Benazir Bhutto’s Assassination: Does it mean democracy isn’t right for Pakistan?

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the ex-Prime Minister of Pakistan, is certainly a setback for democracy in that country. Even more, it is a tragedy of global proportion as it further destabilizes a nuclear-armed country that has uneasy relations with its neighbor, nuclear-armed India. As I once attended a dinner where Mrs. Bhutto spoke passionately about democracy, and I just recently commented on Russian readiness for democracy, I thought a quick inquiry into Pakistan and democracy would be warranted.

My search turned up something interesting, a counterpoint of sorts to my previous post. A professor at Tufts University argued that

Of all the travesties that are now the staple of what goes as ‘political commentary’ on Pakistan, there is none as venomous or as dangerous to the future of Pakistan than the claim that Pakistan and democracy are somehow incompatible . . . It is dangerous because once accepted it can (and nearly has) become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

To perpetuate honest inquiry, I want to spend a few paragraphs on this. In short, the professor suggests that to decide a country is not ready for democracy creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. He continues, “Such a claim can mean only one of two things. Either it implies that Pakistan, and therefore Pakistanis, are unworthy and incapable of democracy. Or it suggests that somehow democracy is unworthy or inappropriate for Pakistan.” But, this is creates a false dichotomy because there is at least one other option — that Pakistan is not yet ready for democracy.

I’m not trying to say whether Pakistan is ready or not, although the prima facie evidence of late seems to suggest it as at best marginally ready. Rather, my point here is simply that the professor’s argument does not end the debate on whether democracy is appropriate for Pakistan now.

To the professor’s point, deciding that a country is inherently incapable of democracy would be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I think that is not the real question. The professor is knocking down a straw man. The real question is “What form of government is best for Pakistan now?” The distinction is that “not ready now” does not mean “not ready ever” or incapable or unworthy.

Democracy should be the ideal sought by a nation, because democracy is currently the best known form of government. Nonetheless, there has to be broad acceptance of rule of law, reliable institutions, and a widespread consensus that violence is to be avoided for the system to be sustainable. If those conditions aren’t present than just a large number of people wanting democracy won’t be enough.