Leading Article: Democracy is the loser in Pakistan

Tuesday 20 April 1993 23:02

The sacking of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan is only the latest manifestation of the country's apparent ungovernability. The reasons given - corruption, subversion and nepotism - are the same as those cited for the removal of Mr Sharif's predecessor, Benazir Bhutto, in 1990.

The underlying cause of Pakistan's history of failure as a political entity is common to much of Asia, Africa, and even Italy: the inability or refusal of the governing classes to put the country's interests before their own. There is ample evidence around the Third World that the people want democracy. But as long as politicians and generals continue succumbing to the temptation to feather their own nests and buy support, democracy will never take firm root.

Among Pakistan's disadvantages when it was created in 1947 were its lack of a coherent grassroots political movement, and an insufficiently large middle class: Muslims had tended to be either at the top or the bottom of the heap in colonial India, with Hindus (or Parsees) dominating the civil service and business. Two of western Pakistan's four provinces, Sind and Baluchistan, were largely feudal frontier regions. Pakistan's share of the fertile Punjab became overwhelmingly dominant, creating resentment in the other three provinces. In Sind there were, and still are, serious tensions between immigrants from India and the original population.

It was hardly surprising that the army soon emerged as the most efficient and least corrupt element, its officer corps providing an ersatz middle class. A new establishment was formed consisting of the military, feudal grandees and landlords, and an evolving middle class of civil servants and businessmen. Power alternated between politicians drawn from this increasingly intermarried establishment, and generals or air marshals determined to put an end to corruption - but never succeeding. For all that, average living standards rose to twice India's level.

The governance of Pakistan has been described as a triarchy, consisting of the army, the president and the prime minister. Cynics might say they are bound together by a common desire to keep democracy at bay. The last thing the country needed was an ongoing power struggle between president and prime minister. The seeds of this were sown in

1985 when President Zia Ul-Haq introduced a constitutional amendment enabling the president to dismiss the prime minister.

Mr Sharif was the choice of Mr Khan - in some ways a surprising one, since the elderly president is a civil servant of the gentlemanly old school while Mr Sharif is a wealthy industrialist not known for his scruples. But the favourite son began to challenge his benefactor's powers, so out he went. His challenge to the constitutionality of the president's move seems unlikely to succeed.

When the country goes to the polls on 14 July, the people will have to decide whether Ms Bhutto or Mr Sharif has best learnt the lessons of past failures; and the two political leaders will have to decide whether they should make common cause against the president in a national government, as Ms Bhutto seems to favour. If they do, democracy is likely once again to be the loser.

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