The democracy experiment

Published: September 13, 2017
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Democracy as practised in the youthful state of Pakistan is barely out of the starting gate and is best described as elective feudalism. As a process democracy has had a difficult gestation with Charles the First of England (beheaded in 1649) calling it ‘the power of equal votes for unequal minds’ and Churchill grumping that it is ‘the worst form of governance apart from all the others that have been tried.’ Currently Pakistan is moving into the post-dictatorship phase, with the generals content to let the civilians make whatever sort of mess they like short of falling into civil war, and the bicameral parliament creaks slowly along, frequently ignored in the lower house by elected members but more assiduously nurtured in the upper house.

Another step along the uneven democratic road was taken on Monday 11th September when the Senate adopted a pro-democracy resolution which called for the establishment of a national democracy commission such as that originally envisaged in the Charter of Democracy. Article 25 of the Charter states that a National Democracy Commission shall be established to ‘promote and develop a democratic culture in the country.’ The Charter was signed by Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto in May 2006. A decade later it has been resurrected, suggestive of it being an idea before its time but that now the time has come.

There are few mechanisms by which democratic culture may be advanced and embedded at the grass roots. The core concepts of constitutionalism, federalism and representative parliamentary institutions are completely absent from school textbooks — which may be a good place to start. With 207 million people and about half the population under 25 the formation of such a commission, vaguely delineated as it is, is timely. How it would work, and whether it could have the distance and objectivity shorn of party politics that it would need to be a truly democratic developmental instrument is an open question. Not all experiments are successful. Having chopped off the King’s head the British resuscitated the monarchy as a constitutional entity and it survives today. Despite appearances there are no kings or queens in Pakistan — which does not mean that heads should not roll.

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

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