Tuesday, November 06, 2007

In Defense of Substantive Democracy

This post is a response of sorts to Abhi's thought-provoking comments at Sepia Mutiny on Musharraf's State of Emergency, and what he sees as the possible benefits of dictatorship in certain limited conditions. Abhi's post, as I read it, was a thought experiment, not necessarily a political program -- and this is a somewhat speculative thought experiment as well (these ideas are not set in stone). There is some value in the general idea that democracy before stability is not always the best thing for a country, and in the particular claim that Pakistan's democratic institutions have been severely weakened by years and years of misrule (going back to the Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif days; Musharraf did not start this with his 1999 coup).

That said, I'm not ready to give up faith in liberal democracy, and I think it could still happen in Pakistan. As for how to get there, there are probably only two or three paths, none of them easy. One is a popular uprising that would probably turn pretty ugly in the short run -- think of the bloody riots in Karachi this past summer, only magnified. If successful, mass protests/riots ould be followed by a military coup and a provisional dictatorship, and then by open elections, if the coup was carried out by the right person. (There could also be more violence during the elections, and possibly more trouble/instability even after they occur.) The other is something accidental, which could be anything. Perhaps a new leadership emerges (Imran Khan, by the way, has managed to escape from house arrest), or perhaps something unforeseen happens to/with Musharraf that leaves a power vacuum? Perhaps both? Who knows. Either way, in my view there is no question that what is necessary if democracy is to have a chance in Pakistan is for Musharraf to go.

Another possibility to speculate on is what might happen if either the Bush administration or (more likely) its successor withheld military and economic aid to pressure Musharraf to cancel this State of Emergency. Here I'm really not sure what the ramifications would be for Musharraf. It might be symbolically bad on the international stage, but would it really hurt him all that much domestically? Here I'm really not sure.

I should also say that I disagree with the calculus, which is widely prevalent amongst American TV "pundits" right now, that Musharraf needs to stay because America needs him for its "War on Terror." There may or may not be any truth in this (as has been pointed out, Musharraf's net contribution to fighting terrorism is highly debatable), but what I keep thinking is that at this moment it's not America's interests that I'm concerned about, it's the Pakistani people, who deserve good, transparent governance. It's the Pakistani people who deserve a free press (not blackouts of private news channels), the right to peacefully dissent, and the right to organize politically -- who deserve, in short, substantive democracy.

Substantive democracy is not just democratic elections; it requires a whole range of institutions that provide meaningful checks and balances on power. Executive authority (a president or a dictator) needs to be subject to legislative and judicial challenges. The prospect of a newly revitalized Pakistan Supreme Court was a really hopeful sign this past spring and summer, and I'm deeply disappointed that Musharraf decided he wouldn't let Iftikar Chaudhry and co. determine his fate. (At least he hasn't succeeded in stopping Chaudhry from talking to the Press, though that will probably happen soon.)

In the U.S. case, the best current example of checks and balances on executive authority are the Congressional investigations of numerous questionable actions by the Bush Administration. Another is the tradition of the "Special Prosecutor," which was instrumental in bringing down Nixon (though it was abused, in my view, with Bill Clinton). What Nawaz Sharif's corrupt regime needed was something akin to a special prosecutor; what it got instead was a takeover by General Musharraf.

India, the "world's largest democracy" isn't perfect on this score either, by the way. I was reminded of this most recently watching the Tehelka videos relating to Gujarat. As I said in my earlier (quickie) post, I don't think the videos give enough evidence by themselves to take down Modi, but they quite definitely show that the entire system of state government in Gujarat -- ministers, police, judges, lawyers -- colluded in allowing those bloody "three days of whatever you want" (as Modi allegedly said) to happen. The checks and balances were not there, and it took intervention from the Center to bring the violence to a halt. (Incidentally, I thought Raghu Karnad's comments on Gujarat and the Tehelka exposé were pretty compelling: here and here.)

My point is this: elections are necessary for democracy to occur, but they aren't sufficient for democracy to sustain itself. What Musharraf should have done, if he really cared about transitioning to democracy, was, first of all, let the Supreme Court rule on whether the recent Presidential election was valid. Secondly, he needed to give up his uniform (though admittedly, that should have happened first). Thirdly, Parliamentary elections.

But other things are necessary too: the opposition political parties have been weakened by years of dictatorship and corrupt leadership. It will take time for new leaders to emerge (Benazir, why not just stay in Dubai? You could buy the Pakistan plot at Palm Jumeirah...), and for the party organizations to become strong and self-sustaining.

Sepoy at Chapati Mystery has a poem in Urdu by Habib Jalib that summarizes my feelings on a more emotional level:

Jackbooted State

If the Watchman had not helped the Dacoit
Today our feet wouldn’t be in chains, our victory not defeat
Wrap your turbans around your neck, crawl on your bellies
Once on top, it is hard to bring down, the jackbooted state. (link)

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scritic said...

Check out Lee Smith's well-argued (I thought) essay in Slate: he argues that Musharraf's staying in power is necessary if there is to be any hope for democracy in Pakistan.


3:16 PM  

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