Pakistan Moves Further Toward Democracy; Could become a Role Model for Other Muslim states

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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Posted in Uncategorized | 18 Responses | Print |

18 Responses

  1. The center-right and far-right of America cannot EVER acknowledge Muslims can do anything great without the help of the West. Pakistan is proving them wrong and this goes against all the right-winged propaganda about Muslim states. If left alone, Muslim countries will thrive and prosper. However, that statement is revolutionary in the eyes of the West.

  2. The US-allied generals in Turkey are losing their grip too. The Americans feverishly recruited Iraqi generals to recreate the Turkish (ex)model. Saddam had improsined a lot of Iraqi generals who were quite happy with him, but his paranoia drove him to attack people on the basis of even gossip.

    The US-freed generals were given VIP treatment in regular visits to Washington, and put in charge of patronage in the new Iraqi army. But Maliki built his own center, and so did others. The generals themselves were only pretending to be US assets to get the spoils.

    So there is a common pattern in Pakistan, Turkey, and Iraq. The US losing the battle to have puppet generals in control behind the scenes, and the people are gradually succeeding in getting true democracy, despite the west rather than with its help.

  3. Good to hear Hitchens is still justifying the Iraqi slaughter he helped egg-on. Now if he'd just throw his support behind the results of some other old elections in the ME that the glorious West nullified I'd maybe believe he wasn't just a professional windbag.

  4. i'm a fan, so i say this humbly. i don't think your analysis does anything to undercut the neocon thesis at all. insofar as democratizing 'the region' was an express goal of the iraq war, this development seems to vindicate those efforts, if not through obvious causal mechanisms.

  5. The reason Iraq is lauded more than Pakistan is less because it is an American "project" than because it is an Arab country. I think what is happening in Pakistan is terrific, but that is not unique in the Islamic world — there are plenty of African countries with large Muslim populations that are increasingly moving in the direction of more Democratic systems — Ghana, Tanzania, frankly even Nigeria. Countries such as Iran, while they are not Democratic show very clear signs that there populations are close to insisting on it. The one exception here is the Arab world where elections of the sort that recently occurred in Iraq — even if the Sadrists turn into the kingmakers — are not rare but truly non-existent

  6. 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

    This is an important point, and I think that the "allegedly" deserves a lot more weight and clarification. The whole saga of Jay Garner, replaced by Jerry Bremer for wanting early elections (cancelled and essentially replaced by the theft of Iraqi assets) as per Iraqi wishes, and the massive street protests catalyzed by Sistani that forced the US to allow elections, deserves to be told and retold.

  7. Professor, surely you realize that the most of the "progress" found in this amendment merely restores the status quo ante and the intent of Pakistan's 1973 Constitution. Zia arranged for the president's powers to dismiss Parliament, Sharif removed that power, and Musharraf restored it yet again. While this current development is no doubt positive for Pakistani democracy, it seems overblown to characterize Pakistan's "one step back, one step forward" dance as you have.

  8. "Secretary of State Hillary Clinton preposterously called Pakistan the 'most dangerous country in the world.' "

    If she had said "Pakistan and India together" make the most dangerous region in the world" it would make pretty good sense wouldn't it?

    I was interested that Tariq Ali, wrote ("The clash of fundamentalisms" very interesting book) that the people of Pakistan for the most part are not interested in radical religion.

    Thank you, this is very interesting. and encouraging.

  9. As we witness NYTimes Iran Plays Host to Delegations After Iraq Elections and JuanCole : “The party most likely to play kingmaker is the Sadrists, followers of fundamentalist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. the neocon narrative that : «the March 7 parliamentary elections in IRAQ [are a] vindication of George W. Bush's illegal invasion and occupation of that country.» while simultaneously screaming that : «IRAN is now developing nuclear weapons, and is an existential threat to ISRAEL!» by their own rhetoric demonstrates just how politically self-serving, if not downright delusional their interpretations of reality are.

  10. If she had said "Pakistan and India together" make the most dangerous region in the world" it would make pretty good sense wouldn't it?

    No, it wouldn't. India hasn't trained, armed and sent terrorists into parts of Pakistan, while supporting a medieval minded thug-government in another part of it's neighbourhood. It isn't providing refuge to any warlords who were removed from power.
    If India and Pakistan make it "the most dangerous region in the world," it's only thanks to Pakistan.
    If you say this because of the nuclear weapons, I'm sorry, if India doesn't have a right to them, the exclusive Elite5 doesn't either.

    The reason Iraq is lauded more than Pakistan is less because it is an American "project" than because it is an Arab country.

    It's hard to conveniently forget that the American "project" currently supports the dictatorship in Egypt, the megalomaniacal monarchy in Saudi and Jordan and not so long ago, 'rejected' the Palestinian attempt at electing their representatives.

    What makes the elections in Iraq rather unique is that that America has been forced to finally allow elections to be conducted in a country where the ideal situation for America, according to Tom Friedman in 1991 was an 'iron-fisted dictator' who was not Saddam Hussein. Not much has changed except that now, the American hand has been forced.

    Now, only if we hear a few more soothing verses in favour of democracy for Saudi Arabia, sprinkled with some wisdom for womens rights as well.

    A anti-American ruling establishment or a popular democracy (they're sadly similar) anywhere in an oil/gas-rich Arab/Mideastern country is not in the American national interest. Unfortunately, most people here are reflexively anti-American, more so after the invasion of Iraq after years of what the UN representatives there, Dennis Halliday and Hans Von Sponek called 'genocidal sanctions'.

    @Prof. Cole
    Thank you for this post. Very well said. I had a why-didn't-I-think-of-it-this-way moment.

  11. While I too think the news from Pakistan is good, all I can be is cautiously optimistic. The Parliament is far from being the sovereign power in the land, and there is a long way to go. The strategic dialog with the USA is still being conducted by the generals.

  12. There is no hoopla because a piece of paper is not as exciting as an election. There was excitement and support for Pakistani elections a
    couple years ago among conservatives, including the weekly standard and the heritage foundation.

    link to

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    Your stereotypes of the "neocons" are old and tired professor. We support the development of democracy from Pakistan to Lebanon. Trying to create a boogeyman on the right is nothing but a cheap political device.

  13. The comment that these developments in Pakistan are somehow vindication for the Bush policy of spreading democracy in the region is far off the mark. We invaded Afghanistan because we were told bin Laden was there and we had to show that we could strike back after 9/11 – although later it did not seem to matter that bin Laden was there, we had to push on to Iraq. The reason we were told we had to invade Iraq was because Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and might use them on us or give them to bin Laden! When no WMD could be found, suddenly there was a new story cooked up from the neocon list of reasons why we had to impose our will on – oops, help our – "little brown muslim people." Is there anyone out there who seriously believes we invaded and occupied Afghanistan and Iraq to make sure they enjoyed the blessings of democracy?

  14. Dr. Cole, equating, even partially, neoconservatives with Karl Marx is rather shocking to read from somone of your knowledge. Marx was writing 150 years ago, during the early stages of capitalism, and generally supported attempts to bring the far reaches of humanity closer to the modern world, even at the point of a gun (just like the French Revolution attempted and accomplished to some degree under Napoleon, tho without the revolutionary spirit). Marx did not support the British empire per se, but saw its expansion as way of bringing the time and conditions closer when humanity could be freed from the likes of British Empires. As you've written about many times, neoconservatives care nothing at all about advancing humanity's condition or political democracy, only about bringing it under the domination of U.S. economic, military and political policy in perpetuity.

  15. Juan, keep writing articles like this one. It was really, really good to hear more criticism of the liberal-imperialist establishment.

  16. christopher hitchens is a reactionary nightmare, plz leave his name in the gutter.

  17. Does it ever occur to anyone that our "Democratization"" may not be nearly as suitable for some other countries as it is for ours?

    Maybe some other peoples do not want to live in a Democracy.

    Is that suppose to be a crime?


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