Pakistan’s fragile democracy has been buffeted during the last five years by contending factions within the coalition of elites that were attempting to achieve ascendancy. For example the so called Memo gate represented a contention for power between the elected civilian government and the military; the Mehran gate case signified the attempt by the Judiciary to prevent the military from interference in the political process; and the issue of the “Swiss letter” relating to an earlier money laundering case against Mr. Zardari (now President), was an attempt by the Supreme Court to get its judgment duly implemented even if it had the potential of embarrassing the President and actually removing a defiant Prime Minister. The common feature of these power struggles was that they occurred within the power structure that underlies the formal Constitutional framework. Now a new set of political forces that are external to the existing power structure have come into play with the emergence of Mr. Tahirul Qadri on Pakistan’s political stage. Let us briefly outline the nature of this phenomenon and its implications for the dynamics of power.
Pakistan’s existing power structure includes the elites that have historically dominated politics and whose interests are embodied in a rent based institutional structure which gives them exclusive privileges in the economic and political spheres. The current coalition of elites consists of the military, the bureaucracy, big landlords, industrialists in the large scale manufacturing sector and large traders. The institutional structure of the economy and the associated conduct of public policy have generated an elite based economic growth process that has primarily served to extract resources for appropriation in the form of rents by the elite coalition. Consequently while the elites have enriched themselves, mass poverty and acute inequality persist. With the rich unwilling to pay taxes, the revenues of the government are grossly insufficient. This combined with bribery infested public sector project management, means that the government is incapable of providing the minimum public services necessary for a dignified life to the majority of the population.
In the face of this crisis, the elite coalition has failed so far to restructure the political system and the economy to enable open access over both economic and political competition to all citizens: a defining feature of the modern democratic state. There is an associated absence of mass political parties effectively representing the interests of the workers, peasants and the professional middle classes. It is not surprising therefore that militant extremism as well as new political entrepreneurs outside the existing political structure find fertile ground in Pakistan. For the former, violence is part of their creed, while the latter claim to eschew violence. Both seek a place in Pakistan’s power structure.
Mr. Tahirul Qadri held perhaps the largest public gathering in Lahore in Pakistan’s history and gave notice of leading a long march to Islamabad, there to form Pakistan’s “Tahrir Square”. This he promises will be a prelude to a new political and social system that will rid the country of rule by the “exploiting classes”, and establish a genuine “democratic” and “Constitutional” order. While he assiduously claims peaceful intent, his undertaking is not entirely devoid of the risk of violence. The present crisis is pregnant with the possibility of a mass movement with a radical agenda using the religious narrative of a return to an imagined “golden age”. There is also the possibility that some of the mainstream political parties could lose some of their mass support to such a movement, as the deprived sections of society seek ‘change’.
Antonio Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks provides an insight into the dynamics of the kind of crisis that Pakistan is now facing: “At a certain point in their historical lives, social classes become detached from their traditional parties….When such crises occur, the immediate situation becomes delicate and dangerous, because the field is open for violent solutions, for the activities of unknown forces, represented by charismatic ‘men of destiny’.”
The current form of Pakistan’s democracy is threatened as the country enters a new phase of uncertainty, instability and conflict.