A question of democracy

Gulf News, May 23, 2006

Recent developments in Nepal and Nigeria serve as examples for how nations can overcome entrenched authoritarian structures through popular mobilisation and thoughtful political action.

Nepal’s parliament, restored by King Gyanendra after massive street protests, has voted to strip the king of all substantive powers. That paves the way for the country’s transition, hopefully on a more stable basis, towards constitutional democracy under a titular monarch.

King Gyanendra’s effort to use his nation’s difficulties, including the brutal Maoist insurgency that plagues the countryside, to concentrate power in his own hands appears to have been thwarted.

It took a combination of international pressure, manifestation of the people’s opposition to the king in the streets of Katmandu and cooperation among Nepal’s various political parties to ensure the diminution of the king’s authority. Nepal still has a long way to go in its transition to democracy but its political leaders have clearly agreed on a roadmap for that transition.

In Nigeria, the Senate threw out a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed retired General Olusegun Obasanjo to seek a third term as the country’s president. Like Pakistan, Nigeria has also had a chequered history of intermittent civilian and military rule.

General Obasanjo had been Nigeria’s military ruler from 1976 to 1979. Then, he handed over power to an elected civilian government that was subsequently overthrown by the military. Obasanjo entered politics and was elected president in 1999 as a popular civilian politician after a round of disastrous military dictators.

Nigeria’s constitution limits elected presidents to two terms of office. But Obasanjo’s colleagues campaigned hard to change the constitution to enable their leader to secure the presidency again. The decision of the Nigerian parliament to reject the proposition is likely to strengthen democracy in Africa’s most populous country.

Educated Pakistanis who are equally disillusioned with the country’s military and political leaderships must look at the experiences of Nepal and Nigeria to identify prospects for change within their own country.

King Gyanendra had justified his own power grab on grounds of the ineffectiveness and ineptitude of Nepal’s civilian politicians. But the politicians turned to the masses and were eventually able to demonstrate greater popular support for their messy democracy than for King Gyanendra’s “efficient autocracy”. Pakistan’s politicians, too, would have to do the same.

Waning support

Once Nepal’s people took to the streets, Gyanendra’s international support vapourised. The international community backed the demand for restoration of parliamentary government and it is unlikely that the cantankerous nature of Nepal’s politics will change the world’s commitment to constitutional democratic rule in Nepal.

The “Charter for Democracy” recently signed by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif offers hope that the still popular exiled politicians might return to Pakistan in time for the 2007 parliamentary elections.

People power is more easily manifested in countries where the commercial centre, political and cultural hub and state capital are all in one city or close to each other.

In Pakistan’s case, the federal capital (Islamabad) is a city mostly of diplomats and civil servants while centres of commercial and political activity are widely dispersed. Unless an agitation campaign is organised in several Pakistani cities simultaneously, it is unlikely to be effective.

The last such campaign, in 1977, succeeded because it was encouraged by the refusal of the military-intelligence complex to put it down with force. Since then, Pakistan’s military and intelligence services have ensured through manipulation that each of Pakistan’s major cities is controlled by a different political faction.

Since the 1999 coup d’etat, General Pervez Musharraf has benefited from disagreements within opposition ranks and the lack of sufficient organisation of Pakistan’s mainstream political parties.

The military regime has, through the political wings of the intelligence services, exacerbated dissension among opposition ranks and aggravated the relatively weak organisation of Benazir Bhutto’s PPP and Nawaz Sharif’s PML(N). It is difficult to be fully organised as a political party while being hounded by the state apparatus.

The “Charter for Democracy” marks the end of acrimony between the major parties, which was accentuated by the military-intelligence combine between 1988 and 1999 and then cited as justification for the military’s continuous meddling in politics.

The supporters of the two mainstream parties would be encouraged to mobilise by the return to the country of their leaders. That would make it difficult for the Musharraf regime to stage-manage the results of the 2007 election.

If Pakistan’s parliament acts like the Nigerian Senate and turns down any attempt by Musharraf to change the rules of the game, Pakistan might also get another chance at becoming a democracy.