Democracy: is the system going to survive?

This brings me to the question whether democracy is taking root in Pakistan

Shahid Javed Burki May 15, 2023
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank


For more than two and a half centuries, the United States set the standard democratic governance that was supposed to follow around the world. The basic principle on which this type of governance was built was to give voice to the citizenry. For more than a century “citizenry” meant those who were of white colour and owned some property. Over time these constraints were overcome. It took a civil war to free blacks from slavery and still longer to extend the right to vote to women. However, the extended definition of citizenry did not imply that people would hold the same view of governance.

Two strands of thought were recognised: there were those who believed that the state should interfere in a very limited way in the lives of people and there were those who were prepared to be constrained by the rulers acting through their representatives. Elected representatives of the people who sat in parliaments and assemblies made laws that people were obliged to follow. In the United States, the Republican Party came to represent the first point of view whereas the Democratic Party was in favour of the second line of thinking.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 which also brought about an end of Communism in the eastern part of Europe, the American system of governance was generally accepted the world over as the preferred way to serve the citizenry. This move was celebrated by Francis Fukuyama in a best-selling book, The End of History. He was of the view that the main events in world history were the result of conflict between competing ideologies. In the period between the two World Wars in the twentieth century, there was conflict between autocracy and democracy. It took the form of Communism in the beginning of the twentieth century followed by Nazism in most of Europe before the Second World War. Those who won the wars gave voice to the citizenry and to the states that represented the people.

The British and American systems of governance differed in their content but the basic principles on which they were based were the same. Britain had evolved a parliamentary system in which laws were made by the people’s representatives elected periodically. While the Americans also had bodies in which elected members served as people’s representatives, the president — also directly elected by the people — was given a great deal of executive authority. In several areas of public policy, he could act by himself without getting approval from Congress. He could issue executive orders that by-passed the legislature.

These were the broad choices that were made by scores of governments that emerged as independent states following the withdrawal of colonialism from the continents of Asia and Africa. The largest colony ruled over by a European power was in South Asia. When the British pulled out in 1947, they left governance in the hands of two successor states — India and Pakistan. India had a large Hindu majority while Pakistan was dominated by people belonging to the Islamic faith. However, as time passed, it became clear that religion could not be the basis of nationhood. Ethnicity was a stronger binding force — a recognition that led to the creation of Bangladesh as a separate state 25 years after it functioned as Pakistan’s eastern wing. By the late 1960s, the Bengali citizens of Pakistan decided that they were being discriminated against and needed to have a country of their own. It took them a decade to realise their dream. Bangladesh came into being in December 1971.

As the unfolding of events in Afghanistan show, even ethnicity does not create a functioning state that follows the same set of rules of governance. The country has four distinct ethnic groups: the Pashtuns, being the largest, account for about 40 per cent of the population; the Tajiks in the country’s northeast are the second largest followed by the Uzbeks and the Shiites. Once again there is an attempt to define governance in terms of religion. The Taliban, the country’s current rulers, subscribe to an extremist form of Islam originally developed in Saud Arabia as the basis of governance. The most distinguishing element in Taliban’s way of governing is to severely limit the space within which women are allowed to function.

Corresponding to these developments in the non-Western part of the world is the weakening of the system developed over time in the United States and most of Europe. There are pressures in the United States as well as several European states that are being felt by the systems in place. Demographic trends which are resulting in the significant reduction of white people in their populations have caused white nationalists to believe that they must move from the old system and create one in which people of their colour remain dominant.

This brings me to the question whether democracy is taking root in Pakistan. The question needs to be asked and answered for the country to keep moving towards adopting a system that is based on accepting the voice of the people. In a well-developed system, this voice is heard when elections are held to select people’s representatives for both the National Assembly and provincial legislatures. Once that has been done, the people’s voice is heard in the chambers occupied by the elected representatives. The process is overseen by the institutions that are given the right and the duty to protect democracy. In the case of Pakistan, the president working with an independent judiciary has been assigned this duty. In a system such as this, the people’s voice should not be expressed through the use of violence. The attack on Imran Khan on November 3, 2022 while he was leading a march to Islamabad is a depressing evidence of the fact that there are those in society who believe that violence can be used to give expression to their deeply held beliefs. But Pakistan is not alone in arriving at this stage. As I write these words, the news from Pakistan has arrived according to which Pakistan Supreme Court has granted bail to former prime minister Imran Khan and released him from custody on the evening of Friday, May 12. He left in a caravan for his home in Lahore. Meanwhile the intense drama that preceded Khan’s release has raised serious concerns about the direction in which Pakistan is headed. Given all that has happened in the last few months, Pakistan, once again, cannot be sure that democracy has thrown roots in the country.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 15th, 2023.

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