A reformed democracy

May 09,2018

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In a survey conducted by Shaheed Benazir Bhutto Women University, Peshawar on voting patterns, most respondents expressed a lack of trust in politicians and the electoral process, which eventually resulted in a low voter turnout.

The survey found that: “to [respondents] elections [are] only a formality which cannot bring any change or happiness in their daily life”. This survey showed the growing disconnect and disillusionment that has developed over the years with the government – regardless of whether it is a democratic or military-led setup. The main reason for this is the government’s failure to ensure the provision of basic necessities.

In our political transformation over the years, mainstream political parties have abandoned the poor working class and the desire social democracy; adopted laissez-faire and liberal democratic tendencies; and have started appealing to the affluent through election campaigns. Addressing poverty and the providing basic necessities is no longer part of political discourse and policymaking – barring, of course, an occasional lip service to roti, kapra aur makaan. Following the elimination of progressive politics, there is a bipartisan consensus over encouraging capital investors who ultimately reap benefits.

In Pakistan, according to the international poverty line of nearly $2 per day, a whopping 60 percent of the people are poor. UNDP surveys show that 60.6 percent of the population don’t have access to cooking fuel; 48.5 percent don’t complete their schooling; 39 percent don’t have any assets; and over 38 percent of the population lives in a one-room shelter. Around one-third of the population don’t have access to health facilities.

Poverty is a vicious cycle that makes it difficult for people to adequately feed their family, even if they work hard. Daily wage-earners venture often return home with little money. Of this meagre amount, they have to pay rent, and purchase food. There is no clean water and many of them can’t afford expensive groceries and vegetables.

The combination of corporate predation and state neglect amount to social coercion and structural violence waged against what Noam Chomsky calls the “precariat” – those who live a precarious existence at the periphery of society. This includes the elderly, the poor and communities of colour. “It’s not the periphery anymore,” writes Chomsky. “It’s becoming a very substantial part of society.”

Balochistan find itself grappling with bleak circumstances. Some districts in the province with alarming levels of poverty include Killa Abdullah, Harnai, Barkhan and Sherani. In Sindh, Tharparkar is the poorest district, followed by Umerkot, Tando Muhammad Khan, Badin and Kashmore.

Punjab doesn’t lagging far behind in this respect as the PML-N’s politics revolves around central and northern Punjab. Southern Punjab remains largely neglected. Muzaffargarh and Rajanpur are the poorest districts, followed by DG Khan and Bahawalpur. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa doesn’t fare better either. Dera Ismail Khan, Tank, Kohistan, Chitral, Karak and Shangla are among the poverty-stricken districts of the province.

The irony is that the poverty-stricken zone of KP doesn’t receive adequate funding. It receives fewer Zakat funds – of Rs87 million for all these districts – as compared with the relatively rich Peshawar district that received Rs77.4 million. This pattern is evident across the country. The richest districts receive five times more public funds on an average than the poorest. The PML-N government earmarked Rs462.7 billion by the provinces and the federal government for poverty alleviation. Instead, a large sum of Rs354.4 billion was spent on salary payments and other non-development expenditures.

The PML-N government sanctioned Rs50 million for Millennium Development Goals and subsequently the Prime Minister’s Sustainable Development Goals in the last two budgets. But the same government ended up spending Rs30 billion of the PM’s Global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Achievement Programme during FY 2017-18 on schemes to ensure village electrification and the provision of gas facilities. This could have been somewhat acceptable. But the Public Accounts Committee’s proceedings are replete with tales of “corruption by [MPs] who would exchange uplift schemes with contractors for money”.

Pakistan is facing a severe hunger crisis. If the findings of the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute are to be believed, this crisis could escalate further. The institute concluded that one-fifth of the country’s total population is undernourished and as many as 45 percent of children are exposed to stunting. Abject poverty is keeping people underfed and undernourished. The government has abdicated its responsibility to manage market forces and control hoarders. In fact, market forces are the patrons of the political system that are free to indulge in unbridled profit-making.

This is an ever-unfolding tragedy. Pakistan has the third highest infant mortality rate in the world. In the 21st century, hepatitis, typhoid, diarrhoea, malaria and dengue still feature as some of the top health concerns. The UN believes that up to 40 percent of diseases and deaths in the country are directly connected to poor water quality. Most of them are preventable through even minimal government attention.

But these are not the only problems. Controversial legislations like the Election Act 2017 have done away with critical segments that deal with the accountability of elected representatives. There are little or no legislations passed by parliament to serve the public interest and overcome the problems faced by the people.

The convergence of the otherwise ranting legislators, who joined in the bipartisan consensus to pass these clauses without a murmur, was shocking. Let’s compare this attitude with our approach towards cases of molestation and rape. In these matters, we are still embroiled in the deeply problematic and character-based two-finger rape test, which is even accepted by the courts.

Frozen in the time of the British Raj, this test involves examining the vagina to determine whether or not the victim is “habituated to sexual intercourse”. International courts neither entertain details of the victim’s sexual history nor accept any evidence based on her character. What prevents our soap-opera democrats from abolishing this severe miscarriage of justice? Is it their lack of interest, insensitivity or a disregard for the public good?

The PML-N is campaigning against ‘the contempt of vote’ and is using it as the main plank of its politics. But it has done nothing for the voting rights of overseas Pakistanis. Irrespective of any nomenclature employed in our statecraft, civil and military governments are an instrument for the protection of elite interest, self aggrandisement and corruption.

In Turkey, the mass support for Tayyip Erdogan witnessed during the attempted coup of July 2016 was triggered by the existence of a strong local government system; an effective social security network; and a robust system for public transport, cheap gas and electricity. Primary and higher education in Turkey is free and compulsory. It is this form of involvement that earns loyalty for the political leadership. But the opposite seems to happen in our case.

In Pakistan, elections are not a panacea to “improve democracy”. They haven’t given us a better set of rulers who can deliver basic services and uphold merit by abiding by the law and steering clear of corruption. The rebirth of either Adam Smith or Marx isn’t required to improve the system. All that is requires is a basic across-the-board political agreement to deliver provisions to the people. We need a reformed democracy.

Email: amjad.siddiqithenews. com.pk


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