George Orwell had described the English electoral system as “an open fraud. In a dozen obvious ways, it is gerrymandered in the interest of the moneyed class. But it is implemented honestly.” No wonder, most British colonies after independence adopted that system. However, the new ruling elites didn’t want to implement the fraud system honestly or didn’t know how to implement it as they lacked the required shrewdness, sophistication and hypocrisy the English colonisers had. Therefore, we see military takeovers, massive corruption, crony capitalism, inequality, poor governance, political instability and civil wars.
Fraud is a fraud whether implemented honestly or not. However, some frauds as Orwell notes are open, and some are believed to be the truth for a long time until they reveal their ugliness. Sadly, by then they might have caused colossal losses. For instance, today no one can defend slavery or colonisation. But for a long time, they had been considered good by renowned scholars and religious leaders. Though Orwell had exposed the ugliness of the English electoral system in the 1940s, some still believe the system is good while it is losing its relevance.
According to the 2015 report of the Electoral Integrity Project, UK scored worst in Western Europe and most of its former colonies too were found at the bottom of the index. Interestingly like the oldest democracy, the largest ‘democracy’ of the world (India) too scored fewer points than the electoral systems of Bhutan, Brazil, Estonia, Mongolia and Chile. Pakistan’s scores were also shamelessly low. Overall, the EIP report concludes that in global comparison the Proportional Representative (PR) system generally performs better than the English (Westminster) system. In short, the largest and oldest ‘democracies’ appear to be losing relevance of their electoral system.
Democracy is believed to have an inherent capacity to prevent disputes, but many democratic countries have miserably failed to prevent conflicts. Think about the farmers’ movement and Kashmir uprising in India, Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street in the US and independence movements of Ireland and Scotland. These most likely are the result of failure of the so-called democratic system that is based on the English model.
Sadly, despite massive social mobilisation, the civil society of the West could not stop imperialist democracies from launching external wars. Just recall the US led invasions of Vietnam, Laos, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Chile and Nicaragua, etc. In 2016 alone, the US dropped more than 26,000 bombs. More than a million people have been killed in the post-9/11 US wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria. By 2016, the UNHCR had recorded 12.6 million refugees and internally displaced persons in the major US/UK war zones since 9/11.
Besides, will history forget death and pain that the sanctions of Western democracies brought to the people in Iraq, Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea and Iran? Also, they let the corrupt rulers of developing countries loot the wealth of their nations and then safely protected our thieves and their dirty money in Western capitals. Isn’t this the continuation of the colonial era’s loot and plunder in the name of laissez-fair, democracy and freedom? No doubt today we do have more countries with ‘elected’ governments, but most elections are the result of highly manipulated structures and processes that favour the moneyed groups.
History proved Orwell right in our region too. The model not just served the super-rich superbly, it also criminalised the polity and gave birth to thugs and land mafias, which resulted in a crime-money nexus. Today, every fifth MP is reportedly known as a ‘tainted’ politician in India. No wonder an Indian Nobel laureate, Prof Amartya Sen, would find “India trailing China” on so many social and economic indicators. Electoral democracy of India also failed to check rising corruption which was hardly there in the first 40 years of independence and the religiously-motivated fascism of BJP.
Pakistan’s polity is not much different from India’s. Our first attempt of general elections caused a civil war and subsequently split the country. The next election paved the way to the worst martial law of Pakistan’s history. During the first decade of democracy (90s) the country suffered from perpetual instability, massive corruption and misgovernance, which provided another opportunity to military generals to impose dictatorship. The 1990s duo (Bhutto Zardari-Sharif) brought havoc once again to our nation during the second decade (‘08-18) of civilian rule. Today, once again, the former foes turned into allies, not for any public good but to protect the looted wealth and power and appear to be inviting the military to interfere in politics.
Isn’t it interesting to note that the English electoral model has let Gandhi’s enemies to capture state power, and in the US, bigots like Donald Trump could obtain more than 70 million votes? In our country despite support of liberal and secular parties, Jinnah’s arch enemies — the mullahs — have failed to win a majority in elections but have captured enough ground to make society and polity hostage to their whims. They also managed to frustrate Jinnah’s vision — social democracy, universal social welfare and rule of law. Also, we experienced ethnic/sectarian fascism and looting and bhatta mafias. Consider the rise and fall of MQM and Sipah-e-Sahaba. Both military and civilian governments helped them rise. Once, they were in assemblies, they became an integral part of government formations, Senate elections, legislative business and governance. Contrary to the propaganda that once extremists join political processes, they would become moderate, they continued killing their respective foes.
Also, democracy is perceived as a process of resolving conflicts through dialogue. Parliaments provide that platform, but vested interests choked the dialogue. For instance, Lebanon was perhaps the only democratic country at the time with high literacy rate when civil war erupted. Sri Lanka was the most educated and democratic country, yet suffered from a bloody civil war. Like civil wars, political strife too creates vested interests, and the beneficiaries love to perpetuate the disputes. It took almost 35 years to end the civil war in both countries. How is the pudding?
On account of pandemic handling too, Western democracies failed miserably in comparison to ‘authoritarian’ regimes led by Communist parties. Consider this. By February 19, 2,452,583 people had died from Covid-19 worldwide, and sadly every fifth death had taken place in the US, while every 15th death in the UK/Europe. As we all know China and India have almost the same population size but two completely different political systems. Therefore, it is worth comparing their respective responses to the pandemic. In India, 32 times more deaths took place than China because the Chinese government appeared to be more responsive and caring than the neo-liberal infected greedy private health operators and corrupt state officials of India. Also, credit goes to the Chinese public who seemed to be more disciplined, responsible and law abiding.
Like the proof of the pudding is in the eating, the proof of the electoral system is in its practice and outcome: governance.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 26th, 2021.