Getting it right is important

Published: July 4, 2012
The writer is a senior journalist and has held several editorial positions including most recently at The Friday Times. He was a Ford Scholar at UIUC and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution

The writer is a senior journalist and has held several editorial positions including most recently at The Friday Times. He was a Ford Scholar at UIUC and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution

Feisal H Naqvi’s last two articles on democracy in this newspaper — “Not in my name” (June 26) and “Making our democracy ‘antifragile’” (July 3) — are thought-provoking, the second decidedly more than the first, though the first, precisely for being less subtle, managed to garner more ‘likes’ and ‘tweets’, a ‘hazard’ one has to learn to live with.

Here’s what Feisal wrote at one point in the first: “I do not like the PPP. I really, really, really wish that Pakistan was not held hostage by their stupidities. But I do not want anybody other than the people of Pakistan to throw them out.”

Correct in a linear way. You want to get rid of a bunch of jokers, vote them out. Except, it’s not that easy. Feisal seemed to realise this by the time he got round to writing the second piece.

“Democracy is a political process in which people have the ability to hold their leaders accountable by voting them out. The greater the ability of the people to hold people accountable, the more responsive and democratic the system.”

The operative part of this observation is that democracy’s form may not ipso facto lead to substance, that being the ability, among other things, of the people to hold the leaders to account. In other words, to get democracy to work merely by having more of it in the form of a repeated exercise is not enough. Feisal correctly argues that form cannot be confused for substance and that substance does not flow as a natural consequence of the form.

His remedy: broaden the base of representation and make democracy antifragile, like other organic systems, a term he borrows from Nasim Nicholas Taleb. Because large systems defy complete information and it is nearly impossible to either predict how the many parts will interact and even more so to determine the consequences of their interaction, it is important to strengthen them against shocks, the black swans which, by their very nature, are events that cannot be predicted. To this end, Feisal recommends having local governments and laments their disappearance.

He is right because, in theory, a narrow base of decision-making is generally not good and goes against the very grain of democracy. But he is only partially right because without tinkering with the system, having local governments will only marginally, if at all, improve the situation. In fact, as we saw during the Musharraf era, the ills of the broader system will also begin to reflect at the lower tiers and, in most cases, the local governments will be made extensions of the same patron-client networks that make the exercise of democracy in this country so spurious.

Let me clarify: I have no fundamental difference with Feisal, especially with his second, more nuanced article. Form does not necessarily mean substance; substance requires strategies that bolster a system’s ability to withstand shocks; the decision-making process must not be narrow.

My contention is that all of this is important but none of this we can have unless the system is reformed. And reforms are not just a function of allowing a system to operate. Someone has to look at the working of a system and say, “Hey, some of the parts aren’t in sync with the rest. We need to do something about them”. Such a call would show an understanding that flawed parts cannot be made to work well unless they are rectified. It’s a conscious activity and denotes an intervention into the system.

Let’s be more specific. We took our cue from a Westminster-style parliamentary system. The United Kingdom evolved it over centuries. It got transplanted here, albeit as a federal variant. The question to ask is not whether we need democracy, because the answer is known, but whether the current system has worked for us. Take the five-year term. This government has been a walking corpse for at least the last two years. Given the historical trajectory of civilian governments, as well as how long it really should take for a government to get down to honest working, the argument arises in favour of a three-year term.

Take another example: we have long had a debate about the balance of powers between the prime minister and the president. This resulted in 58 2 b or not to be. The tension remains unresolved because the current president, Asif Ali Zardari, in his capacity as co-chair of the ruling PPP, exercises a control over the prime minister that, while outside the structures and functioning of the government, is very real. So we have a problem. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, this debate about the powers of the two offices continues to take place within the current system where the president is indirectly elected and theoretically subservient to the prime minister, even though, with some exceptions, our presidents have normally not been subservient to their prime ministers.

Perhaps, there is some merit in looking at the possibility of electing the president directly? Nothing is sacrosanct. Systems are meant to serve people, not the other way round.

Here’s another thought. Given the nature of rural constituencies and, in many cases urban biradaries also, a huge chunk of the vote in Pakistan remains captured. Add to that the fact that multiple fractures in society and regions make it almost impossible to find a median voter. Does this situation, where the system only works in and through first-past-the-post voting system, give the voter the power to hold the leaders accountable — the ability Feisal talked about as one of the fundamentals of democracy?

No, it doesn’t. Most people other than PTI enthusiasts think the PPP is likely to win again. That assessment may be wrong but why is it being made? What is the fear? That the electoral exercise will not allow the voter to vote out this highly inefficient government? Even in a worst-case scenario, the PPP will still likely get its captured vote because that vote is not based on performance.

Corollary: don’t cite democracy as the panacea. Democracy has many forms, pure and hybrid. People tailor systems to their needs. Interventions based on monitoring are important. Democracy doesn’t work automatically. Nor is one system the final solution. If it’s a process, it’s a process in form and substance that keeps evolving.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 5th, 2012. 

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Reader Comments (41)

  • Nadir
    Jul 4, 2012 - 11:37PM

    Who needs legislative rules when someone like Malik Riaz is running the country on his whims, has every organ of the state doing back flips for him and has the urban middle classes rooting for him at the same time? “Democracy” is irrelevant for the rich and powerful, they will make money and do as they please whether the generals or politicians are in power. Yes, democracy is imperfect in Pakistan, but they are many reasons for that, especially when external actors enjoy massive influence over the state, and most are unable/unwilling to recognize their influence, whether it be Malik Riaz, the generals, militants or foreign actors.


  • faraz
    Jul 4, 2012 - 11:46PM

    Social cleavages along class, ethnic or religious lines can be mitigated by the process of capitalist economic development. We need a capitalist middle and elite class that could replace the traditional power brokers. But this process was retarded by military’s skewing of foreign policy to its own advantage. A globally isolated security state cannot eradicate the traditional or retrogressive elements in the society


  • mahakaalchakra
    Jul 4, 2012 - 11:47PM

    Democracy is a system of choosing a government where you can get any type of government you want; however you end up with what you deserve.


  • sidjeen
    Jul 4, 2012 - 11:56PM

    so democracy is not working in pakistan. my question is have we ever given a chance to the people of pakistan to make democracy work, i grew up in the much maligned decade of 90s and whenever given the chance the people of pakistan has given the boot to the party in government in the next election isnt that accountability enough. the problem is that people dont have any choice. we have not given democracy enough time to repair the faults in the system. i am not a PTI supporter but for the first time when their is a third party coming into the equation their is already talk of judicial coup or even the normal coup. let the people of pakistan decide what they want. democracy can work in pakistan just give it some time.


  • Mirza
    Jul 4, 2012 - 11:59PM

    A three year term, why not two or one year term? Why not start a musical chair game? Why the short term for elected leaders only, why not no extensions for generals and judges and other top burdens on the nation?
    By bringing in direct election of president you are depriving smaller provinces of the power to elect the president which they now have via their provincial assemblies and senate. By direct voting for president when would a Baloch be elected president? In case you forget Pakistan is a federation that has been broken before by the accesses of our army and generals. There is an open war going on in Balochistan and we do not have to throw oil on the fire.
    BTW, which democratic county in the world has a three years or shorter term for the President or PM or we want to experiment with the system before we ever allow one term of the elected govt to complete? Looks like the deep state wants to have a musical chair game not the elected govt to keep its hold on the power. While talking about democracy and empowerment would it be a novel idea to let the elected leaders decide these issues in the assemblies? Isn’t that the very function of assemblies? Once we let a few govts complete their term without any interference from the army, mullahs, judges and other actors things would be decided where they are meant to be in a democracy not by urban elite with vested interests.


  • White Russian
    Jul 5, 2012 - 12:03AM

    Realpolitik is the most under-rated by our commentators. It is more powerful than any of so called systems, or concepts. Going by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s thought, one should also avoid the reductionism of procrustean bed sort. One more thing: NNT has shown that most antifragile polity would be the one without any central governement (like that of Switzerland). Let the components of polity organically grow with each other, avoiding any disastrous interventionsim.


  • MilesToGo
    Jul 5, 2012 - 12:21AM

    one of these days can you explain how going to war through loc is ok – refer to your june 29 sochta pakistan


  • Babloo
    Jul 5, 2012 - 12:31AM

    Instead of pointless pontifiction on democracy it would make more sense to have a discussion on how the army and agencies can be prevented from corrupting , sabotaging, rigging, bribing the system and making it a puppet at the mercy of the army ? Democracy will take care of itself , once the army and agencies are kept out of it.


  • M Baloch
    Jul 5, 2012 - 12:38AM

    Professional lawyer Mr. Feisal writes and senior journalist Mr. Ejaz writes its tafseer or writes a joinder (this is 3/4th time at minimum), it means how many things he has to say. ET grow up and give opportunity to people who have new ideas or atleast have their own ideas! Or tomorrow it is there is 15 Shoban so Mr. Ejaz can write on aggressive celebrations of cake cutting by Shias throughout the country.


  • Falcon
    Jul 5, 2012 - 12:42AM

    Interesting suggestions. I look at the issue in terms of inherent risks we are trying to manage. One is that democratic purging of unworthy political leadership should happen at a quicker pace so that we don’t have to live through the painful years of ineffective leadership once we have realized it. But the problem is that public in Pakistan has always been anti-incumbent and would therefore arrive at this conclusion much earlier (about 2-3 yrs) than the completion time of govt. projects. So the solution lies in two things: first reduce the tenure of a typical govt to something more incremental such as 4 years. And secondly, to develop consensus on basic priorities of the state in terms of infrastructure, education, and healthcare that are pursued consistently by all governments. Lastly, to your point regarding devolution of power, devolution almost always gives way to dilusion of power and therefore only good can come out of it.


  • Babloo
    Jul 5, 2012 - 1:45AM

    How bout restricting the term of the army chief to 1 yr ? That can help strengthen democracy .


  • Ashvinn
    Jul 5, 2012 - 4:35AM

    How about have a right to recall incumbent elected representatives after 3 year period, this allow some stability also some sort check , but this should be option given to the people which they can execersie after a three year period, if this not exercised then have elections at the end of 5 years


  • hasan
    Jul 5, 2012 - 4:50AM

    Perhaps a minimum level of education before one can vote. Furthermore, the votes of city dwellers should count for more than the votes of dwellers in rural areas.


  • anticorruption
    Jul 5, 2012 - 6:41AM

    An interesting piece with some very good points. The writer is spot on when he says that we need to take a more nuanced and reform oriented approach rather than treating democracy as a panacea.

    That said, it leaves the question about how the system can be reformed along the lines suggested by the author? A parliament elected within this system is not going to introduce any such changes because the parliamentarians are all benificiaries of the status quo. So what is it that we can do to get any such reforms carried out?

    Moreover, I also believe the writer is somewhat underestimating the potential of local govts, though of course, they too, like anything else, should not be regarded as a panacea.

    Lastly, there is the question of what to do when the electoral system is failing to throw out corrupt and inefficient govts. Many of us are supporting an active judiciary because we see no other way to check this corrupt elite. But obviously, we cannot put everything on the shoulders of the judges. So are there other options or avenues for building the required pressure to make large scale corruption prohibitively costly for the ruling class?


  • K B Kale
    Jul 5, 2012 - 8:05AM

    Pakistan can emulate the post-Indira healthy practices in India in choosing Chief Justices & COAS solely on seniority & without any extensions. Though any system can be manipulated by the smart operators, India has avoided controversies since then. We must thank our ex-PM Morarjee Desai for this.


  • Arifq
    Jul 5, 2012 - 9:20AM

    “Nothing is sacrosanct. Systems are meant to serve people, not the other way round.”

    Compare this with what every army general said when they staged a coup, no different. Ejaz Sahib has truly crossed over to the dark side. One more bites the dust, if you cant beat them, join them.


  • Jul 5, 2012 - 9:22AM

    Pakistan is not a parliamentary democracy. Pakistan has an elected colonial-type assembly. It is still a colonial-type army that rules and makes and re-makes the rules at its convenience.


  • observer
    Jul 5, 2012 - 9:43AM


    Who needs legislative rules when someone like Malik Riaz is running the country on his whims,

    I don’t know about the country, but Malik Riaz certainly seems to be running the Bahria and DHA townships. And going by the number of ex-Generals, Air Marshals and Admirals on his payroll, he seems to be in a position to run some other organisations too.

    Now, if runnng the Generals et al is the same as ‘running the country’ , perhaps ,you are right.


  • Raza Khan
    Jul 5, 2012 - 11:33AM

    Do not blame PPP only since all other institutions including army, judiciary, other political parties especially the religious parties to be blamed. Now even the most sincere & honest person cannot do anything for this country since the system is from start to finish become thoroughly corrupt & notorious.


  • Qasim
    Jul 5, 2012 - 12:16PM

    We have a tendency to shoot the messengers and ignore the message. Fact is that the system is not working and it cannot work; one size does not fit all. The system needs rehashing; both Feisal and Ejaz have made their suggestions, which have initiated debate as is evident from readers’ comments. Please remain objective and constructive without jumping on them in the process.


  • Murad
    Jul 5, 2012 - 12:35PM

    Just a very OK peice Ejaz, you can do better than this,.cheers and looking forward to the next one.


  • Imran Con
    Jul 5, 2012 - 4:32PM

    um. That line has nothing to do with anything negative. It’s the motive of the individual who is speaking those words.


  • Muhammad Ishaq
    Jul 5, 2012 - 4:40PM

    Totally wrong and disinformation. What is given to us by cities, PMLS and MQM. Are these your city educated. You are promoting intervention from whom. Silly idea. Disastrous idea of 3 years term. This country can not survive without current form of democracyRecommend

  • Maqbool
    Jul 5, 2012 - 4:48PM

    Another abstract one by dear author. I have been trying this style myself. Here is a sample if ET doesn’t block it. “Why do we care about the problem and the results? If the problem isn’t obviously “interesting” it might be better to put motivation first; but if your work is incremental progress on a problem that is widely recognized as important, then it is probably better to put the problem statement first to indicate which piece of the larger problem you are breaking off to work on. ”
    Abstract to an extent that even I don’t understand it, but who cares this seems to be the trend of journalism these days.


  • Hassan
    Jul 5, 2012 - 4:53PM

    I think election system should be altered like people should only vote for the parties and strong democratic parties should give list of its candidates on proportional representation in parliment. i dont know what this model is called but i know alot of western democracies follow this system.

    This will help reduce if not remove the corrupt people who somehow hold large chunk of votes and then trade those for personal benefits and move from one party to another. This will also keep the parties on track for performance and they will be held accountable.


  • Jul 5, 2012 - 5:00PM

    Pakistan’s middle class is too removed from the masses. I was shocked to note public, Media, and Establishment reactions to young doctors strike. Then you read in today press that top bureaucrats salaries have been increased. Shahbaz has been overly spending money on his day to day affairs.


  • Abdul-Razak Edhy
    Jul 5, 2012 - 7:08PM

    We already had 4 year term for the Houses and 2 terms for the PM. Those who are not sincere to the interest of the people managed to what it is today and ironically claiming it to have done so in the interest of the Nation!

    If the captured vote bank aspect is given due weight, Turkey like army role in governance for couple of decades may sort things out. The role of religion in polarizing the population also needs to be addressed.


  • Jalib
    Jul 5, 2012 - 7:37PM

    Yaar Ejaz. You’re too good mA. It’s just a thorough pleasure to read your pieces, because they cover all the bases. they’re intellectual, they are nuanced and always presented so logically while oozing a certain panache. Without a doubt the best Op-Eds in the ET are yours!


  • 123
    Jul 5, 2012 - 7:54PM

    Agree – And just to throw out there (if my pseudo-liberal friends do not mind), there are many processes in Shariah Law that are extremely democratic. By setting aside our inferiority complex/superiority complex, we can at least study how we can use democratic ideas in Shariah and evaluate their implementation in our system. West did it, why can’t we?

    Performing analysis on some of Shariah concepts and blending into our system will also help satisfying our right-wing crowd. Who knows we can find a middle ground between left and right and prevent our society from further dividing between these two extremes!


  • K B Kale
    Jul 5, 2012 - 9:10PM

    This system of appointing MNAs/MPs was prevalent in Indonesia during President Soeharto’s era. But as the democracy itself was far fron genuine, it was scrapped along with Soeharto.
    But it should be understood that democratic system of governance is the least efficient system because all decisions are taken on the basis of how they affect the incumbent in his pursuit of the seat of power. So many decisions are taken that are not necessarily good for the nation but still taken to keep the votebank on your side.The only thing positive about democracy is that the democratic governments can be changed without bloodshed.
    Quite often I read nostalgic comments about military rule in Pakistan. This is the biggest myth!


  • A True Democrat
    Jul 5, 2012 - 9:12PM

    So Ejaz given our checkered history it seems to me that in a subtle way you are making an argument for military intervention.


  • White Russian
    Jul 5, 2012 - 9:38PM

    @Maqbool: Liked it. If you happen to read NNT from whom Feisal borrowed the term antifragile, you may be aware of how NNT mocked the mumbo jumbo from Hegel, Sartre etc.


  • Habib Sanai
    Jul 5, 2012 - 10:19PM

    Last paragraph is an unemotional rather rational opposition and degradation of democratic forces and defence of anti-democratic forces who are hellbent to eradicate democracy from this land of pure. Ejaz Sahib we consider democracy panacea.


  • Parvez
    Jul 5, 2012 - 11:20PM

    Nice, academic and safe.
    The system in Pakistan is engineered for the benefit of some 700 persons and we still insist on calling it democracy. This is simply wrong.


  • gp65
    Jul 5, 2012 - 11:40PM

    @Hassan: “I think election system should be altered like people should only vote for the parties and strong democratic parties should give list of its candidates on proportional representation in parliment. i dont know what this model is called but i know alot of western democracies follow this system”.

    A lot of democracies do not fllow it -very few do. While your suggestion has an inherent charm to it, here are the problem that would occur in countries like India and Pakistan if this system were folowed (mainly because intra-party democracy in our part of the world is very weak):
    – All independent candidates would be officially driven out. Even now they have less chance but in a system such as one you propose they would have 0 chance.
    – There would be no pressure on party bosses to nominate good candidates. They could just get away with appointing their own bhai bhatijas. This already happens to some extent but at least if the candidate proposed by a prty is really bad, people have a chance to reject them. In a system sch as one you are proposing that would not happen.
    – To some extent what you are proposing already happens. in some seats people will vote for PPP or PML-N no matter who the candidate is. These are considered safe seats. Such safe seats are usually used to bring in the weakest candidtes to the assembly. Instittionalising this in countries like India and Pakistan where intra-party democracy is pretty weak would weaken rather than strengthen democracy.


  • Freeman
    Jul 5, 2012 - 11:51PM

    Democracy? where is it? 45% fake votes….less than 30% turn out of Registered voters….ha…Recommend

  • mmanna888
    Jul 6, 2012 - 1:56AM

    UK’s democracy is evolved with an evolved electorate.

    Here the evolved democracy has been “transplanted” over an electorate whose evolution process has been retarted by numerous institutional dismissals and takeovers.

    A three year term will quicken the electorate’s evoloution and put the functioning government in a state of perpetual probation with pressure to perform or lose the next round.

    This pressure to perform within a short period will force the government to delegate its duties and responsibilities to state and local governments.

    Expedited Evolutionary Democracy is the only way forward.


  • Sandip
    Jul 6, 2012 - 2:50AM

    I have not met a single individual who does not understand what his interests are. The interests may be varied depending on their educational level but they all understand what they need. As such trying to portray as if only the educated elite have it in them to select a good leadership shows the intellectual bankruptcy of the person suggesting so. If anything it can be suggested that more literate the person, the more cunning and conniving he can be since he has that many more tools or that much more knowledge at his disposal. Pakistan’s history is replete with many such examples. The writer seems to be completely losing it as is evident from his recent articles.


  • observer
    Jul 6, 2012 - 3:05PM

    In India the Civilian Government gets a tenure of 5 years and the Chief of Army Staff is appointed for 3 years.

    Naturally, Pakistan proposes 3 years for the Civilians and 5 years for the COAS,under normal circumstances. Of course in the case of a coup, the COAS will rule for 10 years.


  • Rabia
    Jul 7, 2012 - 7:13PM

    “Even in a worst-case scenario, the PPP will still likely get its captured vote because that vote is not based on performance.”

    A very ahistorical oversimplification. If this were indeed the case then why was PPP routed in the 1990 and 1997 elections. Even assuming heavy rigging, the anti-incumbency sentiment against the PPP was sufficiently strong to ensure that they would lose these elections.

    If the PPP does win the next election, it will not be due to its captured vote but due to the lack of a better alternative on the federal level, divisions on the center-right and the continued shrinkage of the PML-N to a party of Central Punjab.


  • Sandip
    Jul 10, 2012 - 3:37AM

    @Parvez: Then why don’t people like you do something about it? Why don’t people mobilize themselves and others to cast their votes? What stops them? Just being cynical and hoping one messiah or the other will deliver will simply not work. It takes time to build a system, especially one that is being buffeted by storms from all sides. Especially when the people who are being asked to deliver have to always watch over their shoulders. In Pakistan, some enjoy all the powers while others carry all the responsibility.


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