This spring, Pakistan’s Parliament signed into law an amendment that purged the country’s 1973 Constitution of all democracy-limiting provisions. The work that led up to the agreement — negotiations that included industrialists, landowners and Islamists, as well as Baluchi and Pashtun tribal leaders — was itself a feat of democratic consensus building.
“This is a landmark in Pakistan’s constitutional history,” a leading parliamentarian told one of us at that time. Can Pakistan become a democracy?
Through one lens the picture looks bleak. Terrorism, poverty, crippling energy shortages and weak civilian institutions are reminders that a stable democratic system and a durable democratic culture will be difficult to establish.
Yet seen through another lens, there’s promise. For one thing, many Pakistanis, despite the current turmoil, seem steadfastly committed to representative government.
In 2008 parliamentary elections, extremists were dealt a serious blow; moderate secularists achieved remarkable results. According to recent surveys, popular opinion has turned strongly against Islamic militants.
“A few years ago it was considered a sin to publicly oppose the Taliban,” declared a prominent Pashtun cleric recently, adding that now “people just quietly wait for their demise.”
It’s time for Americans to read the mood. From the posh drawings rooms of Karachi to the isolated mountains of the western Pashtun borderlands, increasing numbers of Pakistanis are starting to view decent, accountable government as an antidote to extremism and a chance to tackle the country’s social ills.
Two major obstacles stand in the way.
The first is the Pakistani military. It still controls national decision-making on critical domestic and foreign policy issues. No one in Western capitals wants to unnecessarily provoke the generals in Islamabad. The Pakistani military is crucial to America’s war aims in neighboring Afghanistan.
But U.S. long-term objectives cannot be served by quick fixes. Washington has tried bankrolling military dictatorships in Pakistan. The strategy failed.
What to do? Pakistan’s military has finally started to grasp the dangers of extremism. For years Islamabad fueled it — to fight India over Kashmir and to counter what it saw as the threat of New Delhi’s influence in Afghanistan.
Now that these extremist forces have begun to pose a threat to Pakistan’s own internal stability, the military has had no other choice but to rethink. It refrained, for example, from meddling in the 2008 elections. These are encouraging tendencies. The U.S. needs to support them.
The second important obstacle to Pakistan’s democratic progress has to do with the country’s nascent civil society.
While Washington fights Al Qaeda and its allies in the Pakistani border region and in Afghanistan, it must at the same time convince Islamabad to make development in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (F.A.T.A.) a key national objective. Amnesty International calls F.A.T.A. a “human-rights-free zone.” An estimated four million Pakistanis in these regions are trapped under Taliban rule, effectively abandoned by the central government. Progress in the Tribal Areas will resonate across the country.
Of course, Pakistanis must lead. In a country known for anti-Americanism and conspiracy theories none of this is easy. Robust support for free, professional, responsible media will help. It’s the great disinfectant. The State Department supports indigenous media and journalist training. It would be impossible to do too much.
Finally, the U.S. should deepen its dialogue with Pakistani religious leaders of various stripes, including conservative clerics. Religious (and tribal) leaders will play a key role, if this diverse Muslim nation of 170 million is to fully embrace a pluralistic system.
On paper, Pakistan has already become a parliamentary democracy. It’s now “the best federal model in Asia,” as one drafter of that recent, historic constitutional amendment puts it.
We in the West now need to invest in Pakistan’s people and the democratic society they are struggling to build. Let’s not allow the short-term realist thinking of the past to derail Pakistan’s chance.
Jeffrey Gedmin, president and Abubakar Siddique is a senior correspondent of RFE/RL, whose new station “Mashaal” broadcasts news and cultural programs to Pakistan’s Pashtun border regions.