As Pakistan gears up for its parliamentary election on Monday, many observers hope that the vote will usher in a period of stability and calm by lending popular legitimacy to the government. But sometimes democracy is best served by refusing to participate.
The upcoming election, to be held under the illegal Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO) implemented following President Pervez Musharraf's declaration of a state of emergency on Nov. 3, is such a case, which is why my party and its coalition partners are boycotting the vote.
To be sure, contesting the election would provide my party with a great opportunity to take issues to the people. In fact, my party's support has been growing, with opinion polls now indicating that it is the second most popular in the frontier province -- and gaining ground in every other province.
But elections by themselves don't bring democracy. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe loves elections. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been holding elections for 27 years. Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov has been in power for 30 years, and has just been "elected" to a fresh seven-year presidential term. Elections are meaningful only if they are perceived to be free and fair, which requires independent referees.
When my party started 11 years ago, we called ourselves the Movement For Justice. We demanded an independent judiciary because we believed that democracy and prosperity are impossible without the rule of law, and that the rule of law requires a judiciary that can act as a constraint on the government. Having gone to university in Western countries, we were inspired by the US system of checks and balances.
So it is a shock to us that the US State Department keeps talking about free and fair elections and abolishing the state of emergency, but without mentioning the reinstatement of the judges -- including the chief justice of the Supreme Court -- that Musharraf illegally dismissed. If the judges are not reinstated, how can there be free and fair elections? Who decides what is free and fair? Musharraf?
This is where the battle lines are now drawn, and where the future of the country will be decided. If the chief justice and the judges are reinstated, we can move toward a genuine democratic system. But if Musharraf manages to get his own PCO judges established in the country, then we will head toward a period of turmoil. After all, how can the party of a man who has less than 5 percent support win the election now without rigging it?
Unfortunately, most of the political parties have failed to stand up for the democratic process. Major parties like the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or PMLN, have decided to participate, following the lead of the late Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party. And of all the major parties that are contesting the election, only the PMLN is demanding the reinstatement of the judges.
Fortunately, the people of Pakistan -- students, opinion makers and, above all, lawyers -- are standing up for the judges, doing the work that should have been done by political parties. We see lawyers marching, getting beaten up, filling the jails, yet remaining resolute. They are suffering huge financial losses by boycotting the courts, and yet they are determined that the chief justice must be reinstated.
So the dividing line in Pakistan is not between liberals and extremists, but between those who support the status quo and those who oppose it. Parties that call themselves democratic are not only going along with Musharraf in this fraudulent election, but are also helping to restore the status quo.
The solution to dysfunctional democracy is not military dictatorship, but more democracy. Pakistanis understand democracy because we have a democratic culture. Our founder was a great constitutionalist, and Pakistan came into being through the vote. The problem has been that because we have lacked an independent judiciary, we have not had an independent election commission. So all our elections, except for one in 1970, have been rigged.
India, with which Pakistan shares a similar background, went through 40 years of dysfunctional democracy with a one-party system. But in the last 16 years it has begun to reap the fruits of genuine democratic competition because an independent judiciary and electoral commission give people confidence that their vote can make a difference. Until we have the same in Pakistan, no election can be free and fair.
For two-and-a-half years, I supported Musharraf and believed his promises to bring genuine democracy to Pakistan. I've learned my lesson about Musharraf. But, more importantly, no military dictator can succeed where Musharraf has so clearly failed.
Winston Churchill once said: "War is too serious a business for generals." The same is true of democracy.
Imran Khan is chairman of Pakistan's Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) political party. A philanthropist and sportsman, he was a member of the Pakistani parliament until its dissolution last year. He is chancellor of Bradford University in the UK.
Copyright: Project Syndicate/The Asia Society
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