What's Wrong With Pakistan's Democracy?


Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari addressed the parliament for a record fifth time today. It was an achievement for the fragile democracy where coups are common. It, however, is not a memorable day for Pakistan. Not the least when one considers the conduct of the president – who has discarded the constitution – and majority of the elected representatives. Democracy appears to be failing in Pakistan, and that is an alarming situation.

President Zardari offers the best insight into Pakistani democracy. Here is a man with a tainted past and massive corruption charges. He is a violator of the constitution. He is using public coffers to gain personal advantages. And he is still strong and unchallenged.

Let's first talk about the political structure of Pakistan. Unlike the United States, where the president is both the head of the state and the head of the government, Pakistan follows a different path. It is similar to India where the president has ceremonial powers and the prime minister is the real man (or woman) in charge. In Pakistan, like in India, the president has to follow a very impartial role. Constitutionally, he or she should not belong to a political party, should not make political statements, and should not conduct himself or herself in such a manner that can cause controvery.

All Indian presidents, and all Pakistani presidents elected during civilan rule, have followed this principle, except for Zardari. He is the co-chairman of the ruling party, presides over the party meetings at the presidential palace, makes incidinary comments at political conventions – which he is fond of addressing – and condcuts himself in a highly controversial and scandalous manner.

Take a look at the text of Zardari's address to the parliament and you will get the gist of his excesses. There would have been a prompt – and successful – impeachment motion had an Indian president dared say even half of the things he has said. Zardari is strong and kicking. His party increased its representation in the current Senate election where money flew like water to buy loyalties. It was, of course, the money collected from taxpayers.

Although Indian elected representatives are no angels – nearly one third of those elected in recent elections face criminal charges – the office of the president has always been reserved for people of good standing. Unfortunately in Pakistan, the president is facing massive corruption charges. He was able to get an amensty on such cases before election, which, interestingly, was later declared void by the Supreme Court. Now he invokes the notion of "presidential immunity" to save his skin. One wonders if he also follows the principles set down by the constitution.

The onus lies on the opposition that has played a very disappointing role during the last four years. Pakistanis say that PML-N, the main opposition party, is in cahoots with the government. PML-N rules the Punjab, the largest province of Pakistan, where the conditions are not much better than the rest of Pakistan. Inflation has reached new heights, there is an energy and power crisis, and the law and order situation is on the rocks.

Pakistanis share a love-hate relationship with democracy. Pakistan is the only country in the Muslim World where the dictators have not been able to stay more than ten years. There have always been periods of civilian rule and even the dictators had to come up with a half-baked democratic structure to placate the nation. When compared to countries like Syria, where dictatorship has turned into a dynasty and has blood of millions on its hands, Pakistan looks like a paradise.

Still, democracy, like dictatorship, has not brought much for common Pakistanis. There is a growing indifference to political process. Voter turnout drops every election year and the younger generation seems aloof from the process. Some Pakistanis think that only a revolution can change their lives. It is a very distant possibility though given the fractious nature of Pakistani society, ethnic divisions, and extremism.

There is an American connection to the failure of democracy in Pakistan as well. Many Pakistanis think that the Americans have encouraged Zardari in his unconstitutional activities. This does not bode well for the already tatterred reputation of the U.S. among Pakistanis. The least they can do is to support democracy in Pakistan, not those who are gnawing at its foundations.

Photo Credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff