A long wait for democracy

Published: June 13, 2017
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The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct professor at Georgetown University

The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct professor at Georgetown University

It is difficult to talk about democracy in Pakistan without arousing suspicions about one’s motives. So let me begin with a disclaimer. This is not an article showing preference for a non-democratic rule how well it may perform. Nor is it an argument against a democratic one how poorly it may function. Pakistan not only deserves to have a civilian democratic system but is also capable of having one. And it must have one.

This is a piece about what democracy is really about and where we stand in relation to it. And it is not so untimely an inquiry as it may seem. It raises a legitimate question, on the eve of elections next year when we complete a decade of hopefully uninterrupted democratic rule, whether democracy has indeed arrived in Pakistan. If we have fallen short, this is not something we should be content with in the belief that bad democracy is better than no democracy or that poor governance is the price we must pay to preserve the civilian government and keep the army away. The choice is not between an army rule and democracy but between bad and good democracy.

Democracy has many components and all need to be functioning well to facilitate the march of democracy, and of the country. First, there is the constitution. Then there is politics which is a process and means for the people to relate to those mandated to govern on their behalf and to respond to their aspirations for justice, human security, economic well-being, and basic freedoms. Of course, a credible electoral process as well to help people choose political leadership, the principal architects of democracy. And no doubt the institutions, providing mechanism for good governance reflecting democratic values and the will of the people. These ingredients are all organically linked and are creatures as well as creators of democracy. And finally the media and the judiciary, which have an important supportive role.

Democracy can succeed only in its totality. It is like a symphony where all the instruments have to play well to make the music. But unfortunately we get carried away by one aspect or another of democracy and start defining it in a limited way. For politicians democracy is all about elections and coming to power. And for the educated class, liberals specially, who are most passionate about the Western liberal model of democracy, it is all about freedom of choice, free speech, civil liberties, independent judiciary, and of course elections.

The reality is the focus of democracy is people and its theme is self-governance. The substance of democratic governance therefore are policies that are beneficial to people. Were people to govern themselves would they make policies that bring them harm? So when they elect representatives to govern on their behalf they do so in the expectation that those chosen for the purpose will come up with policies that best fulfill people’s aspirations for a better quality of life. And these policies would end conditions that are hindering the achievement of this objective such as weak rule of law, unfairness, inequality of opportunity, injustice, corruption, social inequities, and extremist concepts of religion that promote divisiveness and incite violence. In all honesty we do not see such governance in Pakistan, yet.

A functioning democracy rests on institutions that are credible, autonomous, have a measure of integrity and are oriented to serving the people rather than centres of power. And are above intervention by personal power. But unfortunately institutions have been politicised in Pakistan and have come to support a generally deinstitutionalised and personalised rule. Their main role is to safeguard the existing power structure.

Even the institutions that are to mediate between people and those who govern them and hold the rulers accountable are not performing their task well like the media. It is not so much the print media but the electronic media. It is interested not in issues but stories, not in people but in personalities, not in discussion but talk. How much honest, bold and informed discussion is there on TV about healthcare, education, madrassas, sectarianism, extremism, social ills, poverty and jobs? Is the media debating the issues or just sharpening the cultural, religious, political and class divide? Is the civil society not giving expression to the same divisions and fault lines?

The fact is there is a disconnect between the agents of change, that is the government and the political leadership, the facilitators of change, that is the media and the civil society, and the focus of change, that is the people.

Here is what lies at the heart of what is hindering the evolution of true democracy in Pakistan. It is the power imbalances in the country, between: civilians and the military; big and small provinces; the majority and minorities, between rich and the poor, and finally between the government and the people. These imbalances have over-weighted the system in favour of more powerful, dominant or influential institutions, classes, regions, groups, and ideologies. They have made ordinary people politically homeless.

Yes we have a parliament but is it passing good laws? And when they do pass good laws what about their implementation? Look at the continued wastage of billions on public-sector enterprises, the frightening magnitude of external and circular debt, and abysmally low ratio of tax to GDP. What has the Parliament done about it? This is the cost we pay for keeping the politicians in power so that we can call ourselves a democracy.

It is said that Pakistan’s middle class is rising. Normally in other developing democracies the emerging middle class becomes a stimulus for political change. But this is not happening in Pakistan. Here is why. Over the decades the size of the ruling elite has increased with the spread of the political process, expansion of economic activity and business elite, and rise of new pressure groups like the Islamic parties. The middle class instead of trying to translate their economic status into political power has found enough connections among the ruling elite to be able to live with the system and benefit from it rather than change it. It has become a collaborator.

I am happy we have a free media, free elections, a free judiciary, and a free civil society. But sadly I keep looking for democracy. So next year when we hopefully complete a decade since the return of “democracy” all we may get to celebrate is that yet another elected civilian government has completed its term. What an achievement!!

Published in The Express Tribune, June 13th, 2017.

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Reader Comments (1)

  • Solomon2
    Jun 15, 2017 - 1:42AM

    “…for the educated class, liberals specially, who are most passionate about the Western liberal model of democracy, it is all about freedom of choice, free speech, civil liberties, independent judiciary, and of course elections. The reality is the focus of democracy is people and its theme is self-governance. The substance of democratic governance therefore are policies that are beneficial to people. Were people to govern themselves would they make policies that bring them harm?”

    There is an ingredient missing here: the quality of virtue, the actual practice of moral excellence, rather than inversion (“what I say about my opponent is what matters, regardless of the evidence showing I’m the one at fault”).or mere lip service. That applies not just to elected representatives but the citizens who elect them as well. It’s about carrying oneself in a fashion that may not be in one’s immediate personal self-interest, but serves the community as a whole: civic behavior and civic courage. Recommend

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