Pakistan’s New Democratic Space

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The outcome of the May 2013 Elections has taken a lot of people by surprise. N league’s victory might have come to shock many, especially given how traditional and social media kept predicting that a wave of change was going to take Pakistan by storm and usher in a New Pakistan.  Sadly, the dynamics of electoral politics might be a little more nuanced than is commonly understood.  Without going into the details of what those are or what structural problems that any political dispensation promising change would have to contend with, I would like to submit certain observations that I feel can constitute a progressive leap forward for Pakistan.

A New Democratic Space:

I clearly remember the dark days of the Emergency, imposed by General Musharraf in 2007 and the consequent Lawyer’s Movement to restore democracy and rule of law in Pakistan. The movement was successful in deposing a military dictator. I played my part in it as a student activist. I witnessed the brutality of the state up close when I saw men, women, and children being baton charged and tear gassed in the streets of Islamabad and Lahore. I witnessed the callousness with which a government not accountable to the people would treat dissent. And I also witnessed that government’s undoing in the process. We have come a long way since then.  11th May, 2013 is the culmination of what that movement started: a democratic process.  Pakistan has for the first time experienced a democratic transition. While this may not seem like much at the time–given how the common imagination in Pakistan tends to preclude a picture of history as a continuum–it does represent a number of things for Pakistanis.

First, we must understand that, regardless of the outcome of the elections, civilian rule has assumed primacy. Whereby voters feel empowered and start to invest more hope in the system, it will assume its own system of checks and balances. If the politicians in power are aware that they will have to return to their voters once their term expires instead of being overthrown by an ambitious general, they will continue to perform and deliver.

Secondly, while the outcome of the elections might not be acceptable to many of us, our task is not as yet over. The democratic transition has given us space to assemble, organize and voice our dissent. The pressure should be kept up whenever we see the government of the day reneging on its promises to the people. Merely casting your vote does not mean that the struggle to change Pakistan is over. We must continue to make our dissent known every time the government engages in an anti-people move.

Thirdly, while we may not prefer the leadership, we must continue to respect the office that the leadership has assumed, if we want to see this process strengthened.  This does not mean that we accept any anti-people moves that the leadership makes. All I am saying is this: if government has been formed by a popular mandate then it should be considered as such. The more we belittle our leadership, the more fodder we are offering to the non-democratic forces (read: military and even judiciary) to assert its power and thwart the democratic process. The idea is to not use the narrative the dominant paradigm has used time and again in the past to discredit civilian rule.

Lastly, given the current political dispensation, the kind of change we wish to see in Pakistan might not be very forthcoming, but we must take comfort in the fact that we as a nation have taken that qualitative leap in history that might just ultimately take us in that direction.

About Younas Chowdhry

Younas is currently is serving as an Atlas Corps fellow and Training Manager at Atlas Corps, in Washington DC. There he is running Atlas Corps' Global Leadership Lab for international development professionals. In 2009, while he was in college, Younas came up with an idea to start a street theater for underprivileged children, where he would teach the children of factory workers how to act and produce plays, as a means of creating cost effective entertainment for average laborers in the community. The plays he selected highlighted the problems and plight of the poor and other societal issues. The project is still in existence – called Laal Theatre. Younas also is the co-founder and general manager at Social Awareness Media and Art Junction (SAMAAJ).
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