Pakistan Matters

This week’s election in Pakistan marks the first transfer of power from one democratically elected civilian government to another in the country’s 66-year history. The challenge for new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, is to build on this landmark event and create a peaceful democratic society in Pakistan. He will find that holding elections was the easy bit. If there was one book I would recommend that Nawaz Sharif read to help him in his task as Pakistan’s newly elected prime minister it would be Paul Collier’s ‘Wars, Guns and Votes[1]’. Collier’s central message in the book is that while democracy holds many promises for developing countries in the long run, in the short term it can, unfortunately, make things worse.

There are of course many examples of countries where the transition from tyranny to democracy has resulted in economic development and real transformations in people’s lives. There are also however plenty of examples where elections simply provide a cloak of respectability for corrupt, dysfunctional and violent regimes to continue to misgovern as before. South Korea is a textbook example of the former; Zimbabwe a tragic example of the latter.

As Collier stresses, in the transition to democracy holding elections is the easy bit. Afghanistan, one of the least developed countries in the world, was able to hold elections shortly after the overthrow of the Taliban. Iraq, one of the most violent places on earth, was also able to hold elections in the most adverse circumstances. Even the Democratic Republic of Congo, victim of the largest war in African history, was able to hold elections in a devastated country larger than Western Europe.

In theory, democracy should reduce political violence in two ways. First, it should produce a government whose legitimacy is accepted by the vast majority of the population, thus undermining support for those who would like to overthrow the government by force. And second, it should produce a government that is more responsive to the needs of its citizens, because every democratically elected government needs to go back to the people in order to remain in power. To date, Pakistan’s fledgling democracy has been struggling to achieve either of these crucial developmental goals. It is Sharif’s task in the next five years to change that.

photo credit: Giro555 via photopin cc

photo credit: Giro555 via photopin cc

Pakistan’s Democratic Future

The task is urgent. According to a recent report from the British Council in Pakistan[2], less than a quarter of young Pakistanis believe that democracy has been good for their country. Almost one third of young people said they thought that military rule would be more effective than democracy, and almost 40% believed that Shari’s law should be introduced. Fewer than one in three young people said they thought democracy was the way forward for Pakistan.

In reporting these figures for TIME Magazine recently[3], Aryn Baker commented that if young Pakistanis are sceptical about democracy it is because they have not yet seen democracy deliver on the things they want it to deliver on – accountability and better governance. In a society marred by daily violence, military rule is widely seen by Pakistani youth as a way to enforce a semblance of peace and safety. In a country where the sclerotic justice system can take between ten and twenty years to resolve a serious criminal case, Shari’a becomes an attractive, if more brutal, means of accessing justice.

Military rule and summary justice however are not the way to stem violence and corruption in Pakistan; these solutions cause even greater problems by playing into the hands of those who crave authoritarian rule. The way to create a more peaceful and prosperous Pakistan is to follow the path that has brought every one of today’s prosperous societies out of poverty, violence and tyranny. That path is enforcement of the rule of law, the creation of social democracy, and the protection of human rights for all – regardless of religion or gender.

In the task of democracy building, however, history teaches us that people with psychopathic and narcissistic personalities will fight every step of the way to oppose progress and preserve the cesspit of hatred and misery in which they thrive. But they can be defeated, and the means with which to defeat them are clear. The development framework of law, democracy, and human rights is one that our predecessors forged in the face of violent opposition from those who would dominate and control us. That framework tells us how to order our societies so that we can reduce violence, and create the freedoms necessary for each of us to develop to the best of our abilities.

That development path is the one that Pakistan should now follow. After learning of his victory this week, Sharif told reporters that his task was “to pull this country out of the mess that it’s in. The challenges are huge.” The challenge of wrestling power from pathological elites is always difficult. But if Sharif is to restore the faith of Pakistan’s youth in a democratic future it is a challenge he must rise to this time. If you have a view on this post, please make your comment below.


[1] Wars, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places, Paul Collier, Vintage, 2012
[2] Next Generation Goes to the Ballot Box, British Council Pakistan, 2013
[3] For Young Pakistanis, Democracy is a Drag, Aryn Rand, TIME Magazine, 22 April 2013
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