Nurturing democracy in Pakistan

The Foreign Policy Centre's Alex Bigham considers how the world sho

There are, broadly speaking, two schools of thought about what the international community should do next to help alleviate the chaos consuming Pakistan. One was emphasised by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian – that we should never seek to interfere in the internal affairs of a country, and that, as is his usual claim, we are the architect of our own misfortune. The other is being taken up by the bulk of US presidential candidates – that the US should be ready to bomb Pakistan if its nuclear sites look threatened by the Islamists, and that the UK and US should provide oversight control of Pakistan’s nuclear programme (a policy advocated by Hillary Clinton).

While I have more sympathy with the Clinton argument, both points of view are a little naïve – the US is not going to sit idly by while Islamist extremists overrun the world’s sixth most populous country armed with WMD, nor are they likely to be able to completely overturn Pakistan’s sovereignty when it comes to security issues. One of the lessons from the Iran nuclear case is that patient diplomacy, which the EU has spearheaded, combined with a carrot and stick approach can yield positive results. As the recent US intelligence report emphasised, it persuaded Iran to suspend its nuclear weapons programme in 2003. One of the great mistakes that have been made in the past in relation to Pakistan is the outside obsession with individuals over institutions. John Negroponte was guilty of this recently, in his overtures to both Musharraf and Bhutto.

With the tragic death of Benazhir Bhutto, the inevitable focus of the commentariat and policy makers has turned to the young Oxford student Bilawal Bhutto, or the tough army general, Ashfaq Kiyani. But this obsession with personalities over institutions will always leave the leadership of Pakistan vulnerable to interference and even overthrow from the 3 As – the Army, America or Allah (i.e. the Islamists). Bilawal is clearly smart, but is he ready to take on the mantle of leadership, when he has spent so little time in Pakistan and struggles to speak Urdu?

Neither outside force or even a strong leader can build a vibrant democracy. That’s not to say the international community is powerless to effect change, but it needs to take local people with them. Supporting democratic institutions, grassroots NGOs and political parties, as well as groups that advocate human rights, women’s issues and support for marginalised communities will do far more to engender a democratic culture in the long term.

The UK, in partnership with our EU allies could be doing more. While it may seem somewhat ironic these days, Westminster was the ‘mother of all parliaments’ – influencing the establishment of legislatures across the world in past centuries. It’s important that our modern foreign policy is also focussed on democracy building – and not cautioned by the problems in Iraq. It’s not just FCO or DfiD support though – visits by parliamentarians, NGOs and academics can all help to foster a more democratic atmosphere.

The Commonwealth, which has an important relationship with Pakistan, is one of the few international institutions to suspend or expel its member countries when democracy or human rights are seriously threatened, and did so in November when Pakistan implemented martial law. It would be helpful if other international institutions such as the UN and the World Bank would have the courage of their rhetoric to similarly put pressure on countries that subvert democratic norms.

Pakistan is not the basket case some have made out – and Musharraf is hardly on a par with Saddam or Mugabe. The country's economy has improved dramatically in the past five years, thanks in part to the stewardship of former Prime Minister Aziz, but it hasn’t translated as much as it should do into poverty reduction for ordinary people.

Even though its popularity is damaged, the army will always play its part in Pakistani politics, as it has done frequently since the 1950s. Often, it is to maintain Pakistan’s stability and status as a relatively secular democracy. The challenge is to ensure that the other representative democratic institutions are powerful enough to compete with it.

Alex Bigham is the Head of Communications and Projects at the Foreign Policy Centre, a London based progressive think tank.
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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times