The third democratic transition in Pakistan – An analysis by Rasul Bakhsh Rais

The third democratic transition

The political parties and their leaders bear greater responsibility for sustaining the growth of democracy in Pakistan. This will require them to perform better in governance, honour their part of the social contract with the people and respect each other’s political mandate

Pakistan has lived from crisis to crisis for a very long time, with interludes of superficial stability and security under military regimes. Why has Pakistan faced a sort of permanent political crisis, and what is it that the world community can do? Or is it fair to expect external actors to put our political house in order?

Opinion is divided on which sectors of state and society have caused problems to the polity and who can really put Pakistan on the road to political and social recovery. Those attached to the authoritarian tradition and benefiting, personally or as a class, from military dictators have blamed elected governments, political parties and hereditary leaders for the political mess.

The usual barrage of charges that we have heard against the political forces of Pakistan may find echo in many other democratic countries, except they strengthen institutions, laws and accountability processes to deal with the dilemma of the ‘wicked’ politician. Our experience of military dictators, particularly the Musharraf regime, shows how national wealth was plundered and how those joining dictators from fragmented political parties and outside were allowed to milk the country. And they were not accountable to anyone.

The interventions that apologists of military regimes defend have rather deepened the crisis of democratic transition and made the process of nation and state building more difficult and complicated. Pakistan is going through a third democratic transition and faces all those familiar problems that other countries have faced to find a natural balance between social forces and political institutions.

We are guardedly more optimistic about the third transition holding ground than we were during past attempts. The reasons for optimism are not too many because social structures that may sustain democratic growth remain weak, and traditional ruling classes continue to live in the old mindset. This is evident from their outlook of Pakistani society, which they believe has not changed much.

Let us look what has changed and how these changes may help the process of democratic transition in the country. The first important change is in the character of civil society, mainly its proliferation and activism on central issues of the polity. Its vigour comes from the new urban middle classes that have grown out of parochialism and narrow political affiliation. Although civil society traditions and associational life are as old as the advent of imperialism, its new focus is on freedoms, rights, free speech and democratic accountability.

The experience of other countries that have successfully made democratic transitions suggests that civil society and its quality has largely determined the pace and quality of democratic transition. If there is any hope of making the political class responsible and forcing it to work within legal and constitutional limits is through the vigilance and activism of civil society organisations.

Issue-based activism of civil society, more than unfocused protests, is what really matters in restraining governments and ruling groups from the misuse of power. Support for democracy and democratic rule has been an overall objective of civil society starting with the anti-Ayub Khan movement. Its new focus on the independence of media and judiciary, rule of law, and accountability of public office holders is about building and strengthening democratic institutions and practices.

The media itself is a big change in Pakistan. Some commentators may question, as they often do, its quality or ability to focus debate on social and even political issues with a degree of insight, but even the free debate we witness daily is mark of great progress. Its is significant for building democracy as it helps evolve a culture of civic engagement and free speech. These are some of the social ingredients that promote and sustain the growth of democracy.

There are many things that remain unsettled in the society and polity, from the rapacious character of the elected representatives to the weak party system and trashing of accountability laws and processes as motivated by political considerations. Not all cases against public representatives, and definitely against the bureaucrats and intelligence agency operatives, were politically motivated.

There is a need to start with a clean state, and having been wronged on almost every issue of national importance by Pervez Musharraf and his associates, the people and civil society want elected governments to prove they have changed and that they would not repeat the misdeeds of Musharraf and earlier governments. They have already wasted a lot of time trying to build trust with the people; they can do that by providing better, honest and clean government.

The revelations of scandals involving the highest elected officials have undermined public faith. So what is the solution? This is a classic problem of building democracy in a society where the political class is not bound to modern norms, integrity and honesty, and is in the habit of flouting laws to enrich itself.

Never, never should we think that angels will descend from heaven and change the hearts and minds of elected representatives; or of the armed forces, to correct their paths. Only good accountability laws, an impartial judiciary, free media and activist civil society can force elected representatives to remain within the limits of law.

When we talk of public representatives, we need to be fair and nuanced and not consider all of them as being greedy, selfish and corrupt. We may find honest and good parliamentarians from every region and in every party. For the democratic transition to move forward, it would be necessary to build broader political coalitions among true democrats within the existing parties and civil society groups.

The old and conservative thought that the social climate of an Islamic country like Pakistan is unfit for democracy is neither rational nor historically correct. Other cultures with non-western religious roots have successfully embraced democracy. The evidence from Pakistan itself in popular movements for democratic rule and against military rulers is something to cherish and that can help further improve the quality of democratic life.

Finally, the political parties and their leaders bear greater responsibility for sustaining the growth of democracy in Pakistan. This will require them to perform better in governance, honour their part of the social contract with the people and respect each other’s political mandate. On these counts, the picture is mixed at best. Weak democracy is better than no democracy at all; this is an emerging national sentiment, which the public representatives shouldn’t take as a licence for wrongdoing, as that would weaken democracy further and undermine its social support base, making it harder for civil society and media to sustain public support for democracy.

Dr Rasul Bakhsh Rais is author of Recovering the Frontier State: War, Ethnicity and State in Afghanistan (Oxford University Press, 2008) and a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He can be reached at