Saturday, March 22, 2008

Democracy Comes in the Backdoor

Considering the fact that the prospect of legitimate democratization was so greatly hyped in Iraq, it is ironic that the real thing showed up in Pakistan. The kicker is, the US not only did not facilitate it, but actively aided the military, the very group which was so dedicated to strangling democracy. This should be a lesson in humility: democracy is not the gift of the United States to the rest of the world.
The recent election in Pakistan saw the collapse of the PML-Q (the pro-Musharraf party) i, as well as the defeat of the radical Islamic parties by the Awami National Party (a secular party dedicated to democracy) in the North Western Frontier Province. In an interview (the whole of which is worth reading) in Harper's with Ahmad Rashid explains why the elections were not utterly rigged by the ISI as expected.
I think two things happened to stop rigging on election day. The first was that the PLM-Q was over-confident that the pre-poll rigging they had done was enough to swing the vote in their favor. They didn’t need to make a spectacle of rigging on the voting day because of all the advantages that they held beforehand and had created for themselves. They were over confident. However the second factor was that 48 hours before the elections the new army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, signaled to all army and ISI officers in the field to tell all senior bureaucrats and police officers in the districts not to interfere with the vote but just maintain order. In this way the army pre-empted any rigging by the candidates or the bureaucracy on the day. The third factor was international pressure. With the focus on the elections, and the presence of some 500 monitors from largely Europe but some from the US, nobody wanted to take the risk of rigging on polling day.

Recently, Pakistan has been labeled the world most dangerous country by many respectable news sources. The nation has been painted over and over again as the paradigmatic case of a state succumbing to the terrorism. The Economist, for example ran an issue with a cover adorned by a pulled grenade labeled "Pakistan". This breathless news coverage is not totally without merit, when one considers the Red Mosque siege last year and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.
When compared to the much-vaunted "progress" in Iraq, Pakistans progress looks even better. In Iraq, violence is down because much of the country has been ethnically cleansed, and is now under control of militias and formers insurgents being paid of by the United States. In Pakistan, on the other hand, a genuine democratic movement has defeated both the radicals and the authoritarian establishment (for now) using the ballot-box.
Musharraff and the PML-Q were very confident, which is why the election were relatively fair. What they missed is the changes that have taken place in Pakistan under dictatorship. To quote William Dalymple's penetrating essay on the subject in the New York Review of Books.
As you travel around Pakistan today you can see the effects of the boom everywhere: in vast new shopping malls and smart roadside filling stations, in the cranes of the building sites and the smokestacks of factories, in the expensive new cars jamming the roads and in the ubiquitous cell-phone stores. In 2003 the country had fewer than three million cell phones; today apparently there are 50 million, while car ownership has been increasing at roughly 40 percent a year since 2001. At the same time foreign direct investment has risen from $322 million in 2002 to $3.5 billion in 2006.

It was this newly enriched and empowered urban middle class that showed its political muscle for the first time with the organization of a lawyers' movement, whose protests against the dismissal of the chief justice soon swelled into a full-scale pro-democracy campaign, despite Musharraf's harassment and arrest of many lawyers. The movement represented a huge shift in Pakistani civil society's participation in politics. The middle class were at last moving from their living rooms onto the streets, from dinner parties into political parties.

February's elections dramatically confirmed this shift. The biggest electoral surprise of all was the success of Nawaz Sharif's conservative faction of the Muslim League, the PML-N. This is a solidly urban party, popular among exactly the sort of middle-class voters in the Punjab who have benefited most from the economic success of the last decade, and who have since found that status threatened by the recent economic slowdown and the sudden steep rises in the prices of food, fuel, and electricity.

One of my professors at the University of Michigan, Ronald Inglehart, has rather a famous theory of how economic security leads to values conducive to democracy, which then leads to political change. For this reason, economic growth under a dictatorship often undercuts the authoritarians, while economic or security decline undercuts democrats (see Weimar Germany and post-Soviet Russia). Recent developments in Pakistan seem to show the former. While I have no faith in the crooks leading Pakistan's moderate party, I have hope that Pakistan's newly emboldened middle-class will be able to resist the forces of tyranny and extremism in that country.

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