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A democracy by undemocratic means

By M Zafar Khan Safdar

Back in 2013, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) was protesting the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N) rigging. The latter had emerged victorious after receiving the highest number of votes in the 2013 General Elections. Now, it is quite the opposite. This time, it is the PML-N which is leading the protests.
The demand then, was same as today; no to rigging, no to corruption and no to autocratic governments. Democracy has been the most successful political idea of the twentieth century, and they are on average richer than non-democracies, and have a better record of fighting corruption. More fundamentally, a democracy lets people speak their minds and shape their future. The fact that so many people in different parts of the country today are prepared to risk so much for this idea is testimony to its enduring appeal.
In Pakistan, we put too much emphasis on elections and too little on other essential features of governance. We see protestors outside many constituencies protesting for their rights, while state ‘institutions’ continue to impose their ‘divine’ writ using illegal methods. The news of the killing of political workers in Mansehra, and the dozens that were injured in different parts of the country following protests against the alleged rigging in these elections are highly concerning. As it is a democracy, the Pakistani state must guarantee its citizens freedom of speech and freedom to organise. However, the biggest challenge to democracy comes from within, that is, from the voters themselves. Plato’s great worry about citizens of democratic countries “living from day to day, indulging in the pleasure of the moment” has proved to be prophetic.
For democracy to be successful, elected representatives must not be tempted by the notion that winning an election entitles them to do whatever they please. The tendency of elected governments to increase government spending and borrowing to appease their voters in the short-term always leads to a fiasco.
However, robust constitutions promote long-term stability, and can also bolster the struggle against corruption. Conversely, the first sign that a democracy is heading for the rocks often comes when elected rulers try to erode constraints on their power, often in the name of majority rule. The people must recognise that robust checks and balances are vital for establishing a healthy democracy, just as crucial as the right to vote.
The right to vote has not yet managed to deliver good governance to Pakistan, though the continuity of the democratic process since 2008 has managed to promote political awareness among the masses. There have been general elections, both fair and unfair, there have been referendums based on flawed premises which produced disputed results, and there have been interregnums of representative government that have been characterised by misrule and wrongdoing, and made it a simple matter for the military to again get back into power. With misplaced intuitional priorities, and with constitutional processes paralysed for long periods, democratic institutions have been stunted, giving rise to an aberrant political culture. We have insisted on experimenting with various systems of our own making, sometimes taking the country close to becoming a theocracy, and at other times seeking to capture something that we call the essence of democracy. General KM Arif was fairly right in stating that “Pakistan is a wounded nation, hurt by both friends and foes. Her national body is riddled with injuries of insult, neglect and arrogance inflicted by dictators and democrats; judges and generals, the bureaucrats and media. None of them are blame-free”.
“Pakistan is a wounded nation, hurt by both friends and foes. Her national body is riddled with injuries of insult, neglect and arrogance inflicted by dictators and democrats; judges and generals, the bureaucrats and media. None of them are blame-free”
The founding fathers defined and established a democratic government but failed to give a democratic character to the nation or to nurture democratic institutions. Pakistan fell prey to the rigors of military rule and all efforts to foster democratic institutions have since been foiled by internal and external forces, which do not want Pakistan to have a truly democratic system of government. Since the socio-politico basis for the foundation of Pakistan was essentially feudal in character, it developed as such, and successive rules have only sought to perpetuate this character. While the major part of Pakistan’s existence has witnessed military rule, the civilian governments too remained heavily backed or influenced by the military, resulting in lack of political culture and exaggerated defence concerns. This eventually lead to the military becoming a political actor and the weakening of our institutions.
The very basis of democracy in Pakistan rests in the ability of the state to provide people with basic structures that support development and progress. However, the real threat to democracy and progress comes from the ruling elite itself, who want to perpetuate their rule, using any means possible. The life of the common people remains bleak, our political landscape continues to be characterised by monotony, as well as chaos, uncertainty and a lack of consensus on all vital issues. Beyond all the skulduggery of the past and the present, does Pakistan have a future?
It takes time to build a democracy. Pakistan is not a failed state just yet, and its people are not lifeless. We have the ability to rise as one of the strongest democracies in the world if our foreign policy is re-tuned, weight age is given to strong economic relations with neighbouring states, and role of state institutions is re-defined. The politicians judiciously need to settle their disputes, concentrating on issues and reforms, and not patronage, agitations, allegations and exploitation. The basic right of the people to govern themselves should unreservedly and unequivocally be recognised if we need to come out of suffering and chaos. The people’s mandate and power of the vote should be respected, for it is the only path to a prosperous Pakistan.