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Pakistan: The Basic Democrats

4 minute read

Since Pakistan’s Mohammed Ayub Khan seized power in 1958. he has argued that Western-style constitutions are unsuited to new, underdeveloped nations.

Banning political parties, which he blamed for pushing the country to the brink of chaos, benevolent Dictator Ayub set out to establish a system of “basic democracies” that would steer a middle road between authoritarian rule and untrammeled democracy. Last week, after putting his compromise to the test in the first nationwide election held since Pakistan won its independence in 1947. Ayub Khan declared accurately enough that the country has made “a very happy beginning.”

Instant Divorce. In fact, President Ayub left Pakistan little opportunity to do otherwise. Forbidden under martial law to use party labels, most candidates for the 150 seats in Pakistan’s new National Assembly campaigned on the bland platform of “identification with the ideology of Pakistan.” They were not elected directly by the people but by an elite electorate consisting of 80.000 members of village and town councils—less than one-thousandth of the population—whom Ayub calls “persons of status in their communities.” In the average constituency, six candidates vied for only 500 votes. While the electors, or basic democrats in Ayub parlance, are 80% literate (national average: 16%), a basic drawback of the system is that they include few intellectuals or business and professional leaders. Thus Ayub’s electoral system is far from representative of society as a whole—although it is certainly closer to democracy than such authoritarian regimes as Egypt’s or Indonesia’s, which use similar political labels.

Since there are too few voters for Western-style political rallies, most campaigning was done in Pakistan’s exclusively male teashops or candidates’ homes. After politicians passed the word that curried lamb and spiced pilau would be served to voters and their families, some homes were so crowded that the government dusted off an old regulation forbidding more than 35 guests to be served at a time. Well-heeled candidates even rented elegant bungalows and hired entertainers and night watchmen, aiming to keep voters out of reach of other candidates until the time came to haul them to the polls.

The basic voters showed their support for Ayub’s system with a 95% turnout that ignored clandestine appeals to boycott the polls. They heavily endorsed three of Ayub’s ministers who were running for the National Assembly — notably Kashmir Affairs Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a zealous champion of Ayub’s ambitious land reforms, who was elected from a Sind constituency dominated by feudal landlords who have been hardest hit by land redistribution. Ayub’s biggest triumph was the voters’ overwhelming rejection of orthodox Moslem extremists, who stumped for “purification” of society and repeal of such Ayub-sponsored reforms as a ban on polygamy and the traditional Moslem system of instant divorce at the husband’s whim (by in toning “I divorce thee” three times).

Brotherly Criticism. Despite such Ayub successes, the election returns showed that Pakistanis want a system that is more genuinely democratic than any thing envisaged by Ayub. The great majority of all elected candidates are former members of banned parties. At least 100 belonged to the old Moslem League, whose leader in West Pakistan is none other than Ayub’s elder brother. Sardar Bahadur Khan. Moslem Leaguer Bahadur is outspokenly critical of his brother’s contention that political parties, when restored, should be confined to “like-minded people” within the National Assembly, where his Moslem Leaguers will probably have a two-thirds majority.

In defense of his limited democracy, President Ayub protests that it is Pakistan’s best protection against the demagogic misrule that plagued the nation for eleven years under a parliamentary system inherited from the British. Says he: “The curse of Pakistan is an intelligentsia which doesn’t understand its own country and its own conditions. We are called heretics if we don’t rigidly follow the Western system.” Heresy or not, if this week’s elections for the provincial assemblies follow the pattern of voting for the National Assembly. Ayub Khan will be under strong pressure from unlike-minded politicians to restore a greater measure of democracy when martial law is lifted in June.

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