The Civil Society Movement in Pakistan: Scope and Limitation

Professor Ishtiaq Ahmed

In the transition from an increasingly authoritarian regime headed by President Pervez Musharraf to an elected coalition government headed by Mr Yousaf Raza Gilani of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the civil society in Pakistan has been acclaimed as the spearhead that wrought such transformation.

Popular movements against dictatorship naturally gain momentum when large sections of the society join them, but normally oppositional political parties and their leaders lead them. In Pakistan, however, the anti-Musharraf movement developed spontaneously among the lawyers in early March 2007 and, gradually, human rights and women rights non-government organisations (NGOs) joined it, while the main political parties remained aloof till sometimes in late October 2007.

In this brief review, we shall try to solve the puzzle of why civil society actors, and not the political parties, assumed the role of the democratic movement in Pakistan. In this regard, we shall address the following questions: What is a civil society? What is its connection to democracy? What did the Pakistan civil society do to bring about the change from authoritarianism to democracy? What is the scope and limitations of the civil society movement that has evolved in Pakistan?

In a broad sense, a modern polity is constituted by three components: one, the state and its institutions; two, the political society comprising political parties and their affiliates; and three, a civil society which comprises autonomous and voluntary organisations that are distinct from state institutions and political organisations. One can include, among them, independent newspapers, television and radio channels, trade unions, chambers of commerce, various interest groups, religious organisations, NGOs and charitable institutions, among others. The assumption is that, if all three function according to the rules of the game, they complement each other and, therefore, establish a democratic dispensation where power is not concentrated massively with only one component.

However, in totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, the political opposition is usually repressed and, therefore, challenges to the power of the state have to emanate in a civil society. Classically, in the absence of any meaningful oppositional political party, the Roman Catholic Church and the anti-communist trade union leaders at Gdansk became the leaders of the movement for democracy in Poland against the dictatorship of the ruling Communist Party. Equally, because of the ruthless suppression of the political opposition in Iran, only the Shia clergy could mobilise mass opposition to the Shah of Iran. In this latter case, instead of the civil society establishing democracy, a theocratic dictatorship was installed. Therefore, there is no direct one-to-one relationship between a civil society-led movement against dictatorship and the triumph of democracy. It can even result in a much worse type of autocratic rule.

In light of such theoretical considerations, if we now examine the Pakistan situation, we find that Mr Musharraf’s government was generally considered an authoritarian regime as he had come to power by overthrowing the elected government of Mr Nawaz Sharif in October 1999. Mr Musharraf tried to promote his regime as a progressive one in opposition to the Islamists, claiming that he wanted to introduce a moderate and democratic version of Islam. However, he began to face mounting opposition, including terrorist attacks and assassination attempts by extremist Muslims, after he decided that Pakistan should join the United States-led “war on terror” in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.


~ by no2wars on 03/11/2008.

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