The Pakistani government on Friday tabled a proposed 18th amendment to the constitution, which if enacted will be an enormous advance toward democratization in the country.
I was watching Bill Maher last week and Christopher Hitchens remarked on the Iraqi elections that they “didn’t used to happen” under Saddam Hussein. Likewise, free elections did not happen under Gen. Zia ul-Haq in 1980s Pakistan, or in 1999-2007 under Gen. Pervez Musharraf. And in the 1990s, presidents kept using the martial law amendments to the constitution of Gen. Zia to arbitrarily dismiss elected prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.
But US hawks and Neoconservatives are not celebrating this epochal bill in Pakistan. I ask myself why.
I think it is because Neoconservatism and the arguments of all those who favor democratization at the barrel of a gun are fundamentally Orientalist in character. In some ways they go back to Karl Marx, who in his journalism on India argued that the capitalist British Empire was necessary to shake Indian villages out of their millennia-long sluggishness, from which they could never escape on their own.
During the past 3 years, the Pakistani public has demonstrated repeatedly and on a large scale in favor of the rule of law and the reinstatement of the Supreme Court justices dismissed by dictator Gen. Musharraf. Mind you, they are making a case for civil law and the civil supreme court, not for sharia or Islamic law. They voted in the center-left Pakistan People’s Party in February 2008, and the return to parliamentary rule ultimately, in August 2008, allowed the political parties to unite to toss out of office Gen. Musharraf, who had had himself declared a civilian ‘president’ and was in danger of being impeached for alleged corruption.
That is, the Pakistani public has conducted a ‘color revolution’ of its own, in the teeth of opposition or skittishness in Washington, and managed to overturn a military dictatorship that had been backed to the hilt by Bush-Cheney, restoring parliamentary governance.
This bill will take that process even further. The president will lose the power, so abused in the 1990s, to dismiss the prime minister at will. Presidents will not be able to prorogue or cancel parliament. They won’t be able to unilaterally appoint the Chief of Staff. The legislative reforms in Pakistan will also give more autonomy to the provinces within the Pakistani federal system. The long-suffering Pashtun people (unfairly branded as all ‘Taliban’ by some observers) will finally get a provincial name recognizing them, as Punjab, Sindh and Baluchistan recognize their majority ethnicities.
But none of these achievements is being praised by the right of center US press or the liberal imperialists.
That is because the United States did not spur these developments. The Pakistani public (including humble street crowds) did it themselves, and if anything the US was nervous about losing its favorite military dictator and terrified that democracy would bring instability or provide an opening for the Taliban to take over the country. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton preposterously called Pakistan the ‘most dangerous country in the world.’ Australian gadfly and security consultant David Kilcullen said rather bizarrely in a WaPo interview last year this time that the Pakistani government could fall to the Taliban and al-Qaeda within six months. Pakistan, by democratizing from within and challenging the paradigm of liberal imperialism, either falls off the US radar (it isn’t our project, so why even pay attention?) or is actively disparaged as a form of ‘instability.’ It all has to be about us.
In contrast, the March 7 parliamentary elections in Iraq have been widely lauded by the US right as vindication of George W. Bush’s illegal invasion and occupation of that country. Iraq is a basket case, full of smoldering rubble and an army of displaced people, as well as masses of widows and orphans created by the violence that broke out when Bush created a power vacuum. The party most likely to play kingmaker is the Sadrists, followers of fundamentalist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Iraqi politics are far less secular than Pakistan’s. For all the recent violence in Pakistan, it is a much more secure country than Iraq, possessing a large and professional army. Iraq is being lauded as a role model not because it is a success but because it is an American project, in which the little brown irrational people have allegedly once again have had the precious tutelage of white Europeans (and Euro-Americans) generously bestowed upon them.
Pakistan, which at the moment has had a much better political outcome, is ignored or disparaged because the hand of the West is hard to discern in its achievements. The move to weaken the president is not, of course, being taken purely out of altruism. The Muslim League-N wants the PPP president taken down a notch. President Asaf Ali Zardari’s own alleged corruption weakens him and makes it hard for him to resist the demand that the president’s powers be curbed.
What the Pakistani public is doing has much more lasting implications for democratization in the Muslim world than anything Bush did. Pakistan is a Sunni Muslim-majority country, so it has more hope of being seen as exemplary by the 90% of Muslims in the world who are Sunnis, than does Shiite-dominated Iraq. That Pakistan’s politicians are themselves implementing these reforms gives them an authenticity that the US-authored procedures in Iraq largely lack.
Pakistan has a host of daunting problems, including high levels of corruption, the continued undue power of the military and of Inter-Services Intelligence, Taliban-driven political violence, and a legacy of support for terrorism in Kashmir and Afghanistan– neither as yet entirely abandoned. High population growth rates, lack of land reform, and relatively low literacy and internet use all threaten to erode the impressive political achievements of the past 3 years. Even the new bill does not provide any parliamentary checks and balances on the power of the prime minister to appoint persons to high-level positions, and so is deeply flawed.
But there is some good news to be found in Pakistan’s political development from time to time, and this weekend is one of those moments. Americans and Europeans should try a little humility, and find it in themselves to praise these positive accomplishments even if no Western troops set them in motion.
The long arm of the military dictators is losing some of its grasp on Pakistani political institutions, and the country is moving toward a strong parliamentary system. It is something to be happy about, even if the next round of reforms may have to rein in the prime minister himself.
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