Politics of the people

The establishment of genuine democracy and finding the pathway that would lead us toward supremacy of the Constitution


Syed Akhtar Ali Shah April 14, 2021
The writer is a practising lawyer. He holds PHD in Political Science and heads a think-tank ‘Good Governance Forum’. He can be reached at [email protected]

We have been witnessing the crisis of democracy ever since the birth of Pakistan and are still in the same merry-go-round. Even after the passage of over 70 years, the most important question is the establishment of genuine democracy and finding the pathway that would lead us towards supremacy of the Constitution. Pakistan has a perpetual problem of not knowing who wields the actual power – the ballot or the gun. Based on this yardstick, democratic credentials and political behaviours of our political parties can be measured.

To this end, the role and impact of parties like the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) must not be forgotten. Cobbling of such alliances with a hotchpotch of self-seeking politicians legitimising direct or indirect rule of the undemocratic forces had remained a permanent feature of our chequered political development. The hobnobbing of Mian Mumtaz Daultana with the Anti-Ahmadi Movement in early 1950s to undermine the central government, formation of the Republican Party, establishment of the Convention Muslim League and other factions of the Muslim League in successions, suiting the needs of both civil and military dictators, had been a sad saga of opportunist politics. Even some popular movements like the Qaumi Jamhoori Ittehad in the late 1970s and the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad in the late 1980s did not serve democracy as they acted as a catalyst to undermine elected governments and facilitated the imposition of authoritarian rule.

On the other hand, we also have a golden history of genuine democratic movements with unflinching commitment of the leaders and sacrifices by political workers. Attempts were always made by dictators to sabotage such movements in the past. History is again witness to such events as people are cautiously watching and evaluating the role of various political entities today. People had attached great hopes with the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) for establishing democracy in the real sense of the term. Unfortunately, the opposition political parties are engaged in a blame game and in the process are strengthening those very forces against whom they had assembled. They must realise that two wrongs do not make a right. History will be a witness to the fact that when the situation demanded unity, they fell apart as some succumbed to the urge of grabbing small perks.

Without venturing into who is right and who is wrong in this melodrama of politics the events unfolded so far reflect the pejorative form of Machiavellian politics where the “end justifies the means” in order to grab power. In the process all rules of political morality appear to have been thrown to the wind. Democracies do not merely function on the basis of written constitutions and statutes but also upon sound political traditions and values known as conventions. Unfortunately, such traditions are rare here.

In this context, fully functional institutions are the sine qua non of democracy. Political parties occupy a centre stage among such institutions and if they have democratic ethos, they provide strength and vigour to the political system. Political parties, as the heart of a political system, remain responsive to the will of the people and act as engines of change and development. Tragically, in our country the feudal mindset of authoritarianism in conjunction with crony capitalism permeates, to a large extent, most of the political parties. Therefore, genuine consultation is rarely done as decisions are taken by a select few and then imposed upon the party. The lower cadres of political parties, having little say and tied in a clientele status have to follow blindly. This undemocratic culture of political parties is also a big impediment in establishing genuine democracy.

In a true democracy, sovereignty of the people is to be exercised by their chosen representatives through free and fair elections. Therefore, sanctity of the ballot is of paramount importance. In such a setup power flows from the people, and the constitution sets the parameters for the executive, legislative and judicial organs of the state. Pakistan, being a federal parliamentary democracy envisages a constitution based on the trichotomy of power. With the constitution being supreme, under its Article 4, all actions of the functionaries of the state have to be in accordance with the law, leaving no room for arbitrary powers. In such a scheme of things all departments are subordinate to the executive, whereas the executive is accountable to the parliament. The authority to review executive decisions lies with the superior judiciary. However, framing and execution of public policy is the exclusive domain of the executive.

Under a democratic dispensation, no other department can claim authority or arrogate such a role to itself that is not ordained in the law. Any deviation from such an arrangement negates the essence of democracy. No doubt, in democratic systems the executive seeks inputs from various sources and departments under clear rules of business, but such inputs are not binding, the executive authority overruling such advices may take any decision within the constraints of the law. But the bitter fact is that the executive is not independent in framing public policies in accordance with the democratic aspirations of the people. Pakistan is not the only country passing through this phase of history as other countries also faced similar challenges for the assertion of people’s sovereignty.

Today, Pakistan is in its defining moments where lines are drawn between those standing with people’s sovereignty and those standing with forces inimical to this basic principle. These are testing times for parties claiming to be democratic. They must demonstrate their credentials by their actions as perceptions matter most in politics. It is high time for our political parties to do the politics of the people.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 14th, 2021.

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