Thursday, January 10, 2008

Democratic and Political spaces

by S. Akbar Zaidi
(Courtesy DAWN)

Those of us who were hoping that political parties would take a principled stand and boycott a sham structure and system which merely legitimises and endorses President Musharraf's political arrangement were called naïve, or worse, once the main political parties decided to participate in the 2008 elections.

Questions were raised about issues relating to individual and public or political morality, where a number of people argued that while it was acceptable as individuals to take certain principled positions privately, in politics the game is not so much about such individual dilemmas but about opportunities. The arguments stated that political actors are in the game to achieve political power, and their morality or principles should not be constrained by that goal. Hence, when they have the opportunity to acquire power, their principles could be set aside.

In any other language such behaviour would be called the crassest form of opportunism, but in the language of politics it is known as tactics. The argument goes that rather than hold on to some principled stand and sit on the sidelines and watch the political process unfold, political actors are better off if they protest,yet accept and play by the rules of the game, for they would otherwise be completely marginalised in the process which they are hoping to influence. If the opportunity to influence the larger political process arises, whether through collaboration, collusion or compromise, political actors are required to be political rather than moralists.
This politics of opportunism based on collaboration, or these so-called political tactics, deserves far greater scrutiny in our public discourse than it has received. If politics is to be devoid of principles and determined merely by the possibility of opportunity, then the political stand of some actors against military intervention, or in defence of a persecuted judiciary or a hounded media, must be quickly dismissed as mere adventurism. However, even political parties sitting on the fence waiting for their collaborative opportunity would have a problem in dismissing such principled political activism asnaïve, for perhaps the same political parties are the greatest beneficiaries of such principled activism.

Let us set aside this complicated problem of the relationship between individual morality and political praxis for a moment, and proceed with a discussion on the difference between the praxis of politics and the practice of democratic politics. This might sound like a trivial difference, but the arguments of morality and the real-life politics of much of the last twelve months allow us to make a marked distinction between the two. Importantly, one must emphasise the point that while political actors and democratic actors are two different entities, which often overlap, they are mutually dependent on each other, linked and influencing one another.

The military in Pakistan is the most important political actor in Pakistan, and is obviously an undemocratic one. No problem distinguishing between politics and democracy here. Because of the power of the barrel of many guns, it has been the most dominant institution in the country for some decades now, and since 1999 has been judge, jury, arbitrator and prosecutor in Pakistan's mainstream political process. Individuals from the military have determined and set the rules of all the games related to politics, and whatever politics thathas been played in Pakistan has taken place under those rules.

By accepting the political rules of the military, one can no longer call the process, nor those who collaborate with the military, democratic. Political, certainly, but not democratic.

Yet, importantly, one must also add that the circumstances, even of a praetorian system in which some representation and participation takes place, expand both political and democratic spaces.

Political parties and other actors who claim some democratic licence, lose that license and their credibility when they collaborate with a military regime, whatever justification they conjure up, even though their collaborationist action unintentionally creates democratic spaces. In fact, and ironically, while individual decisions(morality?) of collaboration lead to the compromise of their democratic principles, the unintended consequences do create democratic spaces.

The support for Chief Executive Musharraf in 1999 by civil society actors is one example when many champions of democracy, for personal and selfish reasons, gave up their democratic license to have perhaps their only opportunity to participate in a political process, although in this case their politics did not open the way for democracy.

On the other hand, political decisions, like the Nov 3 martial law and the earlier clampdown on the judiciary and continued pressure and arm-twisting of the media, have created far more space for democratic politics than could have been expected, despite the absence of political actors in this democratic space.

The main argument here is that political parties and actors are more concerned with access to, and preferably capturing, power than with the modalities of getting there. If deals can be struck and compromises made, one ought to be clear about the undemocratic nature of that politics.
One can certainly live with such collaboration, for this too pushes the political spaces forward and creates new spaces in which others, perhaps more inclined towards democratic ideals and hence not necessarily focused on acquiring power, can manoeuvre. Political spaces do expand democratic spaces and do feed off each other, but one needs to be able to distinguish between the two.

And it is the question of morality which perhaps helps in making that distinction possible. If individual morality, such as compromise with the military, leads to more democratic spaces for everyone, should one condemn the compromise? If, on the other hand, holding steadfast to principles causes a political party or other democratic forces to lose out on the political process, by boycotting an election for example, does one celebrate the morality and laugh at their 'political' naiveté? The answers are probably to be found in an understanding of recent political processes in the country.

In an unequal relationship, the former COASdetermined the rules of all the games played in the country, as well as who would be allowed to play by those rules. Those who were allowed to participate in those political games accepted his terms. Because the relationship between representatives of the military and of political parties was so one-sided, the democratic space increased only slowly on account of this liaison. Political representatives were always subservient to the rules of the game. And in fact democratic spaces were opened up despite the presence of political actors.

The vast democratic space that has been opening up - where on earth does a military general impose martial law for six weeks, and two weeks after imposing it inform his adversaries that hewill lift it on a specific date? - has been on account of those who have been taking individual and political moral stands, and who haven't been playing by the rules. While political action and processes do lead to democratic spaces, they do so largely inadvertently. Agency, in expanding the broader democratic process, on the other hand, comes from principled stands.

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