Democracy means more than the current leadership or power play
Further ripples of tumult were added to the waves this year has been making when Turkey dramatically foiled a coup attempt this past weekend.
Despite an ominous atmosphere and a situation fraught with uncertainty and danger, Turkish people flooded outside to mount a challenge, in what was perhaps the most remarkable moment of the botched coup.
People poured out on the streets and roads, blocking the way of rolling tanks, pushing them back, protesting, resisting.
More than two hundred lives have been lost but history is sure to record this as an incredible act and demonstration of tremendous courage rendered in the name of defending democracy.
Sharing a history deeply pockmarked by a series of coups and military regimes with Turkey, any upset in the civilian-military relations is bound to evoke interest in Pakistan. But while one must always tread carefully and cautiously in pulling parallels between peoples, histories, countries and events, the recent developments in Turkey do proffer something for Pakistan to consider.
Turkey’s main opposition parties, the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (M.H.P) have been vehemently critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and in case of the Kurdish HDP, have been in a severely strained relationship with the government over the Kurdish peace deal. Yet it is highly significant to note that within hours of news that a coup was being attempted, all three parties immediately came out with strong statements of denunciation and unequivocal support for the democratically-elected government of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Pakistan’s political culture has played a prominent role in the fostering of political attitudes and patterns. Stunted by decades of military dictatorship and repression, it has been disadvantaged by the denial of an uninterrupted, smooth and gradual evolution rooted in the freedom of democratic politics, practice, exercise and resulting benefits of experience and maturity.
In contrast to Turkey, Pakistan’s political parties are known to have distributed mithais on the occasion of coups ousting their rivals; a display of petty opportunism, political myopia and hypocrisy. There are, however, signs that this phase may be long past (as signalled by the Charter of Democracy of 2001 signed by the late Benazir Bhutto and current Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and more recently, during Imran Khan and Tahir ul Qadri’s PTI-PAT sit-in of 2014 in the capital). It was in the wake of the PTI-PAT sit-in that political temperatures in Pakistan rose alarmingly, but they ended up fostering a welcome climate of political unity, solidarity, and prudence by bringing together an entire spectrum of parties, spanning the JI, JUI-F, ANP, PPP to MQM, to abandon their differences and agendas under the umbrella of protecting Pakistan’s nascent democratic dispensation from imminent danger. The parties’ engagement for negotiated settlement to the political crisis attested to their realisation and acceptance that the Third Umpire – a cricketing term used to refer to military intervention to quash political problems in Pakistan – does not make a fair game, and augurs well for none.
The galvanisation of the masses in Turkey against the coup was also an answer to the surreal call given by a Facetiming Erdogan on CNN Turk for the people to take to the streets. While large segments of Turkish society mobilised in defense of democracy alone rather than love for the Erdogan government, the support for the AKP, which garnered it half of the vote in the elections of 2015, cannot be separated and discounted from the strength of the witnessed mobilisation.
Scant doubt exists about Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic ambitions and his bid for greater power, evidenced by the sharp streaks of authoritarianism he has exhibited without inhibition by “running roughshod over political rivals, tossing enemies into jail and intimidating the media” as Time Magazine noted. His heavy-handed tactics to repress the Taksim Square protests of 2013 also proved to be ample evidence of his shrivelling tolerance and sense of restraint in dealing with any signs of opposition or protest.
Regardless of this, there is also little doubt that the AKP government has overseen solid economic and national development in Turkey during its tenure, while appealing to and positioning itself as the representative of a large constituency in Turkey which has claimed marginalisation.
It is now apparent that the loyalty of the state police and a split within the Turkish military itself, with the acting chief of staff Umit Dundar against the audacious initiative to topple the government, also enabled the failure of the coup.
Equally consequential has been Erdogan and the AKP’s political vision for reining in the traditionally powerful Turkish military which has long considered itself guardians of the Kemalist ideology of the state, just as the Pakistan army considers itself protectors of Pakistan’s “national interests”. In her interview with Isaac Chotiner of Slate magazine, professor at Stockholm University’s Institute for Turkish Studies Jenny White spoke about the supremacy of the military at the time of the AKP’s assumption of power in 2003 and the systematic programme of defanging it by the government:
“Together with the Gülen Movement, they [the AKP] initiated a series of high-profile court cases against the generals. They put a lot of the high-ranking officers in jail. All of the heads of the different forces eventually resigned. The end result of that was that the military chief of staff was loyal to Erdogan. After that there was no more uppity-ness. They were demoralized.”
In 1995 the late Eqbal Ahmad penned an article titled “The Signals Soldiers Pick”, offering an incisive analysis of the civil-military imbalance in Pakistan and the environments conducive to tilt that in either’s favor. He emphasised that the end of military intervention in politics hinges upon ‘the legitimacy of the civilian system of power [being] established over a period of time.’ In comparison to the AKP, it is patent that Pakistan’s democratically elected governments have not only been unable to enjoy hardly any period of uninterrupted power, most of which were cut short by instability and coups, to establish a democratic foothold – it was only in 2013, after 66 years, that the country had its first ever transfer of power from one democratically elected government to another. When in power, they have been beset by charges of corruption and incompetence, and the threats of military intervention have always hung dangerously close to them. Democratic governments in Pakistan have also continually manifested a complete lack of political vision in terms of their quality of performance and governance, which invest the democratic system with credibility, popular support and legitimacy; that firmly confer upon it the empowering authority it often lacks. This is a challenge further compounded by their lack of imagination, will and courage to take on the military and establish ascendancy of the civilian democratic set-up in the Pakistani state’s equilibrium of power.
Lastly, the failure of the coup in Turkey does owe itself in no small part to the espousal of a democratic spirit. London-based British and Turkish writer and academic Ziya Meral was quick to praise that “Many amazing journalists, academics, activists who are fierce critiques of AKP consistently spoke against the coup attempt.” According to Mustafa Akyol, this occurrence underscores “…that Turkish society has internalized electoral democracy, and Turkey’s secularists, despite their objections to the Erdogan government’s Islamism, seek solutions in democratic politics.”
It is important to understand that democracy means much more than a current government or a certain crop of leaders, a logic lost on some in Pakistan who barely spared time to engage in coup-apologia on social media and issued invitations to Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Shareef to indulge himself in some Turkish inspiration. Al Jazeera’s Mohammad Alsaafin, in response to a tweet stressing Erdogan’s authoritarianism, replied with a principal point, “[Erdogan is] not champion of democracy, but democratically elected.” It is essential to protect, improve and strengthen democracy as the institutional framework for the state and its citizens, no matter how imperfect it is. To rehash Akyol’s words, the solution to democratic problems must be sought in democratic politics. National welfare and progress are causes not served by coups, which do all but set them back by decades. Pakistan, of all, should know this by now.
As Erdogan unleashes his purges and pillory, the impression that he will entirely squander the support and goodwill he has garnered after the attempted coup, rather than use it for a moment of sensible reflection, is increasingly being lent weight. Nevertheless it is evident that unequivocal political support, the support of the masses and the allegiance of state organs to the belief in democratic civilian supremacy are key to a worthy effort and solid fight, if not bulwark, against the audacity of military adventurism.
Turkey may have had more coups than Pakistan, a gulf of different dynamics, and more turbulent experiences to reach this point, but it is never too late for Pakistan to pick a lesson or two.