Democracy, Religious Parties and Moderation in Pakistan

Posted in Other | 15-Aug-07 | Author: Syed Hussain Shaheed Soherwordi

Political participation is the corner stone of democratization of a society. For regimes in power that initiate democratic openings, however limited, the goal is usually to incorporate opposition movements into the system without losing control of the government. The regime sets the rules of the game, and its ultimate commitments often have less to do with advancing real democracy than they do with deflating challenges to the regime. At the same time, opposition groups recognize that most regimes have no intention of ceding power, so their decisions about whether to participate center on whether the potential gains of participation outweigh the costs. Democratic openings in Pakistan is also characterized by these cat-and-mouse games, with Islamist parties playing the role of the most powerful opposition to existing regimes – even in the cases in which Islamists and regimes have a history of cooperation and confrontation.

In such contests – and regardless of whether a regime is indeed committed to advancing democracy – the stakes of whom to include and who to exclude are extraordinarily high. This is the paradox of democracy in Pakistan: the idea that democratic processes might empower non-democratic actors to reverse those openings – perhaps permanently. Here, it is decided before elections who participates and who not in the forthcoming elections. At the same time, opposition parties participate in elections in the hope to increase their political power while regimes seek to prevent them. The notion of ideological moderation (and not enlightened moderation) begins many of these debates because a wide range of theories argue or imply that participation may be a way of moderating radical political actors, or at the very least elevating moderates and weakening radicals.

Questions about the political participation of Islamist parties have expanded the discussion of their harmonious and docile role in the society. The term 'Islamist' refers to highly diverse groups that advocate social, political, and economic reform through the application of Islamic teachings. Pakistan has a range of organizations that fit these criteria, including charitable societies and legal or quasi-legal political parties, as well as underground movements that routinely employ political violence (often directed at non-democratic regimes), to name just a few. Because many of these groups are well established, having functioned both above and below ground for decades, one should not be surprised to see them quickly emerge as strong voices when non-democratic regimes initiate political openings.

This is the reason that parties like Jam’at Islami, Jamiat Ulma-e- Islam, Fiqqa Jafria Pakistan, Sappah-e-e Sahaba, and the various branches of other small religious parties have emerged as strong contenders in local as well as national elections in the recent past. Islamists have participated widely in democratic elections in the era where incumbent regimes are typically considered the greatest obstacles to real democratic values in Pakistan. Does it make any difference in their participation in political processes?

In the election process, Islamist participation is very clear: most Islamist parties win significant but not majority seats in the parliament. They typically win 20–40 per cent of the seats, an outcome that should be expected given their existing networks and often well-established presence especially their contact through the Mosques with the common man. Far more interesting, however, is that these parties fairly consistently lose seats in subsequent elections: the slogan 'Islam is the Solution' – under which MMA campaigned during 2002 elections – becomes empty rhetoric when party representatives are unable to effect significant change. Constituencies hold candidates responsible for delivering goods and services as well as policy reforms, and the ineffectiveness of many Islamist parliamentarians is recorded in subsequent polls when their parties typically lose seats. This is going to happen in the forthcoming elections (in case it went free and fair). The tide of mood in the NWFP and Baluchistan is just opposite to what it was in 2002. MMA lost its credibility and could not deliver what it had spoken in her election manifesto. The ‘Islam’ card proved political and not even a single Islamic reform was introduced in provincial assemblies. Thus at the moment MMA is at the lowest ebb of its popular support. It can come into power only and only if another US invasion on Afghanistan happens which is not possible now.

In 2002 elections, the MMA victory took place under exceptional circumstances. The vote was more of a rejection of US invasion on Afghanistan than an expression of support for the clergy alliance. The people of NWFP and Baluchistan are highly nationalists and therefore, the success of MMA at the polls should not be read as a sign of overwhelming support among Pakhtoons for an Islamist agenda, and even less as evidence that it may soon sweep polls in Sindh and Punjab.

One of the most important effects of religious parties participation in political process is that it creates cooperation with each other, even if at the pure tactical level. In this regard, the political openings of many political parties have led to expanded instances of cooperation between Islamists and their historic ideological rivals- secular, national or nationalists. In NWFP local bodies elections ANP and Jam’at Islami (who remained at the daggers drawn since their inception) had increasingly sought to cooperate with each other for Nazim Peshawar elections against Peoples Party and JUI alliance. Though time-honored alliances, it proved that religious parties never live and practice politics in isolation. It further shows that ideology does not matter. What matters is political ideology. In addition to parliamentary cooperation in National Assembly and Senate, these parties also work together primarily around issues such as mounting demonstrations against the US war in Iraq and show off of street power in support of non-functional Chief Justice of Pakistan.

Such a political participation results in moderation. It softens the religious parties’ attitude towards issues of national and international politics. They try to resolve it via peaceful means whereas their isolation results in the use of force which can destabilize the situation. But what is moderation? In broad terms, moderation entails a process of change that might be described as movement along a continuum from radical to moderate, whereby a move away from more exclusionary practices (of the sort that view all alternative perspectives as illegitimate and thus dangerous) equates to an increase in moderation. Participation in elections or democratic processes alone is insufficient as an indicator of moderation, but one can expect a lot from it. This process typically involves their agreeing to abandon violence and any commitment to revolution, to accept existing basic social, economic, and political institutions, ...and to work through elections and parliamentary procedures in order to achieve power and put through their policies. Their election manifesto, if fulfilled, in itself is a revolution without the use of force. The religious parties were exporting people to Afghanistan during US invasion on Afghanistan in 2001. Similar situation happened during US invasion on Iraq, but as the MMA had come into power, they had realized and understood the meaning of moderation and hence no such series of demonstration happened nor any lashkar exported to Iraq to fight against Americans. Similarly, leader of the opposition, Maulana Fafl-ur-Rehman tried to resolve the issue of Lal Masjid between the two poles. He or any of the religious parties in the parliament never became party in the dispute. Even in the post Lal Masjid operation era, when the entire country is resonating with bombs, no religious parliamentary party is supporting such heinous acts. This proves that political participation not only results in moderation, but it also gives a sense of responsibility.

Moderation is anti thesis of extremism. Political participation has proved the logic of moderation and cooperation. One can’t deny from the fact that it is unlikely to eliminate all forms of radicalism, yet one has to take a start to moderate, moderate by Eastern Values. Democracy shared with all section of the society- religious, secular or nationalist is the pre-requisite of a successful system of government. Cornering or isolating one specific party results in lashing back. It is the time to accommodate all segments of the society of Pakistan so that a vibrant and dynamic political process may take roots for a democracy- a real democracy.

(The author is a research scholar in the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, UK.