Democracy Myth

Published November 26, 2007

National Review Online

Pakistan is not a democracy. Pakistan has never been a democracy. Should Pakistan adopt the electoral trappings of democracy in the near-term, that would not make Pakistan an authentic liberal democracy. Free and fair elections just might dissolve Pakistan into chaos, and/or begin a process of evolution toward Islamist domination. Elections or not, if Pakistan achieves stability any time soon, it will not be due to democracy. Pakistani stability in the near-term can only be the result of a precarious balance between political factions that are largely illiberal and undemocratic. Elections, at best, will throw a veil over a complex and fragile behind-the-scenes political deal. Pakistan's 1970 election — the freest and fairest in the nation's history — resulted in civil war, war with India, and the partition of the country into Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Led by a naive media, the United States and Europe are being sold a bill of goods. We hear a lot about a “genuine return to democracy,” “the restoration of full democracy,” or the “restoration of the constitution.” All of this will supposedly follow an end to the emergency and the advent of free and fair elections. This is nonsense. Democracy and the constitution cannot be restored in Pakistan because, in any serious sense, neither democracy nor constitutional rule has ever existed there.

The army has been openly in power for about half of Pakistan's history — and in control behind the scenes for most of the rest. Pakistan's most democratic leader was the nation's founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Yet in practice, even Jinnah insisted on total control, leaving an autocratic legacy to successors who cared far less than he for democracy. In all of Pakistan's history, there has never been a peaceful transfer of power between two elected governments. Every elected Pakistani government has been deposed or summarily dismissed. Most elections have been manipulated by Pakistan's intelligence services. Only Zulfikar Ali Bhutto completed an elected term in office, and he was subsequently hanged after a military coup. From independence day to the present, Pakistan political trajectory has been one long evolution away from the democratic ideals of its founding.

In near-willful ignorance of this history, America is opening itself up to manipulation by savvy Pakistanis, and setting this country up for disappointment and failure. Instead of calmly confronting the exceedingly difficult options we face in this troubled land, we are allowing ourselves to be misled by naive hopes for the “restoration” of a democracy that never existed.

Consider “Digging in Deeper in Pakistan,” a New York Times editorial that nicely summarizes the implicit consensus behind mainstream media reporting on Pakistan's emergency. The Times chastises the Bush administration for retaining any connection whatever with General Musharraf. In place of the administration's attempt to put together a deal between Benazir Bhutto and Musharraf, the Times wants us to encourage Bhutto to join with her longtime rival, Nawaz Sharif, in a “civilian democratic front.” That would cut Musharraf and the army out of power altogether. President Bush “must make it clear once and for all that Washington is firmly on the side of democracy,” says the Times. Remarkably, the Times is willing to hold American efforts to recruit tribal allies in Pakistan's Islamist northwest hostage to greater democracy.

I'd revert to jokes about the Times turning neocon, but that's not quite what's happening here. (See “More Armed Brothers.”) For all the Democrats' attacks on the naivete of the president's democratization policy, a powerful stream within the Democratic party would take the administration's democratization strategy a giant step further, in effect trying to buy off Islamists by allowing them into the political process. Of course neither the Islamists nor the process in question would be authentic liberal democracy. But that won't stop many Dems from using offers of electoral participation as a substitute for standing up to the Islamists. The New York Times is foreshadowing such a shift already.

Democracy might be a solution to Pakistan's problems if there were anything like an authentically liberal democratic tradition available to support. Unfortunately, the media's focus on protesting lawyers notwithstanding, there is no such tradition in sight. Authentic liberal democracy may be a fine long-term goal for Pakistan to work toward, but holding the war on terror hostage to the phantasm of near-term democracy is very bad policy indeed.

The New York Times is eager to forge a coalition between Benazir Bhutto and her erstwhile rival Nawaz Sharif, whose boisterous return to Pakistan on Sunday has jumbled an already chaotic political scene. Be careful what you wish for, NYT. Sharif, who has been sheltered by “democracy central” (a.k.a. Saudi Arabia) since Musharraf displaced him in a 1999 coup, is the most Islamist-friendly mainstream leader in Pakistan. A protege of General Zia ul-Haq, the military dictator who first brought Islamist influence directly into Pakistan's government and army, Sharif has allied with Islamists to gain power before and could easily do so again. The “secular” scion of a wealthy, religiously conservative family, Sharif lifted not a finger to roll back Zia's Islamist reforms when he was in power. (For that matter, neither did “Western, secular, liberal,” Benazir Bhutto.) On the contrary, Sharif openly honored Zia's memory and goals. In fact, he extended them. Having pushed a bill to enshrine Sharia law in Pakistan's constitution through the lower house in 1999, Sharif was one “democratic” election away from moving the bill through the Senate when Musharraf deposed him. Since then, Musharraf alone has pushed back against Zia's Islamist reforms. And Musharraf made that effort from the moment he took power — well before his famous post-9/11 turnaround.

Ah, but you say that, unlike that nasty old military dictator Musharraf, at least Sharif is part of a “civilian democratic front.” Really? Since when has Nawaz Sharif had a democratic bone in his body? Apparently, since yesterday. It seems that as soon as his flight from Saudi Arabia landed in Pakistan, Sharif was on the phone to the BBC. “We want democracy and nothing else,” Sharif told the BBC. Boldly promising to make “efforts to rid the country of the dictatorship,” Sharif pledged to “restore the rule of law and strengthen democracy.” (There's that word “restore” again.) Well, anyway, I believe the part about Sharif wanting to get rid of Musharraf.

Aside from being corrupt and incompetent, what did Nawaz Sharif actually do during his two, rudely interrupted (as usual) stints as Pakistan's Prime Minister? After having been displaced in the middle of his first term (a term which was, in any case, the product of a manipulated election), Sharif began his second term determined to destroy all political opposition. Sharif bought glowing press coverage with a steady stream of bribes (Musharraf has allowed much more press criticism), while launching tax investigations against critical voices in the press. (By the way, virtually no-one in Pakistan pays taxes. The Pakistani “state,” such as it is, survives on taxes collected from less than one percent of citizens — and nearly half of that is pocketed by the tax collectors themselves. So “tax investigation” is a synonym for “jail.” But let's get back to Pakistani “democracy” under Sharif.) In his second term, Sharif saw to it that newspapermen not already
silenced by tax investigations were directly arrested and beaten.

Having bought off and intimidated the press, Sharif blocked political opposition by pushing through a constitutional amendment requiring all members of Pakistan's National Assembly to vote along party lines. So much for parliament. Meanwhile, Sharif got rid of troublesome judges by transferring them, and saw to it that local elections were fixed. The boldest move of all was a physical attack on Pakistan's Supreme Court by a mob of furniture-smashing Sharif supporters when the Court was about to restrict the Prime Minister's actions. That's right, the same Supreme Court so rudely and recently strong-armed by Musharraf was even more crudely attacked by the man the media has now anointed as one of Musharraf's premiere “democratic” opponents.

Although the our newspaper of record faces a declining subscription base, I feel sure Nawaz Sharif is an avid reader of the New York Times, and the rest of the Western press as well. Sharif knows the West has elevated him into a savior of democracy, and Sharif understands how desperately we want to believe it. So naturally, even before Sharif joined his delirious supporters on the tarmac in Lahore, he was on his mobile phone to reassure a credulous BBC that he was indeed the fulfillment of the West's democratic dreams. Sharif (and his far smoother politician-brother) are wise in the ways of the West, while we are pitifully naive about Pakistan.

Pakistan's politicians and their followers are manipulating us at will. But mostly, with our hopes for easy escape from the terrors of the war on terror, we are manipulating ourselves. We want to be fooled. We want to believe that someday soon they'll be “just like us,” that all will be well, that democracy provides a simple way to avoid the agonizing struggle ahead. Let's stop playing all those nasty old tribal games (the rules of which we ill understand) and have all those far-away folks play our pleasant democratic game instead. The trouble is they've been pretending to play our game for the past sixty years and it hasn't worked yet. Pakistan is not a democracy. Pakistan has never been a democracy. Woe to us if Nawaz Sharif and his “democratic” friends take power. And shame on us if, charmed by manipulators of that magical word “democracy,” we hand power to Nawaz Sharif and his Islamist allies on a silver platter.

— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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