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Democracy as Revenge

Besides being the biggest tribute to Benazir Bhutto, working towards "democracy as revenge" makes good sense in Pakistan. It can be achieved either through the ballot box or by boycotting the elections. Abstaining from voting may well be the best way to further democratise the political process. But both the main parties - Nawaz Sharif's Muslim League and the Pakistan People's Party - have decided to contest the polls. The chances of the election resulting in a compromise and legitimising the position of Pervez Musharraf cannot be ruled out.


boycotting it, may be the best means to

Democracy as Revenge

further democratise the political process.

Collective Boycott

S Akbar Zaidi The realpolitik of the boycott has become

Besides being the biggest tribute to Benazir Bhutto, working towards “democracy as revenge” makes good sense in Pakistan. It can be achieved either through the ballot box or by boycotting the elections. Abstaining from voting may well be the best way to further democratise the political process. But both the main parties – Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League and the Pakistan People’s Party

– have decided to contest the polls. The chances of the election resulting in a compromise and legitimising the position of Pervez Musharraf cannot be ruled out.

S Akbar Zaidi ( is a social scientist based in Karachi.

“Democracy as revenge” seems to

be the new slogan of the new

Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and they could not have thought of a better slogan. Indeed, democracy allows for the best form of participation and representation, even in a country like Pakistan. Even with Pakistani democracy’s numerous flaws, problems and constraints, there is little question that the only way forward for Pakistan and its people is through a democratic process and transition in which elections are held which are fair, free and transparent, without any preconditions and without the involvement of local or foreign agencies or governments. The Pakistani people, and not just the PPP, can exact revenge for many of the misdeeds conducted by the military and other authoritarian non-democratic entities, functioning in Pakistan over many decades, but particularly from 1999. Moreover, an active and free democracy would also be the biggest revenge, and tribute, to the latest member of the Bhutto family who has been assassinated.

The question, hence, is not about the possibility or consequences of democracy in abstraction, but whether the participation of political parties in the now-postponed elections in Pakistan, under the existing conditions and rules, brings about a process which allows democratic spaces to be created and also brings about any substantive change, leave alone, a condition that exacts revenge. There is also the important question of whether democracy is simply, exclusively or largely, limited to a voting system, or whether other forms of political activity also create and bring about democratic processes. Moreover, a final question worth investigating is whether elections and the vote necessarily signify and bring about democratic processes. If the purpose is to further the process of democratisation, then one needs to understand the best available means to do so. Sometimes, not participating in an election and less important at the moment – although it may re-emerge over the next few weeks all over again – since the two main parties, one led by Nawaz Sharif and the other the ppp have decided to contest the polls. Yet, a larger unresolved moral and political question regarding the boycott still exists. The reasons why a number of writers and political actors were insisting on a collective boycott of the elections were that we feared, and still do, that participation in the process would legitimise the former general-president’s half-hearted attempt at democracy. With numerous unilateral interventions made in the constitution, in the judicial process, with regard to the media, and in other arenas, the then in-uniform Musharraf was absolving himself from the undemocratic politics that had been ongoing since 1999. Moreover, a participation in this process of legitimacy also undermined the anti-military, anti-Musharraf, pro-democracy movement and activism that made 2007 a particularly special year for Pakistan.

With the principled stand of a boycott now merely that, and with both the major parties contesting, what stand should one now take regarding the electoral process? Should one continue to chant the boycott mantra and end up outside the political process, marginalised? Or should one halfheartedly agree to participate in the elections? The answers to these questions rest on what sort of politics takes place from now till after the elections, and on the political positions that emerge after the elections.

New Possibilities

Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League still insists that it wants Musharraf gone, uniform or no uniform. They also want the judiciary dismissed by Musharraf when he imposed his martial law on November 3 last year, to be reinstated to the pre-November 3 position. There are also some murmurs emerging about repealing some of the laws passed by Musharraf which affect the constitution of Pakistan. While Benazir Bhutto was alive there was little mention by her about either

january 12, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly


of the two main demands of Nawaz Sharif. Bhutto who had come back to Pakistan under a deal of reconciliation with the military and Musharraf, largely because it would have given her immunity to prosecution regarding her assets under investigation valued at $ 1.5 billion, was less vocal about such demands and had said on many occasions that she would comfortably work with Musharraf. Moreover, president Musharraf, even up to a few days before she was assassinated had said that he would work with Bhutto as his prime minister.

The Musharraf-Bhutto alliance seemed to have been a done-deal, with active support and backing from the Americans, since both Benazir and Musharraf would have gained substantially by this arrangement. Bhutto’s death has spoilt it for the president, but made the politics of Pakistan and the new possibilities for the country, far more interesting.

The public face of the new PPP, which at the moment seems to be Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of the assassinated Benazir Bhutto, has had an interesting political career. Moving from being “mister ten per cent” in the two governments of Bhutto in 1988 and 1993, he absolved himself by staying in jail and fighting numerous corruption cases against him after 1998. Now being pushed into prominent leadership after some years in exile, he has the opportunity to give completely new directions to the party. He has neither the same constraints as did Bhutto, nor the same baggage. He also does not have the Bhutto name, nor the great history of the party. He, along with some of his senior leadership, many of whom opposed Bhutto at the time of her deal with the then-general Musharraf (but had to tow her line, in the end), have an opportunity to redefine the party, as well as democracy, and Pakistan, and can bring in the older, more radical, mission of the PPP on track. This is a great opportunity for a party which has an almost guaranteed vote bank of between 30 and 35 per cent, to reinvent itself, especially given the sympathy vote which will come its way.

Sympathy Vote

Nawaz Sharif has suggested that after the elections both his party and the ppp should work jointly towards similar goals. Zardari has not responded to this offer and one

Economic & Political Weekly january 12, 2008

does as yet not know how his party will play out its politics in the days leading to the elections. The biggest beneficiary of the now postponed, January 8 elections would have been Zardari’s PPP as it would have ended up with a large number of sympathy votes, in addition to those who would have voted for Bhutto earlier. A postponement by six weeks may now hurt his party the most, since as sentiment subsides, so may the sympathy wave. Nevertheless, Zardari and Sharif have the possibility, and it is nothing more than that, of working towards democracy as revenge.

Whether both parties, which are expected to win at least 70 per cent of the seats and votes in the elections, can jointly work to oust remnants of the old 1999 political order, is perhaps the most interesting political question of today. Given the history of both parties and their leaders, this looks highly improbable. Nevertheless, with a new leadership in the PPP and with a far more aggressive and independent-minded Nawaz Sharif, the possibility does exist. And if it does come about, it will be the revenge of democracy, not just for the ppp, but interestingly also for Nawaz Sharif.

But what if the elections result, not in revenge, but in legitimisation and compromise? If the PPP of today went back to the PPP of Bhutto, then it is less likely that we will see much in the form of the old structures and institutions being transformed, and possibly even less of a transition than hoped for. Moreover, there will be an even greater sense of disarray amongst the political actors, and the beneficiary will be the so-called “Establishment”, the most prominent symbol of which is the retired Musharraf, whose politics and position would have been greatly legitimised in the process.

Clearly, the next eight weeks will decide far more than just the political futures of many prominent individuals on the political map of Pakistan. The future of the PPP is also at stake, having lost its history and links with its past. While the elections themselves may not necessarily lead to democracy, whether as revenge or otherwise, the political processes before and after the elections certainly have the possibility to do so. Unless this opportunity is taken to redefine the nature of politics in Pakistan, the decision to boycott the elections, in retrospect, may then look like a great, missed opportunity.


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