Pakistan's former President Pervez Musharraf (L)
Pakistan's former President Pervez Musharraf (L) REUTERS/Mian Khursheed

This week the former President and military ruler of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, said he believed that "a good dictatorship is better than a bad democracy".

Mr Musharraf, who is currently living in London, recently had an arrest warrant issued for him, on the grounds that he may have been involved in the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007, charges he denies.

The former dictator, who has indicated he would like to return to politics in Pakistan, made the comments favouring dictatorship while speaking to the BBC's Anita Anand. He claimed that the most important thing for a country is development and the well being of its citizens, if these are provided by a dictatorship better than a democracy then the dictatorship is preferable, he claimed.

At first glance his comments appear to perhaps have a grain of truth to it. Certainly his native Pakistan is not the best advertisement for democracy at the moment. If the assassinations, suicide bombings and death sentences for "blasphemers" were not bad enough the apparent endorsement of many of these actions by large sections of the social and clerical elite are enough to put anyone off this particular democracy.

When we compare Pakistan as it is now to what is was during the days of Musharraf (or "The General" as George W. Bush famously called him), we might be tempted to agree that perhaps Musharraf's "good dictatorship" (by which he modestly means himself) is better than the current democratically elected government, especially if it is able to beat the Taliban and its friends.

However as soon as one starts to look further afield than Pakistan, the Musharraf thesis begins to look somewhat shaky. The Gaza Strip for example might be what could be classified as a "bad democracy" after a Hamas government was elected. Subsequently Gaza has been blockaded, causing significant hardship for the people living there and has been attacked in force by the Israelis after they had finally had enough of having rockets being fired at them from the democratically elected Hamas..

Perhaps Gaza could do with a nice Musharraf-style dictator? Certainly that would be preferable to the present regime, but although Hamas may have come to power democratically, the fact that they don't seem keen on holding subsequent elections and their throwing of opponents off rooftops suggests that Gaza (if it ever was) is no longer democratic. As Douglas Murray of the Centre for Social Cohesion might say, "It's one man, one vote, once". Gaza does not have a bad democracy, but a bad dictatorship.

Looking at the "good dictatorship" side of the equation, Musharraf may like to point to China as a country which has managed to improve the standards of living for its people and develop the nation's economy. While the Chinese dictatorship has seen massive economic growth in recent years and decades, it's worth remembering that this very same dictatorship's earlier years were characterised by mass starvation and murder.

In addition while Chinese economic growth is impressive, so is democratic India's. While China's growth has been stronger than that of India, it has been argued that India is nonetheless more attractive in the eyes of some investors. This is partly because India's growth is more organic, while China's has been pumped somewhat artificially by the state, but more importantly companies in India know that they are not so likely to be hit by some sudden diktat or policy change or come into conflict with the all powerful state (as for example Google did in China).

So one has to ask the question, if China has developed this much under a dictatorship, how much better might they have done with a democracy? Sadly we will not know the answer, but even if economic growth would have been the same or even worse it would not have been preceded by horrors like the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square.

Following on from this one might ask (going back to Musharraf), is there really such a thing as a "good dictatorship". When answering this question it might be worth bearing in mind that this rare species includes people like General Pinochet, Hosni Mubarak and (according to the London School of Economics until very recently), Colonel Gaddafi. If these are the good ones with their torture chambers, abductions and disappearing dissidents all it does is highlight how bad the really bad ones are.

The truth is that there are no "good dictators". The very nature of a dictator means that opposition cannot be allowed to challenge the dear leader, even the nicer ones feel the need to imprison their (often democratically minded) opponents and disenfranchise minorities, if not the whole population of their country. This squashing of alternative ideas does little to promote innovation in a nation, either political or otherwise and can often lead to a "brain drain" as educated citizens (when they are allowed to) seek out places where their talents and ideas will be appreciated.

Most importantly there is no mechanism for change in dictatorships, or where there are mechanisms they can be manipulated, rigged or abolished to protect the ruler (think Hugo Chavez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hamas). If a people find themselves ruled be an economic incompetent (Fidel Castro) or a psychotic dwarf (Kim Jong Il) then there is no way to remove these people and allow the country to develop, except wait for the leader to die and even then someone worse might arise.

Going back to Pakistan the problem with the country is not so much the democratic system, it's more the fact that the rule of law is constantly being flouted by people who think Allah gives them permission to do what they like to whoever they like.

Strangely one of the few people who might agree with Musharraf is Niccolo Machiavelli who is best known for his 16th century work "The Prince". The work was once banned by the Catholic Church for giving advice to a potential ruler in which political necessity trumped all the demands of morality. Indeed it has become viewed as something of a "dictator's handbook" and was a favourite of such politicians as Napoleon Bonaparte, Benito Mussolini and Peter Mandelson.

What is perhaps less well known is that "The Prince" was intended to apply to rulers of new states or of those taking power at a time of chaos (not unknown in 16th century Europe). Once order was restored by the hypothetical Prince (using amoral means) the state should then move onto the more democratic Republican form of government, outlined in Machiavelli's lesser known "Discourses in Livy".

In this sense Machiavelli would be all for Musharraf going back to Pakistan and restoring it to some kind of order. However it would be with the proviso that this be done in order to prepare the ground for a stable democracy.

This may be all that could restore Pakistan to some kind of order at the moment, but why could a democratically elected President better than the hopelessly corrupt Asif "Mr 10 Per Cent" Zadari, also do that? Pakistan needs good democrats who will stand up to the extremists and murderers and not "good dictators" who will do so while curtailing freedoms.