Democratic transition

Published: March 25, 2013
The writer is professor of political science at LUMS

The writer is professor of political science at LUMS

In a country where four military generals tossed the Constitution in the dustbin and ran the country by twisting every rule and violating every democratic norm, a parliament completing its tenure is no ordinary political event. It is a milestone in Pakistan’s democratic journey that four ambitious generals disrupted with impunity. The completion of the tenure marks a new political beginning; a big step towards democratic transition.

What made it possible and what does it mean for the democratic future of the country? Pakistan’s current democratic stability and continuity rests primarily on the national consensus among the political forces of the country. For a constitutional democratic process, elite consensus is the first thing to achieve. Once that has happened, the next steps towards a democratic transition become simpler. Politics and democracy are messy issues — never smooth, orderly or without polarisation or conflict. Resolving them requires agreement on the rules of the game that this consensus among the elite in Pakistan demonstrates.

The second important reason for the successful completion of tenure is the repeated failure of military regimes in addressing structural problems of the country. Actually, all military generals left the political scene in worse conditions — more complex and stubborn legacies than the country had before their rules. The generals fragmented political parties, divided society and used ethnicity and religion to ignite politics of hatred and confrontation. The lessons of their failures have convinced every thinking politician that living with a noisy and clamorous democracy is better than living under the forced calm of military dictators.

Third, the people of Pakistan — the real people at the grassroots level — are more comfortable with their elected leaders than with those who are imposed from above. People have demands at the local level. They want development projects like natural gas, power lines, roads, sewerage systems and roads. Every member of the assembly will tell you what kind of pressure he or she faces when he or she is in the constituency. These are basic needs that urban folks take for granted. Even during the brief periods of democratic rule in the past, political bonds were strengthened between the electorate and the elected representatives through grassroots politics. Starting with post-1985 elections, rural development and greater allocation of funds have become constituency-driven political norms. With the villages of Pakistan developing, though at a much slower pace than they could have been, the urban-rural divide is narrowing. Over time, development-oriented or patronage politics has introduced democracy at the grassroots level by creating a demand-response nexus. Failure to address local problems means electoral failure and compelling the next elected member to do better.

The democratic practice also educates people politically. They learn about leaders — their character, qualities, faults, promise and failures. They also recognise political parties through their programmes and ideological labels and judge them all by their performance. Political knowledge at the grassroots level about national or even provincial politics is lower than at the level of the constituency. For this reason, the single most important determinant of voting is the relationship between the voter and the candidate. Change towards party-centred blocs is a slow process but it is taking place. Reaching this milestone means a lot for the future of democracy.

Democracy doesn’t solve all problems. It only provides constitutional means to construct power, limit its exercise and force periodic changes through elections. We are back to the election stage. This normal, evolutionary process is now rolling. This is what constitutes democratic change and transition. The problems we face in many respects — poor governance, corruption, inefficiency, lack of accountability and twisting of rules to favour cronies — are part of democratic evolution. The more we practice democracy, the better the system will become.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 26th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (6)

  • Falcon
    Mar 26, 2013 - 2:27AM

    Agree with the thrust of the article. The only thing I would like to add is that constituency politics has its cons as well. For example, people and local political leadership is so focused on local issues that national goals are pushed aside. People care less about who can fix energy / education / security situation and more about who can get them jobs in the local government machinery. Secondly, this constituency based politics is based on maximal exploitation of national resources without bearing the load of responsibility. For example, local leaders want to gather minimal tax from their constituency but want to get the maximum funds allotted to their constituency (essentially using others money without footing the bill). The result is a lop-sided development happening across Pakistan where the resources are being allocated based on political influence rather than actual needs of the people. That is part of the reason 16 out of the 20 poorest constituencies in Pakistan are in Balochistan.


  • Mar 26, 2013 - 9:21AM

    Pakistan is heralding a new era of democracy. Today Pakistan is beseiged by the administrative paralysis, nascent economic growth and voilent social conflict. The paraphernalia of democracy is a necessary condition for the strengthening of state institutions. The sucessful democratic transition is a sign of truimphant of elected state institutions.


  • Zulfiqar Ali
    Mar 26, 2013 - 11:46AM

    The first article on the very understanding of Transitional and transformational Age. Throughout the human history, it has been a very difficult time. The kind of evolution, specifically in Pakistan, where democracy has never grown, where people never understood the criterion of leadership, where people do not know the worth of democracy the past 5 years has laid the foundation stone of coming years. let the democracy pass through evolutionary stage, its fruits are sweet.


  • WB
    Mar 26, 2013 - 3:51PM

    Will there be a system LEFT?? or just anarchy??Recommend

  • A Peshawary
    Mar 26, 2013 - 4:55PM

    The writer should have shed more light on successful completion of democratic transition? Yes, primarily generals are responsible for disruption of democratic process; What about bureaucracy, Mullahs, higher judiciary’s role and media. Even in this period of revamping the system; one sitting PM was disqualified on contempt of court charges in a case which proved to be not even maintainable for reconsideration by Swiss court.

    It was the political will and determination of all political stakeholders (the sitting legislator). The political leaders who opted out of the process at the start and to take part at later stage of their choice (The cheapest and highest negative kind of political opportunism) are an exception to transition process, yet they claims to be the champions of all sorts.

    The efforts, political will and determination of the political forces responsible for this transition against all horrific odds; is highly commendable and needs recognition in coming elections for continuation and strengthening of the process and economic prosperity.

    A Peshawary


  • MSS
    Mar 26, 2013 - 9:17PM

    “The more we practice democracy, the better the system will become.”
    Want a bet?


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