Pakistan is Giving Democracy a Chance

by Wilson Lee on November 26, 2013

Pakistani women voting

The disappointments of the Arab Spring and the debilitating political partisanship in the United States have become emblematic of a broader global decline in representative government that one writer has dubbed “democracy in retreat.”  Despite this demoralizing context, democracy is advancing slowly but surely in one unlikely and unexpected place: Pakistan.

For many people around the world, Pakistan conjures images of Osama bin Laden or the attempted assassination of schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban. These ingrained images distort perceptions of a much more nuanced reality in Pakistan. Indeed, the emergence of a strong democratic legal framework and a vibrant civil society is spurring democratic development, in spite of the fact that it is one of the world’s most dangerous countries with a volatile mix of extremism, nuclear weapons, and a history of military rule.

Over the past few years, a new narrative largely written by the Pakistani people themselves has emerged—the story of Pakistan’s democratic consolidation. The May 11, 2013 general election was one watershed moment in the deepening of Pakistan’s democracy. The election marked the first democratic civilian-to-civilian transfer of power in Pakistan’s coup-plagued history. It was the first time a president or an elected civilian parliament completed their full tenure. But what was even more remarkable is that young people came out to vote in record numbers, defying threats of violence by the Pakistani Taliban, who declared democratic elections un-Islamic. The dismal performance of the coalition government during the previous five years could have led to mass disillusionment with democratic processes and institutions and low voter turnout, but exactly the opposite occurred.

While largely ignored by security analysts who are preoccupied with America’s war against terrorism, Pakistan’s democratic consolidation had been unfolding incrementally over the last decade. Close observers of Pakistan’s domestic politics witnessed a growing maturity among mainstream political parties with the Charter of Democracy, which laid out a roadmap for the restoration of democratic rule. After civilian rule was reestablished in the February 2008 elections, Pakistan saw a remarkable transformation occur within the legal and institutional frameworks that are paving the way for sustained, democratic rule. For example, the passage of the 18th, 19th, and 20th amendments to the constitution strengthened the foundation for a federal parliamentary democracy by devolving power and removing the President’s ability to dissolve parliament. In addition, a change in the National Finance Commission award shifted greater resources to the provinces, and a number of progressive pro-women laws were passed, including anti-sexual harassment legislation.

While these changes have occurred at the national policy level, one hears the common refrain that Pakistan has many good laws, but suffers from a lack of enforcement and implementation on the ground. While these criticisms have merit, they tend to overlook some impressive changes at the grassroots level. The secret to Pakistan’s democratic progress is Pakistan’s vibrant civil society, which was once dismissed as elitist, weak, and fragmented, but now serves as a driving force in Pakistan’s democratic transformation. From Islamabad and Lahore to the villages of Sindh and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, one can find organizations and activists working on development and rights-based issues. They are using a variety of tools such as theater, budget monitoring, and people’s assemblies to raise awareness in rural communities about their rights, advocate within local governments on development priorities, and provide platforms for ordinary citizens to interact with the government officials. Civil society groups, which serve as a barometer of the level of interaction between the state and society, are thriving and working with the government to provide more accountable and responsive democratic governance.

While the emergence of a strong democratic legal framework and civil society bodes well for Pakistan’s democratic development, there are also myriad challenges.  First, law and order have been deteriorating in places like Karachi, Peshawar, and much of Balochistan, hampering efforts of civil society and the government to work effectively throughout the country. Growing fundamentalism and religious conservatism, especially among the urban middle class, make tackling issues of militancy even more difficult.

Second, the Pakistani government is considering a law to regulate foreign contributions to NGOs, which may help improve oversight and accountability, but also has potential to be abused politically by the government. Finally, because Pakistani philanthropy is skewed towards religious institutions, many community-based organizations and advocacy groups are unable to generate resources locally and must rely on foreign donors for support. With the likely end of foreign assistance programs such as the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan (also known as the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act) in 2014, civil society groups will likely have to deal with dwindling resources in the near future.

In these circumstances, it is important for the international community to continue its support of Pakistan’s emerging democratic order, both politically and through technical assistance, even after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The dividends of a peaceful, democratic Pakistan over the long term in a region that has witnessed decades of conflict cannot be underestimated.

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