Although often united in popular discourse, democracy and liberty are two separate and distinct ideas. The first signifying free and fair elections along with universal suffrage, the latter referring to a collection of rights and freedoms secured through the rule of law and constitutional limits on the powers of the state. Our own Supreme Court recognized this distinction in the Quebec Succession Reference, where it set out four unwritten constitutional principles that undergird our system of government, namely, democracy, constitutionalism and the rule of law, protection of minority rights and federalism.

Yet while these two threads, democracy and liberty, seem to be woven together in the popular imagination, all too often they seem to be coming apart in many parts of the world, including the West. Democracy as a universal value and a system of government is either firmly established or taking hold, while liberty is in retreat.

Recent events in Pakistan seem to indicate that the country is marching headlong toward precisely the type of illiberal democracy that is characterized by mass plebiscite coupled with violations of the fundamental dignity and rights of its citizens. Thus, elections have been rescheduled for February 18 following the assassination of Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Under pressure from Western governments, President Pervez Musharraf has even indicated that he will permit a limited number of foreign election observers to monitor the vote.

Yet it is difficult to assess American intentions, given the Bush administration’s unprincipled approach to democracy promotion, which is tall on platitudes and short on delivery, especially when the potential outcome does not align with US strategic interests. The failed “arranged marriage” âe” as historian Tariq Ali has termed it âe” that Washington (and London) tried to broker between Musharraf and Bhutto is just one example of this unprincipled approach. Pairing a military despot with a feudal one was an ill-fated union from the start.

It is precisely such imperial maneuvering that contributes to the growing apathy, among ordinary working-class Pakistanis, toward the political process. Struggling to secure some of the gains of recent economic growth, or at minimum to stay afloat in a context of economic and social dislocation, they know all to well that their political future is often already determined in the metropoles of the West. Perhaps they should be casting a ballot on Super Tuesday! It is after all their future that will also be decided in the 2008 U.S. elections.

European governments, for their part, have repeatedly called for the strengthening of democratic institutions in Pakistan. The European focus on building robust state institutions is derived from the EU’s comparatively successful experiences of democracy promotion in Eastern Europe. Yet in the absence of the incentive of EU membership, it is uncertain whether such a strategy will bear fruit in other regions.

Opposition parties within Pakistan have vacillated on the question of whether to boycott elections, and being unable to reach a consensus on the subject, have decided to participate. Still many of the criticisms they had originally put forward with regard to the lack of neutrality of the caretaker government, and the failings of the national Election Commission have not been fully addressed. Consequently, the credibility of the upcoming elections will be questioned by many, and not just by the usual conspiracy theorists. Yet in the end âe” given increasing pressure from European, Commonwealth, and influential U.S. congressional leaders âe” by Pakistani standards at least, the impending elections may ultimately be deemed relatively free and fair.

What remains to be seen is whether liberty will prevail. If the events of the past year are any indication, the future looks grim. A major indication of this is recent amendments to Pakistan’s Army Act that grant military courts jurisdiction to try civilians accused of offences, from treason to libel. Under the new amendments, trials would not be open to the public, and lawyers would only be allowed to represent the accused in the capacity of a friend, with limited right of access. Investigation would be carried out by military personnel only, and ordinary rules of evidence would not apply. Predictably, the Pakistani government has legitimized the amendments as a necessary tool in the “war on terrorism” by arguing that similar laws exist in the United States and the UK, for instance under the U.S. Patriot Act.

Yet as Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission has pointed out, the major difference is that the surveillance and detention provisions of the Patriot Act have largely been used against foreign nationals, not U.S. citizens, whereas in Pakistan the targets have been not only domestic militants but also members of an increasing vocal civil society, including journalists, lawyers and political dissidents. Noteworthy is the fact that the amendments to the Army Act were made retroactive to January 2003, thereby enabling the government to target past critics as well as well as future ones.

The other major difference is that Pakistan no longer possesses an independent judiciary. At least not since Musharraf’s dismissal of the judges of the Supreme Court under the November 3 Provisional Constitution Order, and the restacking of the bench with judges compliant enough to take an oath of allegiance to the Musharraf regime. As a result, the excesses of the current dispensation will not be subject to serious judicial review. Instead, the same type of legal gymnastics that allowed the newly composed Supreme Court to ratify and thereby provide a cloak of legitimacy to Musharraf’s controversial re-election will form the new benchmark against which state action is assessed.

Keeping all this mind, it should come as no surprise that the rising tide of bombings in Pakistan’s urban centres are directed towards what are perceived to be the institutions of the state repression, including military installations and police stations. Indeed, similar insurgencies have been evident throughout the Islamic world in recent years, as princely autocrats and illiberal democrats alike invoke the “war on terror” to stifle dissent in relation to the prevailing configurations of political and economic power, treating rights-bearing citizens as mere passive subjects.

Yet democracy cannot, in and of itself, secure stability and progress, certainly not in the absence of liberty. It is to this latter arena that we should turn our attention once the election is over, whatever its outcome.