Magazine article New Internationalist

The Democracy Killers

Magazine article New Internationalist

The Democracy Killers

Article excerpt

Pakistan's elites have perverted the country's politics, argues Aasim Sajjad Akhtar. It's time to look for home-grown solutions.

The presidential referendum in Pakistan has come and gone. As quickly as the drama enveloped the country it has been forgotten. The Pakistani nation is disappointed and fed up with the antics of the ruling classes and the referendum served only to confirm their suspicions. As expected, General Musharraf made a heap of populist promises. But sadly, till now, these promises have proven to be nothing more than meaningless rhetoric. It seemed impossible for the already dysfunctional Pakistani political culture to degenerate further. Yet this is exactly what has happened in the past two months - considerable effort will be needed to repair the damage.

That said, it is important to look at global trends and draw comparisons. Despite the widespread practice of electoral democracy, there is considerable disillusion amongst citizens the world over about the responsiveness of formal politics. The recent presidential election in France is a good example of how extremist exceptions are becoming more popular in electoral polls.

More than anything else such occurrences reflect a narrowing of the political spectrum and homogenization of thought processes and ideas. In other words, `liberal' market democracy has become the coveted political system of choice around the world (with Europe the exception to a certain extent). Politicians from social democratic parties espouse many of the same values that politicians from conservative parties do. In India for example, while it is the right-of-centre BJP that has unquestioningly moved toward privatization of major state-owned enterprises, it was the left-of-centre Congress government that signed loan agreements with the international financial institutions (IFIs) that set the stage for these enterprises to be privatized. All in all then, it is not surprising that extremists such as Le Pen are suddenly default beneficiaries of intense voter reaction to post-election inertia.

So maybe Pakistan's political culture is not so dysfunctional after all. Who needs electoral democracy if it turns out to be just tokenism? The fact is that political culture cannot be judged on the elusiveness of electoral democracy. It needs to be judged on the basis of factors far more important than elections, factors that are the foundation of a robust democratic culture. A nation with a democratic culture is not necessarily one that has achieved economic democracy - no country in the world has. Similarly, a democratic culture does not necessarily mean that extremist thought and action are eliminated.

A democratic culture allows space for ordinary people to articulate themselves and their politics. In other words, the struggle for economic democracy is facilitated by a democratic culture which both acknowledges people's basic economic rights and provides a channel to promote such rights. A democratic culture permits the rejection of extremist ideas and actions, without having to resort to other extremes to suppress such ideas and actions. In France, Le Pen was routed in the run-off election and the country's flirtation with extremism was doused. If France were not home to a relatively evolved democratic culture - which promotes difference but also sanity - maybe Le Pen would have fared better against Jacques Chirac.

In recent times, India's democratic culture has been seriously questioned. The fact that thousands of Muslims have been massacred at the hands of extremist Hindu mobs in Gujarat is bad enough. That the state government of Gujarat can be accused of complicity in these massacres is despicable. Why in the world has the pogrom in Gujarat been possible? This is a question that India will have to answer. But at least civil society in India is asking the question. That is a step up from Pakistan which only started to question extremism in the shadow of 11 September when Uncle Sam made it clear there was no other choice. …

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