ill Pakistan’s present, promising narrative of growing people’s power continue?
By Mohsin Hamid
A more representative Pakistan would be a disappointment to Barack Obama.
The announcement of the restoration of the chief justice of the Pakistani Supreme Court is a victory for those who desire a more representative state in Pakistan. But it is a blow for Barack Obama, who appears intent on escalating American military involvement in Afghanistan.
The reason is simple: the U.S. needs a Pakistani state that is significantly unrepresentative of the Pakistani people, because most Pakistanis are opposed to America’s war in Afghanistan, and the U.S. cannot hope to succeed there without Pakistan’s support.
Pakistan is a vast and complicated country, and it is witnessing many confusing and contradictory developments. Among the most important of these appears to be a narrative of increasing representativeness: despite itself, the Pakistani state is being shaped by the will of its citizens as never before.
The power of this narrative has been breathtaking, particularly over the past year and a half. In November 2007, General Musharraf, an unpopular president, was pressured into giving up his uniform. Three months later the army stood back and refused to facilitate the rigging of national elections, allowing Musharraf’s party to suffer a crushing defeat. And in August 2008, Musharraf was removed from the presidency by an unprecedented alliance of the PPP — the Pakistan People’s party — and the PML(N). It was the first case in Pakistan’s history of a military strongman relinquishing power to democratically elected civilians without first being killed or plunging the nation into civil war.
And now, a mere half year later, an increasingly autocratic President Zardari has been forced to restore the chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhary. The result is likely to be increased independence for the judiciary — an unwelcome development (to say the least) for a man as notoriously corrupt as Zardari — as well as a rolling back of the powers Musharraf had brought in to strengthen the executive at the expense of the legislature.
Given Pakistan’s unpredictability, this promising narrative of representativeness could of course still be undermined. But for now, four related and powerful developments are propelling it along. The first is a decline in the army’s popularity after the rule of Musharraf, and in its morale after losses in the unpopular campaign against the Pakistani Taliban, which has made the military reluctant to intervene directly against the will of the people.
The second is a rapid expansion of the middle class due to economic growth and urbanisation. For much of this decade, the economy has performed almost as well as India’s, and roughly half the population now live in cities, towns and built-up borders of major roads that cut across the countryside and are home to traders rather than farmers.
The third is the complete transformation of the country’s media and communications industries, with dozens of independent television channels and tens of millions of new mobile phone connections creating, in effect, a giant electronic public forum.
And the fourth is the exhaustion of ideological cover: customary invocations of a threat from India and of the need to defend Islam are failing to explain the state’s willingness to use (and have America use) violence against its own people in large swaths of its own territory.
It was by ignoring this emerging climate in Pakistan that Zardari found himself in the embarrassing — and, for him, politically dangerous — position of needing to reverse course on the issue of the chief justice. Zardari was proceeding from the old-school assumption that he who controls the state controls Pakistan. As president, and with a hand-picked retainer as governor in the most populous province of Punjab, Zardari thought he could with impunity dismiss the provincial government of the PML(N) when its insistence on the restoration of Chaudhary became too irritating.
But then something unprecedented happened. Civil society denounced the move. The media cried foul. Zardari’s low poll ratings collapsed. A minister in the national PPP government stepped down. Senior provincial bureaucrats resigned rather than act as directed by the governor to prevent a protest march led by Nawaz Sharif, the PML(N) leader and former prime minister. Police officers in Punjab refused to follow orders.
The march went ahead, and it grew in numbers by the thousands, advancing towards Islamabad. The top-down Pakistani state found itself facing a bottom-up revolt. Authority was flowing from something other than the will of a tyrant — a novel concept in Pakistan. Zardari was being told that the country now believed in certain rules, and even he would have to abide by them. Dismissing democratically elected provincial governments and undermining the judiciary was just not on. All of which must have come to Zardari, an inveterate rule-breaker, as quite a surprise.
Where all this will lead is uncertain. For Pakistan, if the will of the people can be harnessed to democratic institutions and to politicians who learn to respect the notion of shared power, there is reason for great hope. If not, today’s agitation could become tomorrow’s revolution. I have been inundated with congratulatory messages from Pakistani friends, many of them normally supporters of the Zardari-led PPP. It all feels like a birthday, and more than one person has said that today will be remembered as the day a truly democratic Pakistan was born. After the horror of this month’s terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team, many Pakistanis are celebrating much-needed good news.
For President Zardari, recent events represent a significant defeat. He is favoured by the same foreign governments who favoured President Musharraf, and for the same reason: his willingness to resist popular outrage over the war in Afghanistan and its consequences for Pakistan. But Zardari is also like his predecessor in his propensity for undemocratic excesses. Now he, too, is discovering that in the new Pakistan he is less powerful than he had imagined.
For the rest of the world, and particularly the U.S., Britain, and Nato, the choice is becoming increasingly stark. If a war fought by democracies for control of Afghanistan, a country of 30 million people, requires for its successful prosecution the undermining of democracy in Pakistan, a country of 170 million, is that really a price worth paying?
© Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2009
(Mohsin Hamid is the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist.)