Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Pakistani Democracy Subverted

Although Imran Khan has now called off protests because of the terrorist attack in Peshawar, he has said he will continue the protests later on. 

The protest movement led by Pakistani Tehreeki Insaf (PTI) chair Imran Khan has led to a partial shutdown of Lahore, a strike in Karachi, and protests in Islamabad. Khan has threatened to paralyze the country on December 18 if his demands for an electoral inquiry into alleged vote rigging in the May 2013 election are not met. Although demands for electoral transparency are important and legitimate protest can help to bring about change, Khan’s current ultimatum only serves to subvert Pakistani democracy.

Khan’s central argument is that the May 2013 elections had massive vote rigging. While some issues existed with the elections, the European Union Election Observation noted that:
“Despite escalating militant attacks, and procedural shortcomings, the electoral process progressed with high levels of competition, a marked increase in voter participation, and overall acceptance of the outcome. The electoral reform undertaken in the last few years, particularly in regards to the leadership of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and the electoral roll, provided for a significantly improved process.”
This report goes on to highlight both the strengths and failures of the election, but ultimately concludes that the election was generally free and fair.

This report contradicts Khan’s assertions and demonstrates that Pakistan is continuing to improve its electoral process. This commitment to developing a transparent electoral process will develop over time. Demanding immediate revolutionary change will not bring about complete transparency and will instead weaken nascent political structures.

Pakistani democracy is fragile and continued protests only serve to weaken the political system and country as a whole. The political system has only just begun to recover from the Musharraf dictatorship and the May 2013 elections were a positive step forward towards democratic consolidation. However, Khan continues to divide the country, waste precious political capital, and hurt Pakistan’s economic recovery through continued protests.

The biggest problem with Khan’s current gambit is that he is subverting Pakistani democracy through an increasingly unconstrained protest movement. These protests are hurting the average Pakistani and disrupting their way of life. His actions delegitimize the electoral process by encouraging democracy through mob rule. Democracy is about compromise and justice, not perpetual protest and subversion. Khan should remember this before following through on his threat to shut down the country.

This is the third part of a series of articles I've written on the fall 2014 democracy protests in Pakistan. The other pieces can be found here and here.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Can Pakistan Handle Democracy?

Are elections worth having if there are voting irregularities, little to no change occurs for the average Pakistani, and it substitutes one kleptocratic ruler for another? This question is being debated in living rooms and on the streets across Pakistan today. Pakistanis are frustrated with the lackluster pace of political reform and change. Pakistanis endlessly complain about rampant corruption, unresponsive leaders, and the problems with democracy. But does this mean Pakistan cannot handle democracy?

The answer is a resounding no. Although there are merits to these critiques, the only way forward for Pakistan is with more democracy, not less.

Democracy, at its best, can bring about a tsunami of change to politics as usual. The 2013 elections demonstrated that not only can Pakistan peacefully transition between two-parties, but that new parties can get their seat at the table. Pakistani Tehreeki Insaf (PTI) went from no seats in the National Assembly to hold 28, the third most in parliament. Voter turnout shattered records, with 46.2 million people—55 percent of those eligible—casting ballots in the election according to the Electoral Commission of Pakistan (ECP). This election demonstrated that Pakistanis want a change and that change can be brought about through the ballot box.

But the demonstrations in Islamabad by PTI chief Imran Khan and supporters of Dr. Tahrir ul Qadri have shaken many people’s confidence in Pakistani democracy. While Mr. Khan’s vehement demands for electoral transparency are legitimate, his method of protest has undermined both his agenda and Pakistan’s democracy.

In spite of this setback, Pakistani democracy can be improved and reformed. What is needed now more than ever is to get all political parties in Pakistan to agree to resolve their problems through legitimate negotiations and political bargaining, not through illegitimate demands and bombastic threats. Only through sustained arbitration can Pakistan’s fragile democratic system continue to exist.

Pakistan’s democratic system needs to continue to exist in order to gradually deliver the change people want. Change does not happen overnight, but occurs through sustained commitment and strategic planning. An excellent example of the change that democracy can deliver is the Metrobus system in Lahore. The Metrobus system allows for a clean, affordable way to get around Lahore for the average Pakistani. While it would be ideal to create mass transit systems across all major cities in Pakistan, the Metrobus system is a positive step forward and an example of how democracy can improve the lives of the average Pakistani.

Pakistan needs to expand and enhance its democracy, not question its viability. Although the problems with the current democratic structure should be vigorously debated, faith in democracy must not be lost. Democracy will provide Pakistan with the best chance for economic growth and development. It will provide the average Pakistani with a voice in government. Most importantly, it will give Pakistan a hope for a better tomorrow. A peaceful and prosperous Pakistan can happen, but only if we do not lose our faith in democracy. 

Monday, August 04, 2014

Propaganda and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Israel is responsible for the current destruction of Gaza. Israel is also responsible for the current unlawful 8-year blockade of Gaza, the 47-year illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories, and the evisceration of the West Bank into de facto bantustans. As of today, Israel has killed 1,831 Palestinians in the current offensive in Gaza with the vast majority being civilians. Israel has bombarded Gaza from the sea, land, and air, destroying critical infrastructure and civilian homes. Israel has destroyed Gaza’s only power plant, smashed its port, bombed its hospitals, mosques, university, and UN-run facilities. After Israel purposely bombed a UN school in Gaza on August 2nd that massacred ten people, the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed “moral outrage” and called the attack a “criminal act” that is a “gross violation of international law.” Even the United States has condemned the attacks on the UN in Gaza as “totally unacceptable and totally indefensible.”

Despite the overwhelming evidence of Israeli crimes and with the raison d'être for the current war likely untrue, more Americans believe that Hamas is to blame for this war than Israel. According to a recent Pew poll, almost 4 in 10 Americans say Hamas is responsible for the violence and about half believe that Israel’s response has been about right (35%) or has not gone far enough (15%). Why do the American people believe that Hamas is to blame and support Israel’s criminal attack on Gaza?

The American people have been misled by propaganda. According to Patrick Cockburn, a journalist at the Independent/UK, Israel has mounted a sophisticated public relations campaign to shape and influence public opinion in favor of Israel. Based on the work of a Republican pollster, the Luntz report provides Israeli officials with the language, sound bites, and disinformation needed to influence public opinion. Cockburn summarizes the report by noting, “On every occasion, the presentation of events by Israeli spokesmen is geared to giving Americans and Europeans the impression that Israel wants peace with the Palestinians and is prepared to compromise to achieve this, when all the evidence is that it does not.” Israel does not want peace, but it must—for the sake of appearances—claim that it does.

Israel’s propaganda war is aimed to support the “Big Lie”—
Große Lüge—to manufacture consent for its untenable actions. Chris Hedges, an independent journalist, explains that “the Big Lie feeds the two reactions Israel seeks to elicit—racism among its supporters and terror among its victims.” This racism has manifested itself in calls by some in Israel for genocide against the Palestinian people. The Palestinians in Gaza meanwhile have no safe place left to hide, as Israel has repeatedly bombed UN-run shelters—seven times so far—in the past twenty-seven days. The people of Gaza are besieged, homeless, and living in the dark.

It is tragic that many Americans have been influenced by insidious propaganda to support the wholesale destruction of the Palestinian people. However, thanks to alternative media outlets like DemocracyNow!, social media like twitter, and Al Jazeera, the reality on the ground is being broadcast all over the world. The best way to fight propaganda is with the truth and the truth is increasingly being seen through a variety of mediums.

This truth has led many Latin American nations to vehemently protest Israeli actions. Five Latin American countries have withdrawn their ambassadors in protest—El Salvador, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru—and Bolivia recently declared Israel a “terrorist state.” It is encouraging to see nations from the Global South denouncing Israel. However, most Arab leaders have not come to the defense of the Palestinian people and the deafening silence from the Obama Administration has enabled Israel to continue its criminal actions unhindered.

The current destruction of Gaza is being spun by the Israeli propaganda machine to advance its interests. Lies are made to appear like the truth. The truth is perpetually being distorted by doublespeak and outright lies. Although Israel could have peace tomorrow if it wanted—see, for example, the Arab Peace Plan of 2002—it does not want peace.

Israel wanted this war and it is to blame for this conflict. Israel is attempting to accomplish its dual goals of destroying Hamas and the infrastructure needed to run a state, thereby preempting a future Palestinian state. Israel does not want a Palestinian state and instead prefers a perpetual peace-process.

Israel behaves with propaganda-enhanced impunity unrecognized by many Americans. The American people deserve to know that this conflict is not about Hamas and its meager capabilities (all driven by a state of desperation), but rather about Israel’s wholesale destruction of Gaza. Israel is comfortable with leaving the people of Gaza in an open-air prison and applying apartheid policies to crush the Palestinian people. This is the reality of the situation in Palestine today, not the misinformation spewed by the Israeli propaganda machine. Latin America and much of the Global South understand this. Hopefully one day America will too.

Friday, March 07, 2014

The High Cost of Education

As an undergraduate, I chose to study in Florida at a public college because it was affordable, Bright Futures provided me with merit-based scholarship money, and because of the high quality of the educational institution. However, when I filled out my Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), I did not understand why the government cared about my parent’s financial situation to determine my financial aid. As an adult of 18, in the eyes of the state I was functionally independent. And yet, any educational aid provided to me was directly related to my parent’s wealth, not mine (because, of course, I had none). But why was this the case, especially since if I took out loans, I would ultimately bear the financial responsibility for having to pay them back? Why should I be denied financial aid because of the financial situation of my parents? These questions bothered me at the time—and had an impact on where I chose to study—but I hadn’t thought about these questions until I heard about the Duke University freshman who is paying for her education by performing in adult films. I was floored by the revelation, but even more so because of the rationale behind why this young woman had decided to do porn to pay for school.

According to the freshman, "I couldn't afford $60,000 in tuition, my family has undergone significant financial burden, and I saw a way to graduate from my dream school free of debt..." The primary reason this young woman decided to do porn was because of the financial burden of school. Leaving aside the question of whether or not doing porn as a career choice is good or not, the real question that stood out to me was: Why is the cost of education so high that this young woman feels that doing porn to pay for school is her only option?

In my mind, this is the case for three primary reasons: 1) the high cost of tuition; 2) financial aid being tied to measures of familial wealth; and 3) the need for young people to get a higher education to get decent-paying jobs.

From Duke University's perspective, the $60,000/year price tag is actually a discount since they claim to be spending $90,000/year per student. But how can any University expect a student to be able to pay $60,000 a year just for tuition? Unless you are part of the 1%, you'll be priced out of this education. UF, in comparison, is a  relative bargain since in-state tuition is $6,630/year. But if you add up all of the additional expenses one accrues during a year, an average undergraduate at UF will still spend $20,000/year on their education, which is still a significant financial burden for most. For this young woman at Duke, paying tuition and living expenses meant that doing porn was her only option.

The second issue here is that a student's financial need is determined by parental wealth. This makes no logical sense. Although our parents have supported us for the first eighteen-year of our life, once we're adults, we shoulder the responsibilities of life, financial and otherwise. It makes little sense that our parents' wealth—which we may or may not have access to—determines the financial aid we get. This young woman's family had financial problems and so she had to bear the brunt of the cost of a Duke University education. But why did she have to potentially pay more based on her parents' financial situation? This should not occur and is a boondoggle that hurts all students everywhere in this country.

Finally the need for a college degree has become a prerequisite for a job in our modern, knowledge based economy. After all, why would this woman feel the need to pursue a bachelor's degree if she thought doing porn could provide her with a stable, long-term career? She wouldn't, because she's smart enough to know that to get a decent job in this economy you need at least a bachelor's degree, which requires a college education. Which leads to the ultimate question: Why do we all have to pay such a high cost for a college education?

I don't know the answer to this, but it is a question that needs to be widely discussed and debated. I was lucky enough to get merit-based scholarships that provided for my undergraduate education. But many students don't get either merit-based or need-based scholarships. Just like this young woman at Duke who decided to finance her education by doing porn, the majority of students in this country have to figure out on their own how to deal with the real financial burden that comes with an undergraduate education.

The high cost of education is morally and intellectually untenable. We, as a society, must reduce these costs so that our society can continue to allow people a fair shake at life. We should all have the opportunity to get an education at a reasonable cost so that we can pursue careers of our choice, not of necessity.