Essence of democracy

Published: December 10, 2012
The writer is a PhD Scholar at West Virginia University in the US

The writer is a PhD Scholar at West Virginia University in the US

Democracy is a highly complex form of political system. It is not only a concept; it’s a culture, a code and a way of life. Despite infinite writings on democracy, no one could ever explain this concept better than the English philosopher John Locke. In his Second Treatise on Government in 1690, he presents his famous ‘consent theory’, the essence of a perfect democracy. According to Locke, the “whole power of the community” is in the hands of the “elected representatives” of the people. In other words, government should be based on people’s consent. Any political system, where people are kept away from the electoral process, may be anything but democracy. The will of the people is the ‘jugular vein’ or linchpin of a democratic society.

Due to historical, cultural, socio-economic and religious reasons, many people in Pakistan do not truly believe in democracy. These anti-democrats are in all segments of society, mostly in political parties. In the past, the Muslim League has had the worst track record supporting anti-democratic forces. Of course, the military junta played havoc with the democratic process. What did the politicians do to consolidate democracy whenever they got the opportunity? They did nothing because they had no love for true democracy. But their lust for power and position was higher than the Himalayas. Politicians in Pakistan have miserably failed to give the people the ownership of democracy. This is why the people of Pakistan distribute sweets and celebrate the demise of so-called democratic governments. Our political system is mostly based on non-democratic features and does not truly reflect the aspirations of the people.

No single executive in Pakistan is directly elected by the people, including the president, prime minister, chief ministers and governors. The upper house, the Senate, is not a directly elected body. All members who come from the Fata area and are either in the Senate or in the National Assembly are also not true representatives. In all legislatures in the country, the seats reserved for women, minorities and technocrats are filled by mere nominations and not through elections. Consequently, more than 200 out of a total of 1,070 seats are non-elected, which constitute over 20 per cent of members of the legislative bodies. This leads to graft and corruption in the legislatures since many politicians purchase seats in millions of rupees not only for themselves but for their wives, sons, daughters, siblings and relatives. This practice is the worst form of political patronage and has nothing to do with democracy. The induction of non-elected members is highly non-democratic, discriminatory and against the spirit of equal rights, equal treatment for all and rule of law. Who do Kashmala Tariq, Sharmila Farooqi and Marvi Memon, etc represent? Have they ever contested an election? Democracy is about electoral contest not beauty contest.

The American democracy is based on a two-tier electoral system where the registered voters of a party first elect their nominees/candidates in primary elections for all types of positions from president to mayor. At the second level of the general election stage, people elect their representatives from those nominees of both parties. In Pakistan, candidates are imposed by the party leadership on the people to vote. None of them is the people’s choice as a candidate. Nevertheless, I am not here to talk about fair and free elections. I only want to give people a chance to choose their leaders both as nominees/candidates and contestants. The caretaker governments of the future will have no mandate from the people. For three months, not a single elected member will be running the seventh nuclear power of the world. There is only one example in our history when a directly elected member was the executive head of a government: the Union Council Nazim under General (retd) Pervez Musharraf’s Local Government system.

Democracy is a very broad concept and I’m unable to define it. However, I quote the US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who will long be remembered for his statement that he could not define ‘obscenity’, but added “I know it when I see it.” Hence, I cannot define democracy but I know it when I see it — and I do not see it in Pakistan. Pardon me for this analogy.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 11th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (33)

  • Mirza
    Dec 10, 2012 - 10:49PM

    It is obscene to condemn democracy outright even in its infancy. The US democracy is two hundred years old and the literacy ratio is very high. While Pakistan is just on the opposite side. We have not even one govt which completed its term without being hounded by the generals/SC duo. I do not need to remind that even the worst democracy is better than best dictatorship. There is not pure free democracy even in the US let alone in Pakistan. There is a duopoly in the US. People are forced to choose between only two parties. One has to collect billion dollars to contest presidential election. Even most senate seats require tens of millions to contest. I am not saying that the world’s oldest democracy is bad but it is still not perfect. Pakistan is in its infancy of this evolutionary process. With the current practices and traditions Pakistan can never become a perfect democracy. Just one reason women are not allowed to go out free and use their power to elect on their own so there is no question of free elections in places like FATA. Let us start walking before we run.Recommend

  • White Russian
    Dec 10, 2012 - 11:09PM

    May be you are right. But imagine yourself living in Saudi Kingdom and writing this kind of opinion about Saudi governement system. More effective would be to actually move to the Kingdom and try it. I promise your “not seeing” syndrome shall be instantly cured.


  • Nizam Badlo
    Dec 10, 2012 - 11:55PM

    Very Well Written Artcile ,Pakistani version of democracy is equivalent of hooliganism, culture of winning horses, duress, electoral manipulations According to Dr.Tahir-ul-Qadri the system currently in vogue in the country is geared to protect the vested interests of the powerful elite and no one is raising any voice against this corrupt and oppressive system. the privileged sections of society are on the same page to protect this discriminatory arrangement. The holders of fake degrees, are the members of assemblies after getting elected again on the strength of their purse. There is a dire need of getting rid of this system if we have to preserve the future of our succeeding generations. The people of Pakistan need to be at the forefront of campaign for awakening the national consciousness. The present system allows for change of faces at the helm of affairs. Unless people rise up and be counted, the power elite, which comprises 3% of the country’s population would continue to push them against the wall.

    the country suffers from the worst leadership crisis and the present electoral system does not offer any respite. “Even if elections continue to be held for another 100 years under the present system, the problems of 97% of masses would remain alive and kicking with the dynastic politics staying intact,” .it is incumbent upon Nation to leave no stone unturned to send this system packing and launch the peaceful campaign of increasing public awareness about corrupt Electoral System,


  • Falcon
    Dec 11, 2012 - 12:00AM

    Doctor Sahab – To your concern for lack of intra-party democracy, there is a positive development in one of the political parties (PTI). They are conducting intra-party elections through out Pakistan across 4400 UCs to select 80,000 candidates who in turn will select higher echelons of the party. At the least, that is something worth appreciating. Rest, I think it takes time for every democratic system to evolve. Even in U.S., if you have noticed, some secession movements are picking up (a famous one is in Texas) after the recent results in favor of Democrats. So, every democracy has its own challenges to get through. We will figure it out in time as well. As far as your concern for non-elected seats, I think that was a mechanism to support proportional representation to loosen up the control of political cartels, and therefore is not too bad of an idea.


  • Imran Ahmed Qureshi
    Dec 11, 2012 - 12:10AM

    Very beautifully presented about democracy by Mr. Shabbir Khan Sb with analogy.


  • MSS
    Dec 11, 2012 - 12:27AM

    S A Khan sahib has done well by raising this issue. Democracy is the worst form of government except that there is no better alternative(Churchill said words to this effect). Democracy is a legalised mafia. Again I think it was Churchill. Well we can see this in action in most democratic countries. In south Asia, there is no participatory democracy as yet, it is democracy on an election day only. US system is the best system to my mind.
    Democracy would work in a society where:
    1. most voters are well educated and can identify or define issues
    2. there is broadly an equal society in terms of financial resources, housing, mobility and so on
    3. religion is not an emotional baggage
    4. there is a real will to improve society by paying taxes and abiding by the law.
    In unequal societies with huge income disparities and lots of illitracy, democracy is hard to sustain unless the leaders are genuinely interested in the uplift of people. In status concious populations democracy adds to problems of corruption, lawlessness and anarchy.
    There is no perfect system as yet imagined by the human race.
    Democracy is simply a game of numbers no matter how small the margin. It is like animal herds. But this is what we have got at the moment. Let us make it work where ever we are.


  • jahandad
    Dec 11, 2012 - 12:41AM

    shabir ahmad khan , you are absolutely right , there is no democracy in Pakistan,,,,political system is so corrupt ,that its worst than the drugs gangsters ,and professional thieves,,,the political parties comes in power ,only when they rides on those corrupt gangsters,,,,,,,AND THE REASON is lack of EDUCATION ,,,,,,,,,EDUCATE THE SOCIETY AND IT WELL RUN FOR CHANGE,,,,,the political horses take advantage of illiteracy and play with the emotions of poor folks ,who never use their brain for future , but for the spot bread ,,,THEN ACCOUNTABILITY ,here all the money looters from the national wealth ,are sitting for legislation ,so what kind of democracy,,,looters are forgiven and they loot again plus it encourages others to loot ,,,,democracy in present form [bogus voting , purchased votes, rubber stamping of ballots etc]is worst than any kind of other system in Pakistan,,,,actually we should elect the president via general [people] voting,,and same for governors and all other minorities ,fata seats as well,,,,, I HOPE PEOPLE WAKE UP AND CHANGE THE DIRECTION,,,,,


  • Its (still) Econonmy Stupid
    Dec 11, 2012 - 1:44AM

    Here is a view on Indonesia and see similarity between Pakistan and Indonesia. Ask the question why common issues between two completely different societies.?

    Indonesia’s constitution recognizes six religions; however 87% of its citizens are Muslims which means there are more Muslims in Indonesia than in all of the Middle East. Mass Muslim organizations, pesantrens, madrasahs and the Islamic institutions of higher education are highly respected entities in Indonesian society.

    Democratic governance refers to “the values, rules, institutions, and processes through which people and organizations attempt to work towards common objectives, make decisions, generate authority and legitimacy, maintain peace and security and exercise power.” Democratic governance programming potentially covers four key themes: Freedom and Democracy, Human Rights, Rule of Law, and Accountable Public Institutions.

    The challenge now is delivering better services, opening up governance processes, and improving the business climate – all of which hold the potential to demonstrate to Indonesians how democratic governance can indeed improve lives and strengthen communities. What is missing, according to many Indonesians, is an appropriate conceptual framework for Indonesian democracy and institutionalization of mechanisms or approaches to support democratic governance, especially at the community level.

    The failure to effectively address deeply rooted problems of poverty and corruption has been used by some Indonesians to de-legitimize democracy. Some parts of the Islamic community have responded to these shortcomings by promoting the idea of an Islamic state. Negative attitudes towards democracy are also linked to a perception of western regimes as oppressive and a sense that embracing democracy is a capitulation to western values. Nevertheless, many Indonesians remain committed to democratic reforms.

    Islam came to Indonesia in the 1400s by way of foreign traders who settled in the coastal areas. It was eventually pushed to the country-side during the Dutch colonial period where it was practiced as a rural, traditional and moderate set of beliefs. Despite Indonesia’s history of pluralism and moderation, the country has in recent years become both a target and source for Islamic militancy. The growing tension between Indonesia’s long tradition of tolerance and the rise of fundamentalist forces provides a dynamic context for Indonesia’s evolving interpretation of Islam and democracy.


  • Nadir
    Dec 11, 2012 - 3:24AM

    I agree with some of the things you say, but the following: “Democracy is about electoral contest not beauty contest.” Highly sexist, belittling statement was not necessary at all!


  • sabi
    Dec 11, 2012 - 7:38AM

    I know only one definetion of democracy,of the generals,by the generals for the generals.


  • Falcon
    Dec 11, 2012 - 7:57AM

    @Its (still) Econonmy Stupid:
    Thanks for an enlightening de-brief on Indonesia. Indonesia’s progress on one hand and extremism in certain segments of Muslims on the other hand is an interest contradiction. It would be interesting to study the causes of extremism in that country.


  • Imran Khan
    Dec 11, 2012 - 10:25AM

    Excellent piece on democracy illuminating “What actually democracy is???


  • Student
    Dec 11, 2012 - 10:30AM

    Sir i understand little bit that you want to say that We have no option to say Pakistan is “democratic” country , All the leaders just talk about the word “Democracy” for their own means and purposes………


  • Dec 11, 2012 - 10:33AM

    sir i understand little bit that we have no option to say Pakistan is democratic country , Those who say have means and purposes for future from Pakistan


  • Sexton Blake
    Dec 11, 2012 - 11:01AM

    Excellent contribution. I could write many words, but am still not sure what contributes towards democracy. I have been in several countries, and it seems quite apparent that democracy is a fiction, not least of which is in America, UK, and several ex-British colonies. All that happens is that people are given the choice of two parties, and then they have to suffer dictatorship for several years. At the very least, Western democracy is a fiction. Pakistani people, quite rightly, complain about their problems, but they are not alone.


  • Dec 11, 2012 - 12:12PM

    “In the past, the Muslim League has had the worst track record supporting anti-democratic forces.”

    So when talking on a positive note its not the Muslim League but Jinnah. When talking of the disastrous things its the Muslim League not Jinnah.

    Talk about Secularism, use Jinnah. Talk of Feudalism, blame ML. Talk of Democracy and Authoritarian regimes, talk of ML.


  • ishrat salim
    Dec 11, 2012 - 1:33PM

    Reply to Mirza Sb….I hope the comments followed your would open your eyes…..unless we change the system as Mr Khan has pointed out, we shall have the same set of politicians & their families shall rule for the next 100 years, do we need that

    Reply to White Russian…at least there is peace in KSA which is so much longed in Pakistan….is there democracy in CHINA, yet how is that it is today the second biggest economy in the World & there is no law & order problem & people are living in peace, when surveyed by an Amercian, the people of China said ” we do not care what system of governance, as long as there is peace, employment & food to eat…..

    Hence, we should either out source Pakistan to KSA or CHINA…..Recommend

  • Hella1
    Dec 11, 2012 - 3:33PM

    Pakistan itself was founded on a fear of democracy and the one man-one vote principle. The disregard for democratic norms was again apparent after the 1970 election results, where the majority party was not allowed to rule. To make democracy successful, a democratic temperament is needed, which has never existed in Pakistan since its formation.Maybe it is best that Pakistan adopts a system, that suits it, rather then hankering after democracy.


  • Adil Zaman
    Dec 11, 2012 - 4:04PM

    A very nice piece of work by the author. And about we all the Pakistanis are of the same view. But can I say directly that this parliamentary type of government is in fact responsible for this dismal state of politics and democracy. This parliamentary system is purely British form of government, which they have achieved through historical experiences. The mistake that Pakistan had done since its establishment was to implant this system without any past experiences. Parliamentary system is not the only system where the democracy can be practiced. I think parliamentary is the worst kind of system in democratic practices looking at the actual experiences in Pakistan.Recommend

  • Adil Zaman
    Dec 11, 2012 - 4:14PM

    Nizam Badlo, falcon, MSS, jahandad, Its (still) Econonmy Stupid, and about all have rightly commented. And i also agree with them that the system must be altered. keep it up..


  • Genius
    Dec 11, 2012 - 5:20PM

    Is there democracy in the USA? Is it why the US government takes orders from world’s biggest terrorist organisation?
    If the USA has any bit of democracy then why the people at large cannot get state sonsored health system like they have in Canada and other developed countries?
    If the USA has any bit of democracy then why the people of the USA are burdened to finance a phoney war after every few years?
    There is no democracy in the USA or anywhere on earth. Wipe that smile off your face.


  • ahmed41
    Dec 11, 2012 - 5:50PM

    One aspect is that democracy is a lot more than just the right to vote every 5 years.


  • Irshad Khan
    Dec 11, 2012 - 6:12PM

    How democracy can prosper in a country where Sardari Nizam, Jagirdari Nizam, Tribal society, peeri Mureedi Nizam and Mulla-ism is dominent. How democracy can prosper in a society where most of the people live like GHULAMS of medievil ages. How democracy can prosper in a country where poor people are publicly punished by gang rapes, Nude dances in streets, dog bites, Karo Kari, winnies etc etc. etc. and are norms of society and are supervised by Powerfuls, who are also sitting in assemblies as political leaders. Democracy and civilised societies might come to Pakistan in the year 3012, most earliest.


  • Manoj Joshi India
    Dec 11, 2012 - 7:27PM

    The Islamic Republic of Pakistan as a nation has probably for the first time been able to almost complete the five year term of the National Assembly which in itself must be considered as an achievement. As a nation making comparison of this Islamic Republic with their neighbour The Republic of India would really not be an appropriate comparison to do. India has been a democracy since her independence and this plant of democracy has been nurtured by the Indian leadership; although there have been certain dark phases of Indian democracy; but on the whole democracy in India has reached the level of maturity. Pakistan since 1958 with the first army take over under Field Marshal Ayub Khan followed by the second coup by General Zia-ul-Haq and finally by General Parvez Musharraf on 12 October 1999 has not had a steady spell of democracy which has been their major political and constitutional misfortune and religious fundamentalism has further damaged their society to an extent that democracy has not been able to get the desired environment to develop. The elections held in 2008 in Pakistan have for the first time brought a democratically elected government that has been able to almost complete their complete tenure and now with the elections fast approaching the next government must carry on with the same responsibility the democratic conventions. Although there cannot be overnight wonders and democracy will need time to take roots in The Islamic Republic of Pakistan in a rather challenging environment where religious fundamentalist groups and terrorist organisations still hold a sway in the corridors of power. The nation has to fight a rather challenging war against religious fundamentalism to make democracy take strong roots in the Islamic Republic and this certainly cannot be an easy going. This does not in any way mean that Pakistan does not have the potential to become a democracy but for the fact that they as a nations shall have to face the strongest challenges and at times their can be certain setbacks too which all have to be taken in the stride. The citizens of Pakistan have to now come forward to make democracy a success in their own country. A new horizon towards a Moderate, Progressive and Democratic state where the majority and the minorities co-exist amicably. Economic relations with the neighbours is another important development most essential for the development of democracy as this will help Pakistan in developing their infrastructure as well as economy. There is an optimism poignant and is visible in the intelligentsia of Pakistan which should get converted to a reality at the earliest for which efforts need to made with earnest. There are forecasts being made by various thinkers and political analysts that the next parliament in Pakistan shall be a ‘hung parliament’ which can come true but one cannot be judgmental on the issue or speak with full conviction as the voter’s mind or mood can change in the next few months. The citizens of Pakistan like those of any other nation want peace and political stability in their country and certainly will want a government that can take Pakistan out of the economic problems that nation has been facing. A coalition government if formed in Pakistan may not be very stable however this is a part of the political process and a phase in process of a democracy that is gradually taking its roots in a nation. The basics of democracy are the more or less same however the external modifications shall vary from one nation to another depending on the social, cultural, political and economic conditions of a nation and Pakistan can be no exception. The political parties within Pakistan shall now have to work on a long term strategy that serves that nation. The elections that are to follow are a test for those political parties be it the Pakistan Muslim League, Pakistan People’s Party, MQM, Tehrik-e-Insaaf, Awami National Party or the Communist Party of Pakistan and the people of that nation too carry one of the greatest responsibility of voting in a mature fashion not to be driven away by narrow class interests. The coming years especially the next five to ten years are crucial for Pakistan as the success of democracy in that nation shall be decided during the next ten years. Coalition is yet another phenomena of modern democracies that one sees in India, Pakistan and various other nations of the world. Nominated members cannot be outright negated as non-representative as they do have a role or significance as they represent the class which probably needs a say in government. Indeed Parliamentary elections, in any nation are certainly not a beauty contest hence whenever women candidates are chosen as candidates a special attention should be paid with regard to their public appeal and acceptance among the masses besides their calibre to perform in the interest of women in the country. Also in those areas that are not well developed or backward the selection of candidates is a difficult task as public acceptance alone may not always be the sole criteria. Candidates should have the ability to perform and prove their efficiency as political professionals.


  • zahid saddiqui
    Dec 11, 2012 - 7:44PM

    All i am able to understand is that if there are election and representation of people then we can call it democracy. Elections take place in almost every system, either democratic or socialist or Islamic or any other. This can’t be the distinguishing factor. As far as the other argument is concerned, i.e. it should represent peoples will. One can’t see it happening anywhere in the world. Even in US people are against wars, they want their forces back, they are more concerned about their economic situation. But both the ruling parties are on the same page on this issue, the difference b/w them is regarding style and means. What we can witness in developed countries that even there democracy do not represent peoples will, rather the will of elites, , like economic giants and lobbies in US (under the disguise of fund raising campaign) or the house of LORDS in UK. Where is this utopia of real democracy which we are seeking?


  • Khalid Mahmood
    Dec 11, 2012 - 8:44PM

    A well written paper. Where is the democracy in Pakistan? It is only an extension of aristocratic mindset. I also believe that democracy is no where in its true sense in the world? For the time being we people believe that it is the best system of government, but, let the democracy flourish in this country. Soon, we will come to a conclusion that it is not the best. The mankind is in search of any other system to protect its rights.


  • abu-uzhur
    Dec 11, 2012 - 9:12PM


    Sorry to say , Sir : You have given no “essence ” to your readers , but a generous
    dose of confusion .


  • toticalling
    Dec 12, 2012 - 10:09AM

    @abu-uzhur: Well said. Democracy is the worst form of govertnment, but far better than any other. I will back a faulty democrcy to a perfect dictatorship anytime. Power corrupts and absolute power is most evil.


  • ishrat salim
    Dec 12, 2012 - 1:04PM


    ” Power corrupts and absolute power is most evil “… this not evident in abundance in Pakistan…? is there democracy in CHINA ? then how is it the second most powerful economy in the world today ? CHINA has devised a system of governance which fulfills their vision & eventually made them strong economically…which means their people are well fed with sense of security for their lives….CHINA has not borrowed any system from West, although they all tried to pressure them to follow ” democracy “….did CHINA follow their dictate even though when they were in intial stage of standing up on their feet, isolated / shunned by most of the country of the World…except Pakistan ( and that too by ZAB govt ) no other country supported them….they still remember that…..where is CHINA today & where are we ? this is because,CHINA had & has honest leadership with sense of patriotism….2 most important ingredients, which we do not have.

    Suggest out source Pakistan to CHINA or KSA……


  • MSS
    Dec 12, 2012 - 5:49PM

    @Ishrat Salim,
    Democracy and dictatorship both are not perfect systems. Dictatorships are older than democracies (monarchies are the same as dictatorships). China has, in the 35 years, been ruled by a benevolent semi-dictatorship. Meaning internal party elections are held but people have no say in it. This can work only for some time. Eventually all human beings desire a say in the affairs of the state. Democracy is that vent for anger or dissatisfaction with their governemnts. Look at the Arabs now. They are demanding a say.
    The human race as a whole need to evolve a better system than the current form of democracy which is ill-suited to many societies. I think in the next hundred years or so, computers may have a part to play in deciding many poilicies, selecting the leaders and making crucial decisions that suite the state economically and otherwise in matters of foreign, economic, defence, resources deployment as well as education policies. This is well into the future perhaps beyond the lives of most people alive today but it will happen. The world of 2300 may be a different world beyond our imagination.

    For now, let us stick with democracy.


  • Ishrat salim
    Dec 13, 2012 - 2:02AM


    Yes you may be correct but my question remain unanswered…how China without democracy is today where it has become an envy of most countries of the world…some of them who boasts of being the largest democratic country, but can those countries match China ?…..that means we must think of a better alternative system of governance best suited to our conditions and ground realities….

    Western democracy is not suited in our country as it is realized in Kuwait also…..which is the first ME country who tried to adopt a democratic system since 1951 but has failed….from 1951 to early 1970, in early democratic period when the king ( Amir ) was more,powerful…Kuwait had the highest per capita income in the world, as years passed it has lost that standing and democratic system tried to take root but till today it is not stable and almost daily Corruption scams are exposed….follow up on Kuwait in google and will get the answer…..that is one reason the West after observing the mess in Kuwait has not tried to interfere lest it becomes too messy and their fuel line is disrupted….that is too much risk for the West….


  • Abid P. Khan
    Dec 14, 2012 - 2:58AM

    “….Democracy is the worst form of govertnment, but far better than any other. I will back a faulty democrcy to a perfect dictatorship anytime…”

    Do you really believe that the dynasties that are power brokers today, one fine day will go for Umra and on their return declare, “we stop having those bad habits which our forefathers have inculcated in us for generations? We are going to be nicest rulers from now on.”


  • Megatron
    Dec 14, 2012 - 12:04PM

    Essence of democracy in my opinion is only corruption


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