Challenges for democracy


Not quite there yet

There have been considerable gains in democracy and civil and political freedoms in Pakistan over the last four years. Pakistan can be described as more democratic than ever. Non-governmental society-based and society-oriented activity has increased with proliferation of the media, information-technology revolution and the growth of diverse social formations. Societal landscape has become more complex, diversified and at times conflict-ridden and violent.

However, democracy does not necessarily move in a single direction from less to more democracy. This process can stagnate at one point or experience brief or long reverses. This means that a conscious effort is needed all the time to keep democracy progressing by addressing the challenges that threaten it. The major deficiency of democracy is that it can be undermined by democratic means and in the name of democracy. That often depends on the attitude and disposition of the political payers as they can easily use democratic freedom to undermine democracy. If democracy and freedoms are the rights of the people, these are also their responsibilities.

A new “Democracy Assessment Report” to be released later this week by Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT) about 2011 points out the successes and challenges of democracy in 2011 as a mixed track record. Similarly, various reports and studies of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) highlight successes and problems. There are serious challenges to democracy and societal harmony and stability.

The most serious challenge to democracy and civic order in Pakistan is from growing polarisation and partisanship in the political and social circles. These divisions appear to be sharpening to such an extent that it is difficult to discuss any issue on its merits. It is political and religious affiliations that determine the attitude and disposition of a large number of people who often do not hesitate to display their displeasure and anger towards any divergent perspective.

The widespread religious and cultural intolerance can be traced back to the military rule of General Zia-ul-Haq when Islamic orthodoxy and militancy were promoted as a state project. Even after the end of the Zia-rule, the military continued to patronise such groups. Consequently, there is a large section of the population that views every aspect of domestic politics, societal interaction and foreign and security policies as a function of religion. For example, the support and sympathy for militancy and opposition to the United States are products of religious-cum-political beliefs rather than the logic of global politics.

Political and religious intolerance has become entrenched in many sections of the educated people, especially the so-called the middle class, who talk of democracy but they demonstrate impatience towards dissent. There are people in the legal profession who have become politicised to the extent of undermining the reputation of the profession. Since 2009, there have been periodic reports of intimidation of junior level courts by some lawyer-activists. It was disappointing to watch a group of lawyers engaged in sloganeering in favour of the Chief Justice when the Supreme Court took up the contempt notice against the prime minister on January 19. They were summoned to the Supreme Court for that purpose by their leaders. The same can be said about the attitude of some lawyers when the killer of former governor Salmaan Taseer was brought to the court for initial proceedings in Rawalpindi in 2011.

The success of democracy depends to a great extent on strengthening elected institutions and processes. The primacy of the parliament and provincial assemblies can be asserted if the political parties and leaders make the elected assemblies as the focal points of their political activities and participate effectively in their proceedings.

As the PML(N) and other opposition parties do not have a sufficient number of members in the National Assembly to move a no-confidence motion against the federal government, the PML(N) describes the parliament as an irrelevant institution.

It is unfortunate that political parties question the legitimacy of an elected institution simply because they cannot get the results of their choice. Democracy requires that all should accept the outcome of the democratic process even if it is not to one’s liking. Other example of neglect of the parliament is that in 2009, no resolution or adjournment motion was moved by the opposition in any house of the parliament for the restoration of the Chief Justice. However, in March 2009, the PML(N) preferred to launch street agitation for that purpose.

The poor performance of federal and provincial governments also threatens democracy. As the problems of the common people are not being addressed adequately, there is widespread alienation among the common people from the current democratic process. Some partisan groups are using this alienation for propaganda against democracy and suggest naïve solutions to attract popular attention. There are those who argue that their problems will be resolved under an Islamic order without describing the details of institutions and processes of such a system. Others think that the corrupt rulers should be removed to solve the problems.

Still another threat to democracy is the spectre of conflict among state institutions. The state institutions like the executive, the parliament, the judiciary and the military have not so far learnt the habit of restraint and mutual respect in a democratic framework. Each institution is trying to expand the domain of its authority at the cost of others. The superior judiciary is using judicial activism to enter into the areas that are essentially the domains of other institutions. The military is so used to an expanded role that it does not like the elected government’s haphazard efforts to retrieve the initiative in security and related matters. The political governments and elected assemblies emphasize their importance by virtue of their representative character without ensuring effective and just governance and improving the economy. Democracy cannot endure if the economy continues to falter.

The state institutions will have to learn to function in a manner that respects each other’s autonomy and role. Democracy will suffer if one institution attempts to overwhelm others or cultivates a self-ascribed mission of reforming all other institutions and people.

Pakistan’s democracy needs to be strengthened and sustained because there is no other option available. However, democracy cannot take strong roots if individuals, groups and state institutions do not respect the constitution and the conventions of the parliamentary system in letter and spirit and they do not try to dominate each other. They must also engage in mutual respect, tolerance and accommodation in governmental and societal affairs.

The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.


  1. Agreed. We should also look into the question of dysfunctional assemblies. It's mainly because the people who make it to those place don't even know the subtle definitions of democracy described here. We can't expect this to change overnight but the hope is that with increasing IT revolution and media outreach , the masses will be in a position to question their representative instead of voting for them based on former's rhetoric and patronage.

  2. Dr Hasan can you please write something on the actual definition of democracy?There is no democracy in pakistan by any yard stick. Its a mafia ruling pakistan.

Comments are closed.