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Dictatorship vs. Democracy

Aparna Pande

While discussing the current Middle East situation in a recent interview, former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf asserted that “good dictatorship is better than bad democracy.” Mr Musharraf’s quote is reminiscent of the traditional Asharite/Al Ghazzali view that “a bad ruler is preferable to anarchy.”

During the early centuries of Islam there were two broad views on political theory and philosophy—the Asharite and the Mu’tazilite. The Mu’tazilites, influenced by Greek philosophy and thought, emphasized reason and rational thinking (ijtihad), whereas the Asharites were more traditional and asserted imitation (taqlid). With the need for complete control desired by monarchs it was the Asharites who eventually won the debate and gained political blessing. The main reason was that every political system needs legitimacy and the Asharite view of taqlid was more likely to approve of the existing system than the Mu’tazilite view of reason and questioning.

While these views and names are rarely mentioned today, their basic conflict still remains. Across the Greater Middle East, this view has been prevalent for decades that autocracy or dictatorship is preferable to the anarchy or chaos associated with democracy. The Saudi dynasty’s legitimacy derives from an alliance with the Wahhabi clergy where the latter have consistently overlooked the personal indiscretions of the ruling family on grounds of avoiding anarchy. Al Ghazzali, a prominent Islamic theologian of the 12th century, often stated the need to avoid fitna (strife) and anarchy.

All of Pakistan’s military rulers, from General Ayub through Yahya and Zia till Musharraf, have held similar views on the need for order and avoidance of anarchy under democracy. General Ayub Khan (1958-69) believed that the people of the subcontinent were not suited either by temperament or by experience to the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy. General Ayub also believed that democracy was best suited to cold climates and not to the tropical climate of Pakistan. That the same conditions prevailed in India did not seem like an anachronism to the general. General Ayub attempted to impose his form of autocratic rule under a system of ‘Basic Democracy’ which excluded political parties and instead installed an indirectly elected presidential system. Ayub’s failure in the end lay in his inability to gain legitimacy and the prevalence and popularity of local political parties despite attempts to get rid of the latter.

General Zia ul Haq (1977-88) sought legitimacy in religion, for him Pakistan had been created in the name of Islam and the reason for the 1971 break up as well as any problems to date had been because his predecessors had moved away from Islam. The Islamization of Pakistani society, education, politics and law struck deep roots under Zia’s era. Zia was fearful of democracy because it would show the strength of parties like his nemesis Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). Zia repeatedly asserted that it was his rule that had prevented anarchy, corruption and further break up of Pakistan by its eternal enemy India, helped by Soviet Union, Israel and other allies.

General Musharraf believed that he was the messiah who saved Pakistan from the corrupt, inefficient and constantly bickering rule of politicians. Thus he ended anarchy and brought efficient rule under a dictatorship. Musharraf’s policy of ‘Enlightened Moderation’ was very similar to Ayub’s ‘Basic Democracy’—an attempt to build legitimacy outside of the political system. Musharraf’s views have not changed, as evident from his memoirs and speeches given after he resigned as President in 2008. He still believes he is the messiah who will save Pakistan from its chaotic democracy. Musharraf’s recent statements are reminiscent of his predecessors not just in his condescending views of democracy but also in his worldview. Just recently in an interview Musharraf stated that Pakistan is faced with an existential threat—not from the Taliban and jihadi groups who are eating up Pakistan internally—but from the eternal enemy, India.

The view that the Pakistanis masses are illiterate and do not know what is right for them and given the choice would choose inefficient, corrupt and self-serving politicians is a view held deeply by the military-civilian establishment. From this it follows that the military and technocratic elite are by education and temperament best suited to guide and lead Pakistan and protect it from its external and internal enemies. The Pakistani army strongly believes it is the guardian of Pakistan’s territorial and ideological frontiers.

The notion that “good dictatorship is better than bad democracy” arises from the need to have order and predictability. However, for any multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual country like Pakistan, any attempt to impose one view will have long-term repercussions. As discussed in my book, Explaining Pakistan’s Foreign Policy: Escaping India, Pakistan’s founding fathers constructed an ideological identity for the country, which subsumed and denied the religio-ethno-linguistic differences. The various internal challenges facing Pakistan today are a blowback of this basic challenge of identity.

While order and conformity suit the people in power, they rarely ever benefit the masses. The irony of Musharraf’s statement seems to be lost on him—the only way Musharraf can return to power is if he contests elections under democracy!

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