Democracy’s Last Stand

Corruption is no stranger in Pakistan. Over decades, a culture of corruption has become so ingrown in Pakistani politics that it would be impossible to uproot in an instant. This deep-seated corruption among political parties and politicians has created an understandable, in fact, predictable backlash from the citizenry. Tired of seeing self-serving politicians sacrifice the good of the nation for their own personal gain, Pakistanis are speaking out about these abuses. With the spread of electronic media, their voices have become amplified and are making a real impact on politics. What does this mean for democracy in Pakistan?

Nadeem Paracha’s column in yesterday’s Dawn makes several important points about the history of the corruption in Pakistan, how the press has played a dual role in exposing corruption, and what the new paradigm means for the future of democratic Pakistan.

What’s especially interesting is how things are not always as they seem. Where the press has, in the past, been “exposing corruption,” they have actually been playing the pawn to some very sophisticated political maneuvers.

The press, due to the dictatorship’s many curbs, was left fighting dictatorship on a more macro, ideological level; the relative freedom that it got after Zia’s death made it go all micro now that it was able to name names. The press was right in doing so as the watchdog of society, but what was missed in the process was the fact that corruption scandals that suddenly erupted in newspapers and magazines were really not broken by objective reporters.

This was the beginning of a dangerous trend in which only those journalists who were said to have had dubious connections with intelligence agencies were able to get the best of most crackling stories—a practice that still holds true. Again, evidence is ripe, but it is also true that though much of the rancour was aimed at the two Benazir Bhutto governments, backed by the opposition led by Nawaz Sharif and the Jamat-i-Islami, it came back to bite Sharif himself during his second stint as prime minister.

Of course, today’s darling is tomorrow’s target, as Nawaz Sharif discovered when he was no longer useful to the anti-democratic forces.

By 1999 counter-democratic forces — politicised intelligence agencies and their lackeys in the industrialist/ business communities, political clergy and sections of the media — seemed to have decided that they had built the ground for democracy’s toppling, good enough to even send their once darling democrat, Nawaz Sharif, packing and bring back the normative fold of dictatorship.

But all hope is not lost. In fact, we have reached a historic period in the development of Pakistan’s political class, and leaders are beginning to open their eyes to the sinister manipulations of the anti-democracy forces.

What is being ignored by the cynics is that, perhaps for the first time ever, nearly all democratic parties in parliament are on the same page as far as their understanding of Pakistan’s recent political history is concerned. This is owing to their understanding that each one of them will be a loser when certain counter-democratic moves are set afoot by exploiting the differences and grudges among them.

This is a refreshing phenomenon. It can be the main spoiler for counter-democratic forces bouncing between non-parliamentary parties and individuals, even patronising certain media men in their desperate move to send democracy packing — because the system breeds corruption.

Ultimately, in a democracy, decisions are made by voters, not by scheming men in back room deals. This is a lesson that all the world’s major democracies – from the USA to Japan – have learned over time. By exposing these anti-democratic manipulators, Pakistan can continue its progress away from corruption and towards a prosperous democratic future.

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