Pakistan: WSF and Democracy, 31 August 2005
One of the venues of the first ever polycentric World Social Forum will be Karachi. Caracas and Bamako will be the other two venues to host the Forum simultaneously between January 24 and 29, 2006. In Asia, Sri Lankan groups did not ask for it, Bangladesh initially proposed to host the forum but soon changed their mind. In India there were two opinions, a group wanting to host the forum again and the other was of the opinion that India has already hosted an Asian and a World Forum and thus leave space for others. In a regional meeting held in Sri Lanka, Pakistan’s proposal to host the Forum in Karachi was formally accepted and later approved by the International Committee at its meeting in Barcelona.
WSF to be held in a country under a dictatorship? “If one starts looking for an ideal country with democratic governance, you might not be left with many choices”, says Karamat Ali, Director of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER), an NGO based in Karachi. “There are real hurdles and constraints but security is not on the top of the list. Getting visas for Indian participants, for example is of concern”, he adds.
Karamat is in the Steering Committee composed of people representing all major civil society organizations in Pakistan. South Asia Partnership, Aurat Foundation and the Human Right Commission of Pakistan are few which will be playing and important role in realizing this mega event, but a relatively new entrant, the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF) is expected to steal the limelight. The PFF is not an NGO in the strict sense of the word. It is a mass movement of the fishing community of Sindh and coastal Balochistan. Activism and work with the people concerned is the basis of all popular movements, says Mohammad Ali Shah, chairperson of the PFF. He adds with a smile using his Sindhi sufi metaphors that true love cannot be attained by business people and business cannot be done by those seeking true love. “Here in Pakistan, NGOs play a game with other NGOs, they are a community within themselves who do not work with the people. People say that PFF is probably the only mass movement in the country today”.
The civil society actors are not making democracy an issue in the upcoming Forum. Obviously they don’t have much choice and concretely they will be at a loss if they do so. Says Shah, “We will not back out of any democratic process at the grass root level. It is a space which need to be taken and strengthened”, he adds.
Local Body elections were recently held in Pakistan. The first phase ended on August 18 and the second phase on August 24. As per the rules set out by the government, no political party was allowed to contest. In a rhetoric all very familiar Musharraf in a recent gathering spoke on the local elections “...it has empowered people politically, financially and administratively at the grassroots-level and now they can themselves sort out any difficulties in the way of progress and development. Adds the Prime Minister Aziz “Local bodies are the building blocks of a democratic system and the recent elections will strengthen democracy in Pakistan... democracy was flourishing in Pakistan with an active opposition and free press”.
(DAWN; August 24, 2005)
But according to a recent BBC report, most opposition parties have accused President Musharraf of using the system to undermine democracy. President Musharraf is promoting his brand of democracy. Earlier this year the Parliament passed a Bill demanding Mushharaf to keep his uniform! That the country is ruled by the Army and the Agencies is a common knowledge in Pakistan. “Political parties know this very well because they have stopped going to the people to gather support, instead they negotiate with the powerbrokers and wait for their turn”, says Shah. People are not confident in making any political changes in the country, says Zaffar Abbas of the BBC, “unlike India where the electorate realizes its power to change governments, in Pakistan this is not the case”. Maybe that is why the general sentiment of the people was not against Musharraf taking over by throwing out the democratic government of Nawaz Sharif. But this is what exactly needs to be opposed, says Shah. “A crippled and corrupt democracy is better than a dictatorship. Let the people elect it out in the elections. Let people run this country”, says Shah.
The best way to build democracy is involving the people in the process at all levels of governance. But the government is promoting this 2-tier system for its own interests. “Why just local bodies? ...these elections are a farce, they are a mechanism to keep political parties away from the real decision making in the parliament”. He is also aware of the opportunism of the political parties who have understood the system well. “Political parties are waiting for their turn when the signal comes from the dictators”, says Shah. In his experience in the movement of the fishing community, the political parties have abandoned their space. This is precisely what needs to be captured, he adds. “It cannot happen overnight, it is a process and we have to engage in it”. This is the reason why PFF supports the holding of local elections while knowing at the same time that it is a façade and an attempt to keep people out of the real corridors of power.
The religious extremists, known as jehais, are a real threat to Musharraf since his US supported and dictated war against terrorists. So, is this dictator better than the earlier Zia ul Haq who promoted the jehadis? “Every dictator and ruler is a product of his time”, says Shah. “You cannot have a Zia today as you could not have a Mushharaf then. The fact is that both are dictators and dictators use brutal force to control. In fact, Musharraf is more dangerous than Zia despite of the tyrant image of Zia. He is manipulating and corrupting every institution while Zia was straightforward in siding with the jehadis. We knew then who the enemy was”.
The WSF in a way is quite a controlled process. It can host over a hundred thousand people in any city without the residents of the city knowing about it. Mumbai is a good example. In Karachi too it will happen within the available boundaries. Jehadis will not oppose it because of the Forum’s stand against the US militarism and Mushharaf will not oppose it because the people attending the Forum will not be there to support the jehadis. And then there is this image of ‘good governance’ to be maintained, an image which is being supported and funded by many Western countries including Canada.