Only Game in Town

By Singh, Anita Inder | The World Today, August/September 2003 | Go to article overview

Only Game in Town


Singh, Anita Inder, The World Today


With the Cold War over, democracy became the only game in town. But the 'war' against terror made allies of authoritarian states, especially in Asia. Now democracy is said to be part of the answer for the Middle East, but is it really for export?

THE PROBLEMS OF democratisation, especially in central and south Asia, assumed a new international significance in the aftermath of September 11 2001. The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington threatened democratic values worldwide. Democracy is based first and foremost on the principles of intellectual and political choice, the legitimacy of governments, freedom of speech and association, equality before the law and dialogue. The attacks originated in an Asian country - Afghanistan, whose extremist Taliban government was sustained by the neighbouring authoritarian state of Pakistan.

Leading an international coalition against the Taliban, the United States claimed that it was fighting to defend freedom among other things. But America's closest Asian allies in the international anti-terrorist coalition included authoritarian states such as Pakistan and Uzbekistan, whose president, Islam Karimov, has given short shrift to democratic and human rights norms since his country's independence in 1991. Washington has claimed that the extension of democracy in the Middle East is one reason for its war against Iraq, but how many of America's Asian allies arc democracies?

Military vote

Washington's alliances with Islamabad and Tashkent underlined this weakness and the problems of reconciling the domestic and international dimensions of democratisation. They also highlighted the innate instability of authoritarian states. Since September 11, a string of extremist attacks on a range of targets including a church, a Pakistani politician and an American journalist emphasised the unreliability of unelected generals as political and military allies.

The results of last October's elections in Pakistan point to the continued dominance of the military in politics, regardless of which parties form the government. Voting was rigged by the administration of President General Pervez Musharraf, underlining the continuing dominance of the military in politics.

Constitutional amendments passed before polling ensured that, regardless of which party won, military men, although a minority in a new National Security Council, would continue to set the political agenda. Musharraf endowed himself with sweeping powers to dismiss an elected prime minister and dissolve parliament. But he was unpleasantly surprised to find that extremist parties, which he was apparently trying to rein in at Washington's behest, made their best ever electoral showing. By combining, they emerged as the third largest group in parliament, winning the largest number of seats in Baluchistan and a clear majority in the North-West Frontier Province, both of which border Afghanistan.

At another level, the elections did little to alter the fact that restrictions on civil liberty in Pakistan - as in Uzbekistan - are a potential cause of extremism.

Authoritarian

The difficulties of constructing nations through democracy are evident and some have argued that force is the only viable method. It is true that most states were forged through war, but post-communist Europe has shown that democracy can help consolidate states.

Collapsed states have tended to be authoritarian. Nationalism has contributed to the disintegration of many of them, suggesting that force is not the best way to forge nations, states or security. Whatever the problems involved in building democracies, authoritarian suites lack the institutions and mechanisms of political participation, reconciliation and compromise that well-functioning democracies have. This could be why many remain at best unstable.

The presence, progress - or absence - of democracy in Uzbekistan and Pakistan, and more generally in central and south Asia, will continue to have an impact on regional and international security. …

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