March 2008

Vol 7 - No. 9
























Focus | March 2008



On Democracy and Elections in Pakistan



A Game of Numbers




A 46-percent voter turnout in spite of the fear of suicide bombers, the elections being conducted peacefully, and in a free and fair manner – all these are great gains for the people of Pakistan. President Musharraf and his PML-Q do not enjoy the confidence of the people of Pakistan. Had he waited for the new assemblies to be elected first he stood no chance of being elected president of Pakistan for the next five years.


When the BJP for the first time in 1996 won most seats in the Indian Parliament, it was short of a majority to form a government. It tried for 13 days to muster a coalition but could not. On that occasion Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee uttered this famous sentence: "Democracy is a game of numbers, and we do not have numbers on our side." He therefore resigned. Musharraf should also consider an honourable exit. I see no way how the deposed chief justice of Pakistan and other honourable judges of the Supreme Court can any further be denied their right to return to the benches.


However, it is in place to pay compliments to Musharraf for making some very correct decisions. By joining the war on terror he made it impossible for the United States to direct its wrath against Pakistan. His other noteworthy achievements include the abolition of separate electorates for non-Muslim Pakistanis.


Separate electorates was supplanted by a progressive reform whereby 10 seats for non-Muslims and 60 for women were reserved, but the parties in parliament shared these seats in proportion to their strength in the national and provincial assemblies. This way integration rather than segregation of non-Muslims and women was instituted. Perhaps even more important has been the decision to reform the rape law, which was based on the ludicrous practice of the victims -- women -- being disqualified to give evidence.


However, he did not move decisively and resolutely to reform or repeal the blasphemy law, which has served no purpose but to embolden fanatics to attack the already beleaguered Christians and other minorities. Musharraf's failures included a lack of ideas and initiatives to tackle poverty and illiteracy. Although the economy grew impressively, the rich got richer while the poor were crushed by inflation and lack of employment opportunities.


The PPPP has secured most seats in the National Assembly, but not a majority. It will be able to form the government in Sindh, and has done impressively in Punjab, the NWFP and even Balochistan. The tragedy of the PPPP is that it is led by Asif Ali Zardari, whose reputation as Pakistan's most corrupt politician may come to haunt the party.


The second party to win mass support is the PML-N. It was always expected to do well in Punjab, and that has been confirmed beyond any doubt. Elsewhere it has won only some seats, as in the NWFP. I have had the privilege of going to the same school in Lahore as Mian Nawaz Sharif: The St Anthony's High School. I must confess, however, that I don't remember him because he was a year or two junior, and in the B section while I was in the A section. His friends tell me he is fond of music, adores filmstars, and can sing quite well. He is also a keen cricketer. All that should cut him out to be a liberal, with a strong sense of humour and a weakness for amusement.


In the NWFP, the secular ANP has done very well, while the Islamist MMA has been wiped out. However, the PML-Q's emerging as the main winner in Balochistan is somewhat surprising. In India the two main rivals, the Congress and the BJP, are now used to forming coalitions with smaller parties in opposition to each other, but the two Pakistani rivals, the PPPP and PML-N, will have to do it together. This may not be easy as their relations in the past have been essentially confrontational. The Charter of Democracy agreed by them in 2006 could serve as the minimum basis for forming a national government, however.


It would be in Pakistan's interest to wind up jihad outside its borders, including that beyond the Line of Control. All disputes with our neighbours should be resolved in a spirit of give and take and through negotiations. Now is the moment to build peace within and without Pakistan. Times and circumstances have changed fundamentally and irreversibly. We better be a part of successful and prosperous Asia that is emerging to our east.


This article was first published in the News International . The author is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore on leave from the University of Stockholm. Email:


More Articles on Pakistan


Perceptions of Democracy


US Diplomats say Judges Issue Pak Internal Matter


Democracy in Pakistan Might Bring Tension with Washington


An ‘Inconvenient’ Truth

“THE election results in Pakistan were good news, about the best that could have emerged, but what kind of democracy is it that puts the fate of the country in the hands of a Nawaz Sharif and an Asif Zardari? My lord! How weird! Help me understand...,” beseeched an American journalist, who has lived and worked in Pakistan, in a recent email to some journalist friends.

My spontaneous response: “It’s surely not worse than a democracy which puts the fate of America — and the world — in the hands of a George W. Bush...TWICE!!”

I didn’t mean to be rude or flippant. I don’t like George W. Bush (because of his foreign policy) any more than my friend likes Mr Zardari or Mr Sharif, although he thinks that the overall election results were about the best that there could have been. However, we agree that democracy is an ongoing process and that it is the right of the people to bring in whom they choose.

Several lobbies in Pakistan mirror my American friend’s reaction and are suspicious of both Mr Sharif and Mr Zardari because of their past reputations and records. Both leaders, with the mature and responsible positions they are taking, have so far justified the confidence reposed in them by the electorate.

Democracy can be inconvenient when you don’t like the leadership it throws up. It can be deeply damaging when it brings in leadership whose stint in power leads to negative, far-reaching and long term consequences—like President Bush, who is responsible for the loss of hundreds of thousands of human lives – American, Iraqi and Afghan.  And, by extension, Pakistani, when the Pakistan army under US pressure attacks its own people in a bid to win the ‘war on terror’.  (The Pakistan government can take sole credit for the military action in Balochistan).

Certainly governments need to deal firmly with violence enacted by militants of any hue. However, history teaches us that a heavy-handed military-only approach leads to more violence, hatred, and militancy.

It’s not just Mr Bush. The democratically elected rightwing BJP government in India backed by religious militants caused enormous damage to India’s secular polity. Human rights groups hold the BJP responsible for the Gujarat massacre that was made possible by the party’s patronage to right-wing extremists. This, despite the relatively soft face it presented through prime minister A.B.  Vajpayee, the poet-politician who had the grace to visit the Minar-i-Pakistan when he came to Lahore in February 1999 at the invitation of then prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Mr Sharif too was an elected leader despite the flawed electoral process and irregularities that brought him to power. He acted in the most undemocratic way when in power, muzzling the media and trying to pass ‘religious’ laws that would give him absolute power.

The Pakistani people were not given the satisfaction of showing him the door; in October 1999, the military snatched that prerogative as it has done so many times before.

In America, Mr Bush was able to play upon the fears and nationalist reactions in a post 9/11 world to get voted in for a second term. In India, the people exercised their right to boot out the right-wing forces that they had elected in the previous polls.

When the Palestinians made the ‘mistake’ of voting for Hamas in January 2006, the US and Israel immediately began “discussing ways to destabilise the Palestinian government so that newly elected Hamas officials will fail and elections will be called again” reported The New York Times (Feb 14, 2006). The intention, according to the report, was “to starve the Palestinian Authority of money and international connections to the point where, some months from now, its president, Mahmoud Abbas, is compelled to call a new election.  The hope is that Palestinians will be so unhappy with life under Hamas that they will return to office a reformed and chastened Fatah movement”.

Backed by Western powers, the Algerian army cracked down on the winning Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) and postponed subsequent elections after the FIS bagged over half the votes cast in municipal elections of June 1990 and was leading in the first stage of national legislative elections of December 1991. The result in both cases was increasing militancy in the area, instead of less.

In a previous era, of course, such crackdowns were geared not against ‘Islamic militancy’ but against anything that smacked of communism, socialism or anything ‘left-wing’.

The people of Iran, and indeed the world, well remember the role of the Western powers after the Iranians elected the socialist leaning Mossadeq as prime minister who promptly nationalised the nation’s oil resources.

The list is long. At this point in time, we in Pakistan are concerned with the transition to democracy that genuinely reflects the will of the people.

The buzz from above reflects other priorities. The people, by rejecting the Musharraf-backed parties, have clearly indicated that they do not want him in power. But Western powers dismiss this verdict because they find it convenient to deal with him. They fear that his removal would lead to ‘instability’. And so they will continue to prop him up.

Secondly, there is talk of the general dislike in Washington’s corridors of power for Nawaz Sharif: Mr Bush, even as his second term ends (plenty of time to do more damage yet), is not happy at the idea of an alliance of the PPP and the PML-N. We hear of pressure being exerted on the PPP to ally not with Nawaz Sharif but with the disgraced and discredited PML-Q.

It would be unrealistic to expect all these pressures to be magically lifted just because the people of Pakistan have willed it so. The electorate, which in no uncertain terms rejected the ‘religious’ and the Musharraf-backed parties at the polls, can only hope that their support is enough for Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari to stay strong and hold the interests of the people above all else.

Beena Sarwar is a journalist and documentary filmmaker from Pakistan, focusing on human rights, gender, media, and peace with extensive experience with the print media and television in Pakistan and abroad. She was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, where she returned a Fellow at Harvard University's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, working on a book about democratic struggles in Pakistan. The article was first published in Dawn.


Perceptions of Democracy




THE other day I was talking to a prominent economist from Pakistan who was extremely uncomfortable about the future of democracy in the country despite the excitement amongst the common people at the defeat inflicted on the King and his party. Her view was that now we are back to square one.

It is the same politicians who stole millions of the tax payer’s money and would probably do the same if they were given a chance again. The economist’s conclusion was that given a choice she would prefer a military dictator over a corrupt politician.


This perception is not odd. There are a number of Pakistanis who feel that way. They believe that the current set of politicians do not represent the people or middle class values. In fact, the middle class is seen as possessing the magic to transit the country to democracy while ensuring steady economic progress as well.


Let’s not get too upset with this view because it represents one of the many views on political and socio-economic development in a country. Incidentally, this approach, which views democracy as being necessarily correlated with better financial management or lack of corruption is what was passed on by the prominent international financial institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF, etc.


This view does not take into account the decision-making practices in other countries such as the US and West European states where better record of democracy has not necessarily restricted corruption. Although the argument here should not be deemed as defending corruption of politicians, the point which is being made here is that there is no direct co-relation between the two concepts. Accountability and transparency, of course, are ideals which are expected to be prominent in a democratic setup. But greater democracy does not necessarily ensure cleaner politics.


As far as primacy of middle class values is concerned, again, there is no direct co-relation between ascendancy of this class in a society and the strengthening of democracy. In fact, the middle class in a country can have as much of authoritarian tendencies as the ruling elite. The middle class tends to be authoritarian because it is the class that is most likely to replace the ruling elite.


In Pakistan’s case, for example, where the economic redistributive process depends on association with the state and state bureaucracy, even the middle class can support authoritarian politics. The role of a dominant state bureaucracy helps in cutting across the process of consensus building which is the hallmark of democratic decision-making.


Authoritarianism is linked with the process of globalisation and international capital that creates opportunities for a select few in the name of better re-distribution of resources. The middle class begins to support the case for better distribution or for creation of institutional mechanisms, which are a vital part of democracy, mainly due to its own interests such as creating greater space for themselves vis-à-vis the ruling elite.


So, the Pakistani economist mentioned above was flabbergasted by the fact that hundreds and thousands of Pakistanis voted for politicians she was not enamoured with. A common argument is that the majority of Pakistanis, especially those from the rural areas, are too illiterate and poor to make a better judgment.


But why are common Pakistanis so dumb? Why can’t they get rid of feudal land owners? A lot of the people who make this argument have rarely gone to the rural areas or their visits are restricted to implement NGO projects. What they do not notice is that the common man does exert his judgment while making a choice. It is not necessarily the death of a leader or some other tragedy which makes them decide. Of course, symbols of sacrifice are important but then what we witnessed during these elections was that those who generally had a reputation of being brash and oppressive feudals did not manage to get votes or ride the tide of PPP’s popularity.


Furthermore, the politicians and the people in the rural area are tied together in an intense process of negotiation which manifests itself in the form of the winning margin of a candidate. The people punish those who do not perform by not voting for such people. The shift in attitude of a constituency is apparent from the wining margin of a candidate. So, even if a bad politician would win, he would get lesser votes which is an indicator of how people feel. In an electoral process this means that in a future competition the candidate would have to deliver more. Many a prominent people from all parties were wiped out because they failed to perform. Many won by smaller margins.


Naturally, the question that comes to mind is that why can’t the people just dump the old politicians and bring in working class people? The answer is that selecting a person who has a good network with the people as well as the state or authority is necessary to get access to resources. For instance, the choice would be for a person who could help with the state machinery in times of need.


While we all emphasise the need for devolution of democracy there is very little thought given to making the state bureaucracy responsive to the common man. The police constable, the revenue officer and other state representatives, or the legal system primarily respond to the elite. To give another example, despite several judgments by the superior courts which ban the police from keeping a female in a police lock-up overnight, the decision is rarely implemented. Surely, this is not to condone the powerful rural elite that manipulate state machinery, the fact is that the system is not geared towards a cold-blooded implementation of laws.


The results of the 2008 elections or the fact that these were relatively free and fair does not necessarily mean that it would not be an uphill task for the politicians or that the traditional pattern of politics has become redundant. In fact, there are issues which might strengthen the system of patronage yet again.


One of the crucial issues that will confront the next government is price adjustment. The Shaukat Aziz-Pervez Musharraf regime left at a time when they needed to do price adjustments to meet the international prices, especially in oil and electricity. Even the interim government failed to do so which means that the burden of price adjustment will fall on the incoming regime. They will have two options: (a) keep the prices stable and low by offering subsidies which will invoke the wrath of the international finance institutions (IFIs) or (b) increase the cost of electricity and oil by another 20-30 per cent. This would naturally push up commodity prices.


Depending on how generous is the international community in dealing with a new political dispensation, there could be a problem of scarce resources. Under the circumstances, there is a possibility of politicians reverting to the old methodology of providing indirect subsidies to their support base which will again raise the issue of corruption.


An option to check financial mismanagement is to strengthen the judiciary. The restoration of judges, hence, is a necessary move. This is not about individuals but about people who symbolise better accessibility to justice. More important, continuation of electoral democracy is a bare minimum requirement for strengthening the political system.

The writer is an independent analyst and the author of the book ‘Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy’. This article first appeared in Dawn. Email: 

US Diplomats say Judges Issue Pak Internal Matter


ISLAMABAD: The United States has now decided to respect the wishes of Pakistani voters and has finally given a go-ahead to the two main winners to resolve all the issues according to the wishes of their voters, including the issue of the deposed Supreme Court judges.

US diplomats, who met some top leaders of PPP and PML-N on February 21/22, have conveyed the view that the restoration of the deposed judges was an internal issue of Pakistan and the US would not interfere in any internal political or legal issue.

Spokesperson of the US Embassy in Pakistan, Elizabeth Colton, made it clear on February 22 that US diplomats were meeting the politicians just to understand the ground situation and for supporting the democracy.

She said: “The US ambassador and other US Embassy officials regularly meet with representatives of various political parties, and continue to do so. We continue to express our support of the democratic transition.”

When The News asked that why US considered Musharraf indispensable for its interests in Pakistan, she responded: “Through the electoral process, the Pakistani people have expressed their views. It is up to those elected to form a government. We hope that Pakistan’s political leaders will work together to advance a common agenda and meet the challenges ahead. We look forward to working with that government, whoever its leaders will be.”

Observers said it was clear that the Zardari-Nawaz alliance announced on Feburary 21 night had forced the US to change its position on supporting Musharraf, who had announced a few days ago that restoration of the judges was not possible.

In response to a question as to why the US is opposing the restoration of Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and some other judges, spokesperson Colton said: “The United States has stated its support for an independent media and an independent judiciary. Pakistan’s judicial issue is a matter for Pakistanis to address.” It is learnt that Bush administration conveyed serious reservations about Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry to the leadership of the PPP when late Benazir Bhutto had announced her support for the deposed CJ.

After the surprising election results, US officials started meeting PPP and PML-N leaders and listened to their views on the restoration of judges. PML-N said that if some American judges could release prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, then why a Pakistani judge could not order the release of a person who was thrown behind bars many years ago and no charge was proved against him.

Initially, the restoration of judges became a hurdle in the way of a coalition between the PPP and the PML-N but finally wisdom prevailed and PPP co-chairperson Asif Ali Zardari saved the boat from being rocked. It is no secret in the capital that some intelligence agencies and their collaborators in media tried their level best to create misunderstandings between the PPP and PML-N but the leadership on both the sides proved that they had learnt their lessons from their past mistakes and confrontations.

Zardari and Nawaz Sharif agreed to restore the judges through parliament and forced the US to accept this democratic decision. The US government still has some reservations on the suo moto powers of the judges but PML-N leaders have clearly said to them that this was also our internal issue.

A joint press conference of Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif on February 21 gave the impression that both of them were not ready to play in the hands of their enemies. They agreed that the restoration of judges would provide some immediate credibility to the new coalition government and after that they would start fighting with inflation and price hike.

Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari will soon meet again and discuss about a joint meeting with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. They will request Saudi Arabia to help in stabilising the oil prices for two to three years so that the new elected government could have some relief.

Hamid Mir has covered all the major Wars and Conflicts in recent years. He has received many National and International Awards. He has presented many papers on terrorism and conflict resolution in International Seminars held in Pakistan, India, USA, UK, Germany and other Countries. (Adventure in Las Vegas). Currently Hamid is working with GEO TV and writing for Jang Group of Newspapers. This article was first published in the News International.

Democracy in Pakistan Might Bring Tension with Washington

Newly elected politicians want to end extremism, not use it as bait for US funding

Other Views

I am beginning to doubt the usefulness of convincing people in thinktanks or even in congress, about our needs. It seems that the various arms of the US govt. that actually deal with Pakistan (Pentagon, State department, CIA) are so anti-democratic at heart that NO MATTER WHAT THE DEMOCRATIC PARTIES ARE LIKE, they would prefer a dictator in every allied country. Their model of ideal ally is Hosni Mubarak, not Manmohan Singh. And to some extent, we cannot blame them. 

After all, when Mexico and India went to the polls, the US ambassador was sitting at home watching the returns on TV and hoping for the best. When Pakistan votes, all the players are running back and forth between the US embassy and the British embassy. The "president" is writing op eds in the Washington Post, begging for help. Consul Hunt is driving around in his armor plated car as if he is the president of Pakistan. This must be a heady feeling and its a feeling that Hunt and Patterson will not enjoy for too long if even imperfect democracy comes to Pakistan. So, to the last possible minute, they are going to try and arrange for their Hosni Mubarak clone to hold on.... 

- Omar Ali, President of Association for Communal Harmony in Asia (ACHA) and Moderator of Asiapeace, one of ACHA’s three Electronic Discussion Forums.

The notion that somehow Zardari and Sharif can stand up to pressure from the U.S. is simply ridiculous. At some point, if they cross the line and confront the army, the generals will take over again. Wash has actually bribed our generals more than we bribing their visa officials which may amount to petty cash. So, let’ be honest. 

It all depends on Kiyani. He is the blue eyed boy of the Pentagon, literally in their pockets. The fact is that he is still beholden to the interests of the army and retaining its predominant role. If he ditches Mush, that’s the end. But again he is taking cues from the Pentagon. Moreover, the State Dept and the Pentagon are converging in their view that Mush is still their man. 

- Nadeem Ahsan, Member of ACHA


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