Many in the West place great importance on democracy, as if the ability to elect a leader automatically lends legitimacy to a government and makes it “for the people.” What makes us think that democracy is the best form of government, that it should be exported and installed in any nation unfortunate enough to lack it? Is this justified? Let’s take the recent example of Pakistan.

Last Tuesday, Pakistan inaugurated Asif Ali Zardari as president, a man nicknamed “Mr. Ten Percent” in reference to his numerous prior corruption scandals. Zardari is also widower to former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, whose death made headlines last December.

To begin with, I was relieved when his wife (the first choice for president) died. While the West despaired that the self-styled “champion of Pakistani democracy” had been done away with, I was happy. Bhutto had been “democratically elected” twice before, and left behind a legacy of corruption both times. During her time as prime minister from 1993 to 1996, it is believed that she and Zardari stole billions of dollars from the country, eventually stashing the funds in numerous Swiss accounts, purchasing mansions and supporting a lavish, self-imposed exile in Dubai.

Listening to the speeches she delivered just before getting shot, I could only wonder about who was her intended audience. She spoke more about democracy and opposition to terrorism than the economy, or any other domestic matter of concern to impoverished Pakistanis. It was as if her speeches were intended to garner Western support, first and foremost. After all, everyone abroad knows that if you want American support, all you have to do is claim to be against terrorism (whatever that may be) and to “support democracy.” And it certainly worked, until she was killed by one of her own countrymen.

Her popularity outside of Pakistan made a mockery of democracy. A woman who was little more than a thief was able to gain the support of the entire Western world simply by repeating the “D” word. Ironically, after her death the Vatican — a religious symbol of piety and charity — delivered a statement expressing, “Deep sympathy to the entire Pakistani nation.” Apart from stealing billions and getting a number of her supporters killed by foolishly ignoring the security warnings during her protests (for democracy), what did she do to elicit such sympathy?

Regardless, her husband and partner in crime, a man who spent eight years in jail and stood accused of murder, has become president.

So why did Pakistanis support Bhutto so strongly, and why have they transferred their support to her corrupt husband? Well, for one thing they are tired of Pervez Musharraf, the military general who until recently led the country and the same man who dealt with the United States in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. Although he was technically a dictator (sacking the chief supreme court justice may been a bad move), I consider him to be one of the most underappreciated leaders of the century. He carefully steered Pakistan through the competing interests of both the United States and institutionalized Pakistani Islamists, making Pakistan an American ally in the war against terrorism and at the same time appeasing the very people the war was being fought against.

What did this accomplish? It kept the country from becoming a U.S. target (like Afghanistan), and also prevented civil war in a nation where numerous ethnic groups, tribes, clans and political parties co-exist in a weapon-rich environment. And although a dictator, Musharraf did it all without succumbing to the temptation of corruption.

But now Musharraf is gone, and the civilian government is in. The people wanted democracy, and now they have it. On the same day that Zardari was sworn in, the United States attacked a school where a Taliban leader was supposedly hiding. It was at least the fourth U.S. attack on Pakistani soil in less than a week. There have been two more confirmed since.

In the past, Musharraf had maintained Pakistan’s territorial integrity by trading the occasional al-Qaeda operative for additional time and American backing, but until the military protested last week, the new democratic government seemed to have no problem allowing U.S. incursions.

Whatever your opinion of “fighting terrorism” in that manner, such incursions lead to resentment. That strengthens local extremists.

So is democracy the best thing for Pakistan? I would say no. The short periods of civilian rule in Pakistan’s history have consistently empowered corrupt politicians. This time their inability to cooperate has led to a lack of productivity. At such a critical time, with a civil war against extremists raging in the western provinces and an economy faltering, such ineffectiveness hurts the stability of the country.

Sure, Pakistan is now a democracy and people are happy they voted — but what does that really mean? Life isn’t going to get any better for the majority of them, in fact it may just get worse.

Ibrahim Kakwan can be reached at ijameel@umich.edu

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