Pakistan needs to remedy flaws in its democracy to prevent regress to personalistic or military authoritarianism
ver the past 76 years, Pakistan has oscillated between military authoritarianism and ‘defective’ democracy. Due to the changing nature of many regimes in Asia and Latin America, some political scientists have revisited the conventional conceptual categories and come up with descriptions such as ‘electoral authoritarianism.’ However, issues related to, for example, the conceptualisation of transition from authoritarian rule to democracy continue to puzzle scholars of comparative politics. In the early 2000s, Wolfgang Merkel, a German political scientist, investigated a wide range of experiments with democracy in Europe, Asia and other regions. While disagreeing with categories like ‘electoral democracy,’ Merkel postulated that elections, held even fairly and regularly, do not qualify as a necessary condition for the development and consolidation of democracy cross-culturally because socioeconomic and institutional factors that exist before the conduct of elections are generally overlooked, on the one hand, by political and military elite of the developing countries and, on the other, by election observers and experts. Put differently, the question is: is the degree and scale of democracy the same in India and the US since both have a sustained trajectory of elections? Are democracies in Germany and Turkey comparable? Can one compare Indian and Pakistani varieties of democracy? In view of the foregoing empirical puzzles, Merkel introduced an altogether innovative concept of ‘embedded democracy.’
The embeddedness of democracy is dependent on both internal and external variables. Internally, a constitutional democracy consists of five partial regimes/ categories: electoral regime, political liberties, civil rights, horizontal accountability and effective power to govern. Externally, these partial regimes are embedded in the prevailing socioeconomic context, civil society and international and regional integrative environment. Measured against these criteria, a democracy becomes stable, consolidated and ultimately liberal if the five partial regimes are mutually connected and resourceful to each other in a democracy-enabling regional and international environment. Inversely, if there is a singular or composite disconnect in the five partial regimes or if the regional and global environment is not democracy-friendly, the embedded democracy turns into a ‘defective democracy.’ According to Merkel these are “democracies in which the partial regimes are no longer mutually embedded, [thus] the logic of a constitutional democracy is disrupted.” In other words, poorly balanced civil-military relations, Executive-Judiciary relations, compromised political liberties and civil rights characterise a defective democracy. So do lack of accountability of the ruling elite and ineffective governance on the part of the civil government.
Political scientist Aurel Croissant, a fellow scholar at Heidelberg University, applied Merkel’s matrix to various countries in Asia – including Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand – which are assumed to be defective democracies. I believe that Pakistan, too, can be studied in a similar way.
The defects in such democracies are caused by factors ranging from colonial history to cultural heterogeneity and institutional imbalance. In a given context, transition from a defective democracy to, for example, electoral democracy is possible though it is not a common and consolidated trend. For example, about Thailand, Croissant argued in 2004, “The new constitution [of 1997] improved the institutional framework for an effective rule of law and for the guarantee of civil liberties. Most successful was the institutionalisation of civilian control over the armed forces. Since the 1930s, the Thai military had exerted a decisive influence upon politics in Thailand… soldiers are still influential in domestic politics; but they cannot control the political process as they used to do. At the same time, however, new defects emerged, for example, the restriction of suffrage concerning the provisions to become a candidate for the parliament.”
The stated defects were institutionalised in Thailand over a decade. Unsurprisingly, the semblance of democracy was reversed through the 2014 coup staged by Gen Prayuth Chanocha. Post-coup, he became prime minster of the country in an arbitrary manner. However, the military rule was ultimately challenged by the masses in what are known as Thai protests of 2020-21. Importantly, in recent elections, the opposition parties, particularly the Move Forward Party (MFP), posed an electoral challenge to the junta by winning a greater number of seats. Given the strong nexus among the military, monarchy and entrepreneurial interests in Thailand, transition from defective to embedded democracy seems a herculean task.
Pakistan qualifies as a defective democracy in terms of electoral regime, political liberties, civil rights, horizontal accountability and effective power to govern. Empirically, the country witnessed initial defects in the ‘democratic’ setup during 1947-58 followed by the Ayub-led military rule. The so-called civilianisation of the Ayub regime also falls under defective democracy. Post-breakup in 1971, civil-military relations and democracy remained defective during 1971-77. The little progress made in terms of constitutional development, i.e., adoption of a parliamentary system, was eroded through the 1977 coup. From 1985 till 1999, Pakistan remained a defective democracy with poorly balanced civil-military relations, confrontational Executive-Judiciary relations, curbs on political and civil liberties, lack of public accountability and ineffective governance. These indicators perpetuated under the Musharraf-led military rule. The so-called civilianisation of the regime was, at best, an effort to internationally project Pakistan as an electoral democracy.
Post-Musharraf, the defective democracy perpetuated in the country. This was the case with PML-N in office (2013-2018) as well as with the Imran-led PTI dispensation (2018-2022). The Shahbaz-led PDM setup is no different institutionally or structurally. Post-ouster, Imran Khan’s agitation politics has not been aimed at correcting these defects but to pressure the powerful establishment to re-accept him in the system. The PDM/ PPP, the Judiciary, the media and other societal and entrepreneurial interests are also pro-system. The reported tussle within the Judiciary and the establishment, as well as the media, is not about upgrading the democratic profile of the country. It is about ensuring their survival within the defective democracy, aka ‘the system.’
Should Thailand, Pakistan or similar nations wish to realise their embedded democracies, the ruling elite (civil, military and judicial) along with the media, societal and entrepreneurial stakeholders have to correct the perpetuated defects in their democracies. This requires collective will and agency. If Pakistan’s elites prefer the larger interest of the society and the state, they have to agree on a democratic roadmap to make a transition from defective to, at least, a consolidated democracy. The time to act is now. Any delay will risk regression to either personalistic or military authoritarianism.
The writer has a PhD in political science from Heidelberg University and a post-doc from UC-Berkeley. He is a DAAD, FDDI and Fulbright fellow and an associate professor. He can be reached at ejaz.bhattygmail.com