21.08.2014 Author: Eric Draitser

Pakistan’s ‘Long March’: Democracy or Politics as Usual? (Part 1)

2342342In Pakistan, the “Long March” – a major protest led by opposition politicians calling for the resignation of the government – began in earnest on August 14th. The protest, which could more accurately be described as a series of overlapping protests led by two factions, in some ways similar and in some ways different from each other, promises to bring Pakistani political life to a standstill. However, the enigmatic, and quite often paradoxical, nature of Pakistani politics means that such a development requires careful analysis.

The protest leaders – Imran Khan of the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) and anti-government cleric Tahir-ul Qadri of the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) – have pledged to turn out hundreds of thousands, if not millions, into the streets to demand an end to corruption and rule by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his PML-N party. But, beyond the rhetoric of “democracy” and “transparency,” both political buzzwords more indicative of public relations and marketing than genuine political program, there is the troubling possibility that what is being billed as a democratic upsurge, is merely politics as usual in Pakistan.

Of course, one should not take a completely cynical perspective on Khan, Qadri, and the other leaders and factions participating in the Long March. Indeed, many of their criticisms and allegations regarding corruption, cronyism, and electoral theft are well founded in a country that suffers from institutionalized and endemic corruption. However, one should be at the very least cautious with a movement which with one breath calls for democracy, while with another demands the resignation of the elected government.

In critically examining the nature of the protest, as well as Khan’s PTI and other organized political forces, it is clear that the outrage of the people of Pakistan is quite real, their suffering and poverty is tragic, and it is their future that is at stake. With that in mind, anyone interested in supporting peace and progress for the people of Pakistan must understand the current movement.

Khan’s PTI and Qadri’s PAT: A Political Diagnosis

The Long March is predictably engendering political optimism and hope from many quarters of Pakistani society. Having suffered under successive corrupt governments which merely paid lip service to the aspirations of the people while continuing Pakistan’s long and sordid history of corruption and theft, regular Pakistanis are desperate for something new, something which can begin the process of peaceful economic and political progress. The question many are asking is whether or not the organizers of the Long March actually represent those aspirations.

A close examination of the programs of the PTI and PAT reveals striking similarities. Both organizations are interested in combating corruption both for its own sake, but also as a means of generating the necessary revenue required for the social programs that each party promises to implement. Both parties promise to combat terrorism while, simultaneously, retaining Pakistani sovereignty which has been consistently trampled by the ostensible allies of Pakistan in Washington. Both parties see the problems of Pakistani society as systemic and institutionalized, rather than merely being the outgrowth of this or that politician or faction.

However, these observations could be made by anyone with even a cursory understanding of Pakistan and its political, economic, and social life. Rather, a serious analysis must penetrate deeper and examine the specific, concrete proposals that these groups are promoting.

Both Khan’s PTI and Qadri’s PAT place at the center of the respective programs the total reorganization of the Pakistani state, with many administrative functions being placed in the hands of localized leadership, as opposed to the highly centralized governmental bureaucracy of today’s Pakistan. As Qadri’s “Vision for Green Revolution in Pakistan” (not to be confused with Gaddafi’s Green Revolution in Libya) states:

The current governmental and administrative structure will be changed into [a] new governmental and administrative system, which will be compatible with international standards—the system and democratic structure that exists in Turkey and many other developed countries like South Korea, Japan, China and the United States… The central leader of the federal government will not be the leader of the house but the leader of the nation and will be directly elected by the people. This will put an end to political bargain, horse trading and manoeuvres to purchase turncoats… Article 140(a) prescribes to put in place the system of local governments, devolving power to grass-roots level. 

Likewise, Khan’s PTI program includes similar proposals regarding governmental restructuring. The Party’s manifesto includes as one of its primary goals, “Reasserting national unity by decentralizing state structures through devolution that empowers people at the grassroots level by providing viable administrative structures and enabling people to take control of their lives by giving them economic control of decision-making.” Notice the striking similarity in both proposals, specifically the focus on “grassroots” power and control.

While this is certainly appealing in the abstract, it remains unclear precisely how each of these leaders would actually achieve such control in the hands of the people. Simply giving the bureaucratic privileges to local communities is no long-term solution. Rather, local people must be stakeholders in the economy, with the resources, means of production, state and local facilities, natural resources, industries, etc. under their control and responsive to local democratic decision-making. The mechanics of such a system are complex and must overcome decades of inertia and corruption which will certainly not be easy.

It is important to note here too that neither Qadri nor Khan seem to highlight two key countries in which precisely this sort of grassroots empowerment was actually implemented, with varying degrees of success. First and foremost is the true “Green Revolution,” that of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya led by Col. Muammar Gaddafi. As renowned Zimbabwean journalist Garikai Chengu correctly noted:

In 1977 the people of Libya proclaimed the Jamahiriya or “government of the popular masses by themselves and for themselves”…a higher form of direct democracy with ‘the People as President.’ Traditional institutions of government were disbanded and abolished, and power belonged to the people directly through various committees and congresses…The nation State of Libya was divided into several small communities that were essentially “mini-autonomous States” within a State. These autonomous States had control over their districts and could make a range of decisions including how to allocate oil revenue and budgetary funds. Within these mini autonomous States, the three main bodies of Libya‘s democracy were Local Committees, People’s Congresses and Executive Revolutionary Councils…In 2009, Mr. Gaddafi invited the New York Times to Libya to spend two weeks observing the nation’s direct democracy. Even the New York Times, that [sic] was always highly critical of Colonel Gaddafi, conceded that in Libya, the intention was that “everyone is involved in every decision…Tens of thousands of people take part in local committee meetings to discuss issues and vote on everything from foreign treaties to building schools.” The purpose of these committee meetings was to build a broad based national consensus.

Indeed, Libya under Gaddafi provides an effective, efficient, and functioning model of true localized direct democracy, the sort of structure that both Qadri and Khan seem to be alluding to without concretely committing to. Now, it should be noted that manifestos and political programs tend to speak in the language of generalities, but on such a critical issue as the reorganization of the state, it seems that clarity and precision are precisely what is needed. Perhaps it is also a recognition of Pakistan’s long-standing ties to Saudi Arabia, one of the principal financiers of the terrorists who, with NATO support, ousted and ultimately assassinated Gaddafi, that neither candidate wished to recognize the tremendous debt that their ideas and proposals owe to the late Colonel.

Whatever inner dialogues these parties have had, the fact remains that the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya provides a largely successful template for decentralizing authority in a post-colonial Muslim country racked by tribal and clan divisions, long-standing ethnic and/or familial rivalries, and significant regional differences. It would be wise for both the PTI and PAT to recognize that point.

Like Libya, so too does Venezuela provide an effective model for the decentralization of authority, not to mention a democratic revolution carried out peacefully, precisely what Qadri has indicated is his organization’s ultimate aim. As VenezuelaAnalysis.com noted in 2004:

In Venezuela, the goal is loftier: to complement representative democracy with participatory democracy. This effort contributes to the strengthening of democracy by providing the tools necessary for citizens to influence decisions concerning their economic and social wellbeing. In other words, the citizens develop policy and the politicians implement it, thus decentralizing power. Over the course of the past two years, citizen power has expanded in Venezuela through the implementation of Local Public Planning Councils (CLPPs). 

Again, precisely the grassroots forms of democracy that both Khan and Qadri are championing are alive and well in Venezuela, having been implemented and constantly refined and reformed over the last decade. Naturally, the system is imperfect and requires patience and resolve to improve, but it functions and provides an effective model to be emulated. It is striking that Qadri’s “revolutionary vision” takes as its exemplars the “decentralized” forms of government of Turkey, South Korea, and especially the United States as models.

While it is understandable that the PAT simply means the model of organization into localized states, regions, or provinces, it is somewhat surprising given the rampant corruption and elite rule that characterizes these countries, particularly the United States where decision-making is only nominally in the hands of local authorities, while the real decisions are made in corporate board-rooms, on golf courses, and at $10,000 a plate political fundraisers. If Qadri and Khan believe that localizing control will rid Pakistan of corruption, they are sorely mistaken. Rather, it is a revolutionary reconstitution of the State itself that would be required, something that neither leader seems to be adequately prepared to address.

Of course, both Khan and Qadri engage in high-minded talk of rooting out corruption, one of the most pernicious cancers afflicting the Pakistani state. However, the question critical political observers should ask is exactly what role the judiciary will play, how it will be constituted, and what its role will be in the newly decentralized Pakistan. Traditionally, the judiciary has been front and center in politics, from conflicts with military leaders like Musharraf to political squabbling with former President Zardari of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). How will the judiciary respond to either of these leaders, and will Pakistan simply be setting itself up for yet another executive-judicial clash?

Examining PTI and PAT Economic Policies

Aside from the political aspects of their programs – which are far more numerous than I could possibly have covered above – are the economic ones. Specifically, how these leaders propose to solve the most pressing economic problems facing Pakistan – a country where poverty and unemployment are epidemic, where lack of electricity and access to education and health care, as well as countless other basic needs, are severely lacking.

As far as providing the necessary services for poor and working class Pakistanis, both PTI and PAT advocate far-reaching welfare state programs that, though they stop short of socialist-style universality, seem to be hinting towards that. Qadri’s “Ten Point Revolutionary Agenda” includes features such as homes and interest-free loans to homeless and middle class families respectively, adequate employment for the unemployed, subsidized daily necessities such as staple foods and clothing for those in poverty, free medical care to all who need it, a universal and compulsory education system open to all, including girls who might otherwise be kept from receiving their education, and much more.

Who could argue with these proposals? Of course, it is not the substance of these and other proposals that one should be skeptical of, it’s the ability of a new government to deliver them. For that, the new dispensation must take control of the revenues of the country, using them to benefit the people.

Indeed, both Khan and Qadri seem to be in lock step on this issue. Both programs call for massive expansion in investment in mining and mineral extraction and exploitation, noting the tremendous mineral wealth with which Pakistan is endowed. These natural resources including oil/gas, gold, platinum, possible rare earth minerals, and more represent a tremendous possibility for the country to boost revenues and fund the massive expansion in social programs so desperately needed. In addition, both programs call for repatriation of wealth looted by the ruling class and hidden offshore. This is a more complicated proposition as it is unclear exactly by what mechanism Khan and Qadri plan to accomplish this. Similar attempts have been made by other leaders with mixed results to say the least.

The question of banking, finance, and loans also becomes central. While neither faction wants to admit it, it seems from first glance that each is resigned to continuing with the IMF and World Bank conditional loans, but simply trying to leverage more favorable terms out of these predatory institutions. Neither Khan nor Qadri have been particularly vocal about the newly established BRICS Development Bank which was created to fund important infrastructure projects in the developing world. It would seem that Pakistan, with its vast natural resources, huge population, and strategic location, would be a prime candidate for precisely this institution. In fact, BRICS must play a central role in Pakistan’s future, especially as the country seeks to integrate itself into the ever-expanding Eurasian economic community.

In addition, both Khan and Qadri have spoken at length about tax revenue and minimizing tax leakage. Again, while this sounds like a great and positive step, it is the execution that is worrisome. Without a total overhaul of the corrupt justice system from the street level to the upper echelons of political power, the entrenched ruling class will continue to hide its money, loot the national coffers, and pay next to nothing in taxes while the poor are forced to shoulder the brunt of the tax burden. Naturally, an effective mechanism for dealing with this issue is not so easy to come by, and it would be a major test of any new government to see them deal with this issue.

It is not simply skepticism that forces me to examine with such critical perspective the actual policies being proposed by PTI and PAT. Rather, it is the recognition of the importance of Pakistan to the region and to the world. One of the world’s most populous countries, a center of global terrorism, a hub of South Asia, a key ally and adversary of multiple world powers, Pakistan’s importance must not be understated. As such, those of us around the world owe it to the people of Pakistan, and all people working for a multi-polar world free from domination by the Empire, to support, in whatever way we can, peace and true progress in Pakistan. However, we equally owe it to the people of Pakistan and our allies around the world not to be taken in by rhetorical flourishes, high-minded promises with little substance, and politics as usual. Rather, we must stand in support of true progress, in whatever form that comes.

Part 2 of this article will examine the foreign policy proposals of the PTI and PAT, and how those relate to the political and geopolitical reality of Pakistan. Additionally, the article will outline a number of specific, concrete projects that must be supported by any new government if it seeks to truly move Pakistan forward and provide for its people. Look for Part 2 in New Eastern Outlook in the coming days. 

Eric Draitser is an independent geopolitical analyst based in New York City, he is the founder of StopImperialism.org and OP-ed columnist for RT, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.