- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 17, 2010

Pakistan held its first parliamentary elections in 2007, but the future of democracy in the Islamic nation and whether it survives the next 10 years is not certain, according to a panel of experts.

The discussion panel, sponsored by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a nonprofit research group, posed the question: “Will Pakistan be Democratic in 2020?”

Shuja Nawaz, director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, gave the 80 attendees at the event a succinct answer: “Most probably, but.”

Understanding the future of Pakistan, the panelists argued, is critical for the United States‘ strategies in the region. In gauging its future, they said observers must look to Pakistan’s past.

“There are a lot of people dedicated to democracy [in Pakistan], but I also see a sliding toward Islamism,” FDD President Clifford May said in introductory remarks.

Marvin Weinbaum, scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute, said Pakistan has a long history of moving from crisis to crisis. Pakistan only reached its current form of democracy after years of military rule.

Consequently, the future of democracy in Pakistan will depend on many factors, the panel said.

Recent promising developments include the creation of an independent court and the 18th Amendment of the Pakistani Constitution, which makes Parliament the center of democratic power.

“It’s a weak democracy, but it has something going for it,” Mr. Weinbaum said.

However, Mr. Nawaz identified several social and economic trends that could detract from democratic governance, such as the economic demands of a growing population, Islamic conservatismand a bloated bureaucratic political system.

“Elections alone do not a democracy make,” Mr. Nawaz said.

The U.S. role in Pakistan’s political development has not been positive, according to Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, director for the FDD’s Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization.

“The U.S. has sometimes sacrificed democracy in supporting non-democratic regimes,” he said. Every time, he said, the U.S. has had strategic reasons - such as preventing a Soviet takeover during the Cold War - but the decision to support non-democratic rule has not turned out well in the long run.

Mr. Nawaz, a Pakistani himself, said he hopes the panel will help Americans come to a deeper understanding of the diversity and trends within Pakistan, so they can push the nation toward an open democracy.

“The U.S. needs to build a relationship with [all of] Pakistan, not just certain groups,” he said.

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