Jan 13, 2010

Without constitutional liberalism

Roedad Khan

In the West, democracy means liberal democracy – a political system, prevailing in a free and independent country, marked not only by free and fair elections but also by rule of law, separation of powers, independent judiciary, the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly and religion, sanctity of contract and property. This bundle of freedoms – called constitutional liberalism – is not synonymous with democracy and is theoretically different and historically distinct from democracy. For much of modern history what characterised governments in Europe and North America, and differentiated them from those around the world, was not democracy but constitutional liberalism. The Magna Carta, rule of law, habeas corpus, are all expressions of constitutional liberalism, not democracy. During the 19th century most European countries went through the phase of liberalisation long before they became democratic.

British rule in India meant not democracy but constitutional liberalism – rule of law, independent judiciary, habeas corpus, fair administration and a merit system. For 156 years until July 1, 1997, Hong Kong was ruled by the British Crown through an appointed governor general. Until 1991, it never held a meaningful election, but its government epitomised constitutional liberalism, protecting its citizens' basic rights and administering a fair judicial system and bureaucracy.

Elections are an important virtue of government, but they are not the only virtue. Democracy does not end with the ballot, it begins there. Governments should be judged by yardsticks related to constitutional liberalism as well. Despite the limited political choice they offer, countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand provide a better environment for the life, liberty and happiness of their citizens than do illiberal, sham, democracies like Slovakia, Ghana and Pakistan under their elected governments. Constitutional liberalism has led to democracy everywhere, but democracy does not seem to bring constitutional liberalism. In fact, democratically elected regimes in the Third World generally ignore constitutional limits on their powers, deprive the citizens of their basic rights and freedoms and, in the process, open the door to military rule, as has happened several times in Pakistan.

Eleven years down the line, in the attempt to build "pure democracy," this is what we get: a spurious democracy brokered in Washington, an accidental president facing corruption and criminal charges, a rubberstamp parliament, a figurehead prime minister and his corrupt ministers, Potemkin villages dotted all over the country, the nation's army at war with its own people, flagrant violation of our air space and national sovereignty by US aircraft, resulting in the killing of innocent men, women and children. No protest by our democratic government, no expression of remorse by our coalition partner in the so-called war on terror, no regret. The state of the federation is chilling. It would stun someone who went to sleep soon after Independence Day in 1947 and awakened in the present.

No wonder, people have lost faith in the democratic process. Elections are rigged, votes are purchased; known corrupt people, tax evaders, and smugglers are foisted upon a poor, illiterate electorate that is unable to make an informed political choice, and then sworn in as ministers. Elections throw up not the best, not the fittest, not the most deserving, but the scum of the community only because they are the richest or are favourites of the people in power.

To appreciate the full bouquet of challenges that "democracy" is facing in Pakistan, look no further than Islamabad. Today Islamabad represents a Pakistan which has lost its independence, a country which has not left the feudal-bureaucratic state of the colonial era; it still awaits a true emancipating revolution. Today if we Pakistanis looked in the mirror, we would not recognise what we have become. Pakistan is not the country it was even eleven years ago. Back then, the country was settled, stable, democratic and free. Today, Pakistan is neither sovereign nor independent. It is a "rentier state," an American lackey, ill-led, ill-governed by a corrupt, power-hungry junta supported by Washington.

How can democracy take roots in such a hostile environment? There can be no democracy, liberal or illiberal, in a country, like Pakistan, which has lost its independence and sovereignty. How can you have democracy in a country where people do not rule and the sovereign power of the state resides elsewhere? "We, the People," are the three most important words in the American Constitution. "We, the People" is a phrase alien to Islamabad.

The idea that you can just hold elections while everything remains colonial, feudal and mediaeval means you won't get democracy but some perversion of it. Elections are necessary, but not sufficient. Elections alone do not make a democracy. Creating a democracy requires a free and independent country, an inviolable constitution, a sustained commitment of time and money to develop all the necessary elements: a transparent executive branch accountable to the parliament, a powerful and competent legislature answerable to the electorate, a strong neutral judiciary, and a free press. To assume that a popular vote will automatically bring about a democratic metamorphosis would be to condemn Pakistan to a repeat of the cycle seen so often in our history: a short-lived period of corrupt, civilian rule, a descent into chaos and then army intervention.

With Gen Musharraf's exit, we thought we had reached the summit. Alas! The ascent of one ridge simply revealed the next daunting challenge. Before he left the stage in disgrace, Musharraf turned over the car keys, under a deal, to those who had robbed and plundered this poor country. No wonder his policies remain unchanged. Besides atmospherics, so little has changed in foreign policy, the war in Waziristan and relationship with America. It took the elected prime minister of Pakistan an agonisingly long period to reverse the dictator's order and restore Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and other deposed judges. He did so in the early hours of the morning, only when hundreds of thousands of people threatened to march on Islamabad.

Around the world, democratically elected regimes are routinely ignoring limits on their power and depriving citizens of basic freedoms. "From Peru to the Philippines, we see the rise of a disturbing phenomenon: illiberal democracy. It has been difficult to recognise because for the last century in the west, democracy -- free and fair elections -- has gone hand in hand with constitutional liberalism: the rule of law and basic human rights." But in the rest of the world, these two concepts are coming apart. Democracy without constitutional liberalism, as we in Pakistan know very well, is producing centralised regimes, erosion of liberty, ethnic conflicts and war.

Contrary to what President Zardari says and believes, today the greatest threat to Pakistan's democracy, in fact Pakistan itself, stems not from religious militancy and sectarianism but from (a) the absence of a genuinely democratic political order, and (b) the surging American imperialism. The Farewell Address of George Washington will ever remain an important legacy for small nations like Pakistan. In that notable testament, the Father of the American Republic cautioned that "an attachment of a small or weak towards a great and powerful nation dooms the former to be the satellite of the latter." "It is folly in one nation," George Washington observed, "to look for disinterested favours from another…it must pay with a portion of its independence for whatever it may accept under that character." No truer words have been spoken on the subject. Pakistan is paying, and will continue to pay, a very heavy price for the folly of attaching itself to America. In this country democracy is only permissible when the results are favourable to America.

Governments are instituted to secure certain inalienable rights of human beings as the American Declaration of Independence put it. If a "democratic" government does not preserve liberty and law and does not protect the life, property and honour of its citizens, that it is a "democracy" is a small consolation.

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