Previous convictions

I used to believe in democracy
December 20, 2001

From the age of four to 15, I lived under military rule. Then in 1988, precipitated by an explosion in the sky, democracy came to Pakistan for the first time in my memory. When I think of those days I remember peaceful rallies, catchy songs, festivity. It seemed like the nation was on track and that as long as democracy stayed, we'd be OK.

Eleven years, and four democratically elected governments later, on 10th October 1999, I was told that I was to be one of the recipients of that year's Prime Minister's Award for Literature for my first novel In the City by the Sea, which dealt with the terrors of a military regime from the viewpoint of an 11-year-old. On 12th October, the military seized power. There was no prime minister anymore, and the Pakistan Academy of Letters, which administered the award, fell very, very silent.

Then, a month later, I received a letter dated 12th October, notifying me of the award and signed by the (now ex-) prime minister. It was a letter, written in exquisite Urdu, which talked of the writer's role in giving voice to the thoughts and concerns of the people and trusted that I would use my pen in the service of the nation. Such a letter-a month into military rule, from the last democratically elected leader of Pakistan to a writer who still remembered that dawn of democracy as a near miraculous event-should have set my pulse racing. In a work of fiction, it would have been the provocation for a revolutionary gesture. But facts have a terrible way of getting in the way of fiction.

The facts are that our democratically elected prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, had been systematically undermining democracy through a series of manoeuvres, which included a standoff with the judiciary during which his party workers stormed the supreme court. More damaging than this, during his tenure the National Assembly unanimously passed the 14th Amendment to the constitution, which made it unlawful for any minister to vote against party policy. The passage of the 14th Amendment was a rare moment of harmony between government and opposition, and was described as a move to stop the use of bribery, blackmail or coercion to impel ministers to vote against their party. It's hard to fathom the short-sightedness of the ministers who passed the bill, particularly given that Nawaz's government had a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly, which was all it needed to pass amendments. After the 14th Amendment, the ruling party in essence had carte blanche to introduce changes to the constitution-however absurd or ill-conceived.

And then, only a few weeks before the military takeover, the government introduced the 15th amendment, which claimed to bring the county into line with Islamic law. But since there were already adequate provisions in the constitution for upholding Islamic law there was obviously something else going on. It was clear that the new amendment planned to overturn the constitution entirely, giving the federal government supra-constitutional rights and trampling on the power of the Senate (the upper house, in which the ruling party did not have a two-thirds majority). Nawaz Sharif would have enjoyed almost monarchical powers.

The military takeover (precipitated by Sharif's belief that he could take on the army and win) prevented the drama of the 15th amendment from playing out. And when the takeover did occur, the lines between the democrats and the despots was so blurred that one staunch pro-democracy supporter said, "the really depressing thing about the take-over is that I'm not really depressed."

Two years later, General Musharaff's military government is still in power, and it seems that all over the world anyone who knows anything about Pakistan's politics is repeating how fortunate it is that he's the man in charge. Musharaff is not only a man of moderate views (he started his tenure by announcing his admiration for the aggressively secular Atat?k) but is also in a position where he doesn't need to worry how the opposition will use his backing of the anti-Osama coalition to score points against him when it comes to the next general election.

So have I joined the chorus of voices that says some nations are not suited to democracy? No. The damage done to Pakistan by the 11 years of military rule from 1977-88 has been monumental, perhaps irreparable. The entry of religious extremism into politics, the inflammation of ethnic divisions-all these matters lie in large part at the door of the military's previous tenure in power. That Musharraff is a different creature to his predecessor, General Zia, is a matter of luck; and it is terribly dangerous to rely on luck as a permanent solution to a nation's political problems.

But I no longer believe that holding elections is enough. Elections without democratic education will only return us to where we were before, with an elected government subverting the constitution. And I do not mean education for the large and largely illiterate population of Pakistan. When they go to the polls they reveal a fair degree of political acumen-much to the chagrin of religious parties and ex-cricketers who find themselves out in the cold when the votes are tallied. No, it is our supposedly democratic politicians who need training in the responsible use of power; checks and balances: bipartisanship in times of crises; representing the voters who elect you. Someone please set up a course that explains these concepts and don't let anyone run for office who gives themself an "A."