’s International Day of Democracy is “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 Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has 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 the 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 on the electorate and electoral process has always been dismal.

Pakistan is ranked 108 on the 2014 Democracy Index. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, the ranking is based on electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political culture and civil liberties. It is pertinent to mention that Pakistan has been mentioned under the category of hybrid regimes that are not considered fully functional democracies. Democracy, in its real essence, has never been allowed to trickle down to the general populace by elected dictators who have been scared of retaining their seats in the national and provincial assemblies and thus have not let people decide their future for themselves.

In its 60 years of history, Pakistan has had four military dictators, with their rule expanding more than the half of the total years since independence, with three coup d’états, four unsuccessful coups, and numerous indirect interventions in governance. Historically, martial law has been imposed across the country four times (in 1958, 1971, 1977 and 1999), led by chief martial law administrator-generals Ayub Khan, General Yahya Khan, General Zia-ul-Haq and General Pervez Musharraf, respectively.

Until 2013, Pakistan did not experience even one 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 complicit in the derailment of democracy in the country. The Dosso case of 1959, which paved way for military intervention in the name of national interest and State necessity, became a landmark judgment that tarnished the image of the Judiciary as an independent institution and important pillar of the state. The Judiciary, making a mockery of democracy and all that it stands for, has always validated military coups. When the guardians of the democracy themselves are not ready to protect the supposedly sacrosanct principles freedom inherent in 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 election the women from Gilgit Baltistan, KPK Province were not allowed to vote by tribal elders who considered it a disgrace for the family to allow women to step outside the house to vote. In several urban parts of country also women are not allowed to cast votes through the agreement of different political parties. Upon pressure from different rights groups, the state and election commissions of Pakistan took notice of these cases and announced re-election but it was too little too late. Barring half of the population from casting their vote is a mockery of democracy and speaks about the state of women in Pakistan.

Civil society, for its part, has always maintained its stance opposing military rule. Its 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 sustains in the country. The civil society showing its mettle in the restoration of the Judiciary is case in point. It was the civil society that waged a long struggle to get the pernicious system of separate electorates for the Ahmadiyya community abandoned in 2002.

The State, for its part, has maintained hostility against activists critical of 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 on environment in which taking up of the issue of democratic governance is becoming increasingly hazardous. Yet, even in such a hostile conditions, the civil and political activists of Pakistan have refused to budge and are continuing their struggle to protect the vulnerable and marginalized against State atrocities.