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Criticising Democracy or Criticising Government?

Although the February 2008 elections were probably the fairest ever held in Pakistan the elected government has been repeatedly attacked in the media. Given the historical, political and institutional context, the problems of an elected government in Pakistan are unfortunately perceived to be the failure of the democratic system itself, blurring the distinction between government and the system under which it functions.


Criticising Democracy or Criticising Government?

S Akbar Zaidi

democracy down by not doing enough and asking it to be “impatient with democracy” so that democracy’s agenda can be completed. Others have written that the agenda in front of this government is huge, but that it may not be “up to the task”.

While many writers sympathetic to the democratic government have attacked its failings, so too have many writers who were part of the military-civilian set-up from 1999. A former ambassador under Musharraf to the United Kingdom and to the United States (US) writes that “few elected governments have so rapidly lost public confidence as the coalition led by President Asif Zardari”, and “after eleven months in power the government confronts growing public doubts about its ability to lead and govern”. Accusatory words such as “disillusionment”, “failure”, “cronyism”, etc, are frequently used to depict the government’s workings. Has democracy already failed yet again in Pakistan? What seems to have gone wrong so soon?

Nature of Criticism

To be fair, one needs to point out and emphasise that most of the writers are writing about the incompetence and inefficiency of the incumbent government, and about its failures. Few, if any, have written about the failure of the democratic system

– as yet – although a couple of writers have taken a soft swipe at democracy itself. Most criticise the government, but quickly defend the need for the continuation of democracy in Pakistan. The criticism for the moment, at least, seems to be targeted at a democratically elected government that is not meeting numerous expectations and hopes of the electorate. How ever, some of the writers who have been critical of the incumbent government’s record in office have been demanding more democracy, not less, arguing that “democracy is not some half-baked consolation prize simply based on the number of votes that are counted after an election”, but that it requires far bolder and imaginative structural interventions to ensure the longevity, not so much of any particular government, but of the system of democracy itself.

Although the February 2008 elections were probably the fairest ever held in Pakistan the elected government has been repeatedly attacked in the media. Given the historical, political and institutional context, the problems of an elected government in Pakistan are unfortunately perceived to be the failure of the democratic system itself, blurring the distinction between government and the system under which it functions.

t is barely a year since when probably the fairest and freest elections were held in Pakistan, on 18 February 2008. It is still not a full year since the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) formed a government on 17 March 2008, and is less than six months since Asif Ali Zardari was elected as Pakistan’s democratically elected president replacing Pervez Musharraf who ruled Pakistan from 1999 to August 2008. There is no denying the fact that for a number of reasons the elections held in February 2008 were preceded by mass protest, which culminated in one of the few political and democratic movements in Pakistan’s very troubled history and were not just a routine electioneering process reminiscent of the 1990s: this was genuine and real participation, and democracy. Given this process, what has been most surprising is the way the incumbent democratically elected government has been repeatedly attacked in the media even by writers who were actively involved in the movement for the transition to democracy in Pakistan against general Musharraf, since March 2007. A sampling of the tone and nature of criticism against the government will help give a flavour of the scale of attacks.

The Censure and Accusations

The PPP government is being accused of “incompetence and dithering” by some writers, while others argue that there is “a growing sense of frustration over the impropriety, confusion, incompetence and paralysis demonstrated by this government”. Others have written that this is a “do nothing” government with the largest cabinet in Pakistan’s history resulting in a lavish spending and an inability to restore law and order and in numerous other failings, which have made the state “bankrupt and pushed it on the verge of chaos”. Some have criticised the government for letting

S Akbar Zaidi ( is a social scientist based in Karachi.

february 28, 2009 vol xliv no 9

Economic & Political Weekly


Given the historical, political and institutional context of Pakistan, the failure of an elected government is perceived to be a failure of the democratic system as well, something that every general who has usurped power, and the technocrats who have supported the army have used as justification for the coup. What Musharraf in his biography calls the “dreadful decade of democracy”, beginning in 1988, or the “lost decade” in the words of one of his faithful technocrats, are terms that are coined where the distinction between government and the system under which it functions is blurred.

Yet, it is precisely democracy which a llows for the active and often, brash, criticism of government, a form and degree of criticism which even enlightened moderation did not tolerate. For example, the extent and nature of criticism launched against Musharraf’s regime was far muted for most of his nine years in power. There were many reasons for this, of course, i ncluding the fact that a fair section of P akistanis (particularly the elite) supported the coup against a democratically elected prime minister and worked actively with Musharraf. For some, Musharraf did represent a bolder, no-nonsense, approach to many of Pakistan’s problems, and was admired and welcomed, even if he was a military general. However, because he was a general and Pakistan was being ruled by the military, there was far less criticism against his policies. Not so with the present government.

The ability of civilian governments and military governments to deal with criticism, differs. There is, of course, the fear of the military. Fewer journalists, lawyers, civil society actors, intellectuals and political activists are willing to risk speaking out against a dictator than against a civilian ruler, because they fear retaliation from the most powerful and brutal arm of the State. Moreover, a military leader does have the support of the military behind him, while as we see each day, democratic leaders are always trying to balance numerous coalition partners and their authority is less centralised, unlike that of the chief of the army. Military rulers are always more sure of their status, giving them the sort of swagger and confidence so well demonstrated by Musharraf. Military

Economic & Political Weekly

february 28, 2009

generals sit more comfortably wearing their crowns than do civilian leaders. Moreover, with Pakistan’s democratic history full of examples where the military steps in and removes an elected government, it is not surprising that even if they are voted in with large mandates, elected leaders are always looking over their shoulder.

Patronage of the West

An important distinction between Pakistan’s military governments and its civilian ones has been the fact that western powers, particularly the US, have given far more support to the former than the latter. There is little doubt that different US administrations have strengthened the hands of Pakistan’s military rulers and have undermined democratic rule. Add to this the two historic accidents when military generals were in power in Pakistan, in 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded A fghanistan, and when the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks took place in the US, western support to the military dictatorship in Pakistan often became unconditional extending the longevity of both generals who happened to be in power at that time. With crucial US support, Pakistani general-presidents have been far more secure of their position and power than elected leaders.

Clearly, military rulers and democrats are treated very differently by their supporters and detractors. There is far greater criticism of elected rulers than of military rulers. Democratic leaders seem to be far more vulnerable targets as well. Moreover, there are many in Pakistan, who believe in a “strong” government, or a sort of benign authoritarianism. For them the military is actually a viable o ption and a real political alternative. While some are closet supporters of military rule, others are quite open about their political preferences. They will cite the benefits of “stability” and decision-making and leadership by example. Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, or Mahathir Mohamad’s Malaysia, or even the Emirates of Dubai, are examples of “what works best” and become models to emulate. If only Musharraf could have delivered as much and only had he not made a few mistakes or bad decisions, they believe, all would have been well.

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Unlike other countries where democracy is now well-entrenched, Pakistan’s nascent and weak democracy, not surprisingly, does not endear itself to many people and there is always the military option available.

Democracy as a Viable Option

Criticising elected government in Pakistan is often perceived as criticising democracy as a workable system. The few recent experiences of an elected government have not provided particularly favourable publicity for democracy as a viable option in Pakistan. This is not surprising, given the fact that democratic governments have functioned under severe constraints, such as having to clean up the huge mess c reated by each military decade and with the secret arm of the military breathing down the neck of elected governments.

There are three broad streams of criticism of the government’s working over the past year. One stream consists of people who have few problems working with and endorsing the military. Their criticism of elected governments is largely a criticism of democracy as a system in Pakistan. Another stream of criticism rests largely on very high expectations from the elected government and a huge list of urgent tasks, most of which will never – and can never – be accomplished in the tenure of most governments. Government apologists insist on “more time” to complete the agenda and ask for more patience from these critics.

A third group of critics, of which there are a few, have argued for a furthering of the democratic agenda in Pakistan, accusing the government of not doing enough to further, not social policy or income support programmes, but democratisation by fulfilling some of the pre-election promises. Accused of being adventurists or worse, these critics insist that the only way to strengthen democracy is to work with larger coalition partners to undertake constitutional, judicial and institutional reforms which redefine the power balance between the various institutions of the State, not the least the military. Without undertaking these structural r eforms, they argue, government in P akistan will be neither stable, safe or s ecure. And nor will democracy.

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