Defining democracy

Published: February 3, 2015
The writer is vice-chancellor of the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics

The writer is vice-chancellor of the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics

At a recent conference on democracy held in a swanky hotel in Islamabad, one of the speakers took exception to my comment that Pakistan did not fulfil the pre-conditions for a democracy. Upon reflection, it became clear to me that differences in our views were primarily due to the different ways we defined democracy. Because of alternating periods of army and political rule in Pakistan, it has become common to equate democracy with elections and political parties. With this interpretation of democracy, my statement would be seen as being in favour of army rule. However, to me, democracy is an idealistic vision of a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people”.

It is not difficult to establish that the government of Pakistan does not prioritise the needs of the people. At a time when the Food and Agriculture Organisation reports 24 per cent malnutrition in the country, I do not know of any government projects to address the hunger of the people — although projects worth billions and trillions are being proposed and approved every month. More than 50 per cent of enrolled children drop out at the third-grade level, and the majority of those who complete this level cannot read at the first-grade level. But while millions are being spent distributing laptops to university students, efforts to create universal literacy and basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic fall far short of the mark. Access to healthcare is dismal, and maternal and infant mortality is far above that of countries with comparable income. Our performance on the Millennium Development Goals has been disastrous, despite more than five years of political party rule, mainly because there is no interest on the part of the government to actually achieve these goals. It is not because of lack of resources, but because of lack of political will, that these basic goals remain unfulfilled. Definitely, this is not a government ‘for the people’ since the vast majority of the population derives no benefits from it.

It is important to dig deeper into the reasons for this failure to prioritise the needs of the people. Basically, it is part of the global phenomenon of increasing inequality and increasing power in the hands of a tiny minority that has all the wealth. The concerns of the government reflect the interests of the wealthy elite. For the vast majority of the population, a visit to any fashionable hotels would be like a visit to a very prosperous country.

An article entitled “How the Rich Rule” by Harvard professor Dani Rodrik shows how the wealthy elite have captured the supposedly democratic government of the US. On any issue where the interests of the elite conflict with those of the masses, the US Congress votes in favour of the elite and against popular interest. As just one striking illustration, when faced with widespread defaults on housing mortgages, the US government intervened by providing trillions in bailout money to the affected financial institutions, while virtually nothing was given to the distressed homeowners who lost their homes. This led to the highest levels of homelessness and hunger seen in the US since the Second World War.

Princeton economists Atif Mian and Amir Sufi, in their landmark book House of Debt, have shown that bailouts of homeowners could have achieved financial stability at a much lower cost and averted the economic crisis that ensued. Financial regulations to prevent repeats of this global financial crisis were blocked in Congress and court cases against the deliberately fraudulent activities of banks and insurance companies were manipulated to minimise damage to financial institutions, while defaulting mortgagors were prosecuted to the fullest. All of this illustrates the completion of the capture of the US government by the financial sector, a process started in the Reagan-Thatcher era using the powerful mantra of “financial liberalisation”.

Similar dynamics are in operation here in Pakistan. The government is not a means to serve the people but a means to exploit the people. Military dictators and political parties have been taking turns in extracting surplus from the suffering population — instead of the colonial practice of sending the surplus to England, they distribute it among themselves. A genuine democracy must be responsive to the needs of the people. The main agenda for a government of the people should be the provision of universal and equal education, free healthcare on the European pattern (instead of the terrible private system prevalent in the US), and decent livelihoods for all. Unfortunately, mainstream economic and political theories are ideological constructs designed to strengthen the status quo and the rule of the rich, and these have taken in the vast majority of those who are sincere to Pakistan, depriving them of the capability of seeing the solutions.

We do face a genuine and difficult dilemma in terms of how to persuade the rich and powerful to gracefully share power and privilege with the masses or the have-nots. The French Revolution achieved this goal by violent and radical means. But our destiny is in our hands and there are many other pathways, which can lead to achievement of this goal. Unfortunately, currently this is not on the radar screen as a desirable goal. Without creating consensus on the need of prosperity for the majority of the population, which lives below the poverty line, it is not possible to make progress towards democracy. Some defenders of the status quo offer the excuse that we are too poor to offer universal education and healthcare on the European pattern. These people are unaware that European societies started offering universal social protection at levels of GDP per capita similar to or less than our own historically. If we take the popular view that democracy means elections and political parties, then we have already achieved the goal. This seems like a facile approach that only avoids the problems we face. Rather, we should be struggling to solve them.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 3rd,  2015.

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Reader Comments (13)

  • Nadir
    Feb 3, 2015 - 12:25AM

    Nation must ensure all perks and benefits are placed before the military and only then think about poor civilians.


  • Ranjha
    Feb 3, 2015 - 3:45AM

    Express Tribune is a slave of NYT and the Lakson Group and part of the Tax Cheat mafia. Their Editorials have ZERO credibility!


  • raider
    Feb 3, 2015 - 9:30AM

    So many there now would like to post, chalta ha g, “corruption hoti ha fragile democracies ma”, they are actually the beneficiaries and are like minded


  • Feroz
    Feb 3, 2015 - 2:13PM

    You keep going around in circles without getting to the root of the problem. There is no issue with Democracy, Pakistan is burdened by an Establishment that thinks glory will come with Military might, thereby half the countries Income goes to Defense. Considering the share of Income going to Defense, there is very little to left to spend on development. Parliament simply has neither the clout or the will to reduce the Defense expenditure, huge amounts going into a sinkhole without being able to provide security to anyone. Pakistan is a democracy in form rather than substance, likely to remain that way until citizens understand there is no messiah and the future rests in their own hands. Indians know the power of their vote which alone makes them very confident about their future, The most powerful tool to effect change in any democratic country is the vote of the citizen, any attempt to derail an elected government is destined to fail when the citizen knows his power.


  • Rex Minor
    Feb 3, 2015 - 3:31PM

    However, to me, dem no role ocracy is an idealistic vision of a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people”.

    It is not the idealistic vision but the very basics of democracy. The army has more or less no role in a democracy other than being a nationalised force to watch and protect the territorial integrity of the country!!

    Rex Minor


  • Nadia
    Feb 3, 2015 - 5:20PM

    really a nice article. With full of knowledge. I am agreed with the democracy which is practising in the Euroup especially by looking at the educational system. Our democratic leaders should be focused on the cheap and qualited educational system. This is the key for solving all the problems prevailing in this country.


  • Sexton Blake
    Feb 3, 2015 - 10:55PM

    The putdowns of Pakistan continue, and I must admit that some of the pictures we are subjected to, of the dreadful living conditions, are alarming. However, we are rarely shown the dreadful living conditions millions of Americans are subjected to. We are never told about the Australian elite schools which are heavily subsidized by the Australian Government and the comparison with outer suburban public schools which are collapsing. We are not told about Westerners who cannot walk due to severe hip problems, but have to wait in agony for at least six years before they can be operated upon in a public hospital, and that the elite people wait a week. I am afraid we live in a cruel world, and perhaps Pakistan/India are at the bottom end, but millions of lower end Westerners are also doing it tough in the US/Australia/UK etc, etc.


  • Walayat Malik
    Feb 4, 2015 - 7:07AM

    The title of the article is ‘defining democracy’ but author has not even tried to define it. Democracy is self- government by the people at all levels of the government. Pakistan has 6 levels of governments: Federal, Provincial and FOUR local levels- Division, District, Tehsil and Union Councils. These 4 levels of local governments were made by the colonial power to better control the conquered people. In all Western democracies they have only 3 levels of governments: Federal, Provincial, and Municipal. Municipal Governments are headed by directly elected Mayors. That is real democracy. The author is ignorant of the real problem in Pakistan. It is the existence of 4 levels of local governments ruled by Commissioners, DCs and ACs.


  • Naseem
    Feb 5, 2015 - 9:21AM

    It’s a well articulated article. I agree the definition of democracy is not well understood by our society, also it is well pointed out that we are so confused we don’t know what are our real issues and priorities. Here question arises, who will bring the true democracy or correct the so-called definition of democracy in Pakistan? What drivers are needed to shape the fair democratic system? So if we don’t think there is invisible hand then there must be some drivers within the system that may help to achieve the vision of a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people. What I see, the biggest thing lack our system is the refined and strong Justice system. If people are unable to get justice how could you expect merit, competence, right person on right place, etc. will exist in the system. You could only expect corruption, rent seeking, crime. We already have experienced that simply vote power and election cycles couldn’t helped to bring positive change for poor and middle class. With such week justice system you can not change political wills so you cannot get over the problems. A powerful and well functioning justice based system could help to transform institutions into better institutions, and adopt better policies to fight with all social ills and economic problems.


  • Sameer Mahmood Ansari
    Feb 5, 2015 - 5:17PM

    Pakistan is an agrarian economy and majority of Population (75%) is involved in agriculture and that is the only sector which requires massive reforms to make Pakistan Social Welfare State – LAND REFORMS: TILLER TO BE THE OWNER OF THE YIELD.(Manifesto of Muslim League for 1946 elections).
    1. Maximum 25 acres for each Tiller
    2. Land cannot be given on rent, sold or distributed among heirs
    3. Land Labour will be covered by Social Security and EOBI
    4. Every Tiller will be taxed according to income.

    Pakistan Zindabad.


  • Sexton Blake
    Feb 5, 2015 - 9:28PM

    @Sameer Mahmood Ansari:
    Dear Sameer,
    You may or may not be correct in your viewpoint, but Pakistan will not become a Social Welfare State any time soon. Pakistan is a so called democracy based on the Western system of government. This really means that the people are allowed to vote at intervals of 3-6 years depending upon the country. Once elected the government does whatever it wishes until six months before an election and then starts a massive propaganda campaign to convince the voters that they are working night and day to improve their welfare. The social welfare you mention exists everywhere, but only for small groups of people, and these would comprise less than 1% of the population such as elected government members, doctors, senior military, senior public servants, and others who are part of the private school club running the country. The other 99% are the poor fools paying all the taxes which keep the country running. If you doubt me go to your local Hospital and look in the Doctors car park which will be full of Mercedes, BMWs etc. Then go to the Parliament house car park and watch the government drivers reading the newspaper as they wait for their masters to be driven home.. I could then go into the money junkies and huge company enterprises, but have to stop somewhere. I am afraid that socialism which looks after people is bad and has gone out of the window and fascism which looks after the 1% and is good is here to stay. Better get used to it.


  • nadia hassan
    Feb 9, 2015 - 12:26AM

    Your definition of democracy is very genuine sir Dr Asad Zaman. democracy can never be established unless government is ‘responsive to the needs of people’

    @Walayat Malik
    Author is more aware of the problems of Pakistan than anyone else here. He has defined democracy in a very clear way but a typical mind set concentrates only on the selection process of authorities not the policies by those authorities. If local governments’ formation is not up to the so called democratic criteria how would you defend the pro rich policies of your own elected federal and provincial government? Recommend

  • Masud-ur-Rahman
    Feb 10, 2015 - 12:58AM

    We have two inherited problems.
    1. We have an anarchically owned political system.
    2. And, we will always have a minority powered Government which will keep struggling for existence. what i mean to say is that in any constituency in Pakistan, the winner has less number of votes compared to the total votes polled against him which makes him weak. The weak electoral system will never allow anyone to gain a overwhelming majority. That is the key point to divide & rule. People are grossly distributed.
    In my opinion, unless & until we solve these issues, we can not have a strong government.Recommend

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