The people of Pakistan will vote in elections on Saturday. This is the first time in this country of 180 million, the sixth most populous in the world, that a civilian government has completed its five-year term. From the state’s founding in 1947, all previous governments were overturned by the military. So this vote should be a celebration of this important country’s political progress. Some, though, are not in the mood for partying. Muslim extremists are threatening suicide attacks at the ballot boxes. Already more than 100 people have been killed in the election campaign. In Pakistan, like so many places where wild passions and weak institutions cancel the principles of equality and justice, democracy is sorely tested – with unpredictable consequences.
As we first saw in Iraq in the opposition to the American occupation, Islamist extremists do not accept a political system which places at its heart the free will of human beings. This goes against their theocratic thinking, where male clerics determine the future of people according to their own wish. As the leader of Pakistan’s Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud, put it, “We don’t accept the system of infidels which is called democracy.” Furthermore, with 48 million male and 37 million female registered voters, in some of the more conservative regions only about 10-15 percent of women voted in 2008. On Wednesday, an unnamed organization distributed pamphlets in the volatile tribal region of Waziristan, warning people not to allow women to vote. “Take our word for it, this kind of disgraceful act will not be tolerated and anyone influencing women to cast a vote will be punished,” it said, according to Agence France-Presse.
Democracy’s enemies know very well how to exploit it. The three parties that were in the outgoing Pakistani government are under constant attack, unlike another two which have courted support from militant groups and oppose the country’s military cooperation with the United States. However smoothly the voting goes, then, the result has already been manipulated to a great extent by those who want to see the end of even a distorted democracy.
In Pakistan, citizens and politicians are caught between two merciless forces – religious militants and the military. Elsewhere, as in Egypt, the fall of dictatorship leads (at least in the initial phase) not to freedom and rights for all, but to the domination by the group that is the most organized, the least scrupulous. In mature democracies such as ours and those of other European countries, the absolute freedom of choice, coupled with rage and despair at the fallout of the economic crisis, leads to the political system’s fragmentation and even to electoral dead-ends.
And yet democracy persists. It finds ways to serve citizens. That is why, despite all its weaknesses, it remains the peak of human evolution.