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.