There are promising signs that democracy is “budding in what may prove to be a Pakistani Spring,” says a leading analyst. But a former envoy to the U.S. believes the democratic revival following the 2008 elections has been marred by “political infighting and judicial activism on every issue except extremism and terrorism.”
“Anti-Western sentiment and a sense of collective victimhood were cultivated as a substitute for serious debate on social or economic policy,” Husain Haqqani writes in the New York Times. “A whole generation of Pakistanis has grown up with textbooks that conflate Pakistani nationalism with Islamist exclusivism,” the result of an extremist mind-set cultivated under the military dictatorships of Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq and Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
But elements of Pakistani’s un-civil society, notably the populist lawyers’ movement and media, also bear considerable responsibility for degrading democracy, says the country’s former ambassador to the Washington:
Pakistan’s raucous media, whose hard-won freedom is crucial for the success of democracy, has done little to help generate support for eliminating extremism and fighting terrorism. The Supreme Court, conservative opposition parties and the news media insist that confronting alleged incompetence and corruption in the current government is more important than turning Pakistan away from Islamist radicalism.
Haqqani’s comments coincide with the news that financial pressures are forcing Islamabad to reopen the border supply routes for US and coalition forces in Afghanistan.
“Pressure is coming, not only from Britain [given premier Gilani's visit to London this week] but from other key international players in Afghanistan for reopening the route,” political analyst Hasan Askari told AFP:
Islamabad has no choice but to reopen the border when US back-payments for fighting militants in the northwest, as part of the Coalition Support Fund, are needed to help boost state coffers ahead of the next budget. Some officials are concerned by reported moves by a US House of Representatives panel to deny $800 million in aid to train and equip the Pakistani army in counter-insurgency.
The country’s historically fragile democracy may be in the throngs of “a Pakistani Spring,” says Vali Nasr, a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
“Amid widespread disenchantment with corruption and government mismanagement, the young and the middle class are restless,” writes Nasr, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution:
Many have flocked to anti-establishment politician Imran Khan, a former cricket hero, and his Movement for Justice. Khan isn’t friendly to the U.S.; he promises to stand up to America. But in other ways his campaign has enhanced the political debate. He regularly addresses the need to earnestly battle corruption and to reform the woefully inadequate tax system.
The rising star of Pakistani politics, Khan’s Pakistan Tahreek-i-Insaf party, is leading its rivals at national and provincial levels, according to a poll from the International Republican Institute. The survey, conducted between February 9 to March 8 this year, shows the PTI at 31%, marginally ahead of the Pakistan Muslim League with 27% votes, with the ruling Pakistan People’s Party trailing on 16%.
But the survey might be showing a misleading picture, says one observer, as opinion poll results have proved to be poor indicators of election results in the past. While the PTI’s rising popularity is undeniably impressive, the party’s digital media activists are well-practiced at manipulating opinion polls results in the party’s favor.
While Pakistan’s pro-democratic civil society groups are increasingly vibrant and robust, they operate within a political culture rife with conspiracy theories, illiberal actors and a disabling victim mentality that retards sustainable development and plays into the narratives propagated by radical Islamist groups, observers suggest.
“Pakistanis are right to see themselves as victims of terrorism and to be offended by American unilateralism in dealing with it,” says Haqqani, a professor at Boston University:
Last year alone, 4,447 people were killed in 476 major terrorist attacks. Over the last decade, thousands of soldiers and law enforcement officers have died fighting terrorists — both homegrown, and those inspired by Al Qaeda’s nihilist ideology.
But if anything, the reaction should be to gear up and fight jihadist ideology and those who perpetrate terrorist acts in its name; they remain the gravest threat to Pakistan’s stability. Instead, our national discourse has been hijacked by those seeking to deflect attention from militant Islamic extremism.
The black-coated lawyers’ movement that ousted Musharraf has split into two factions: those promoting the rule of law and opportunists seeking to use the judiciary for political ends:
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s raucous media, whose hard-won freedom is crucial for the success of democracy, has done little to help generate support for eliminating extremism and fighting terrorism. …..While fighting Pakistan’s endemic corruption is vital, the media and judiciary have helped redirect attention away from the threat of jihadist ideology by constantly targeting the governing party — a convenient situation for the intelligence services, which would prefer to keep the spotlight on the civilian government rather than on the militant groups they have historically supported.
The International Republican Institute is a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy.