Thursday July 18, 2024

In reverse

By Dr Farrukh Saleem
March 19, 2023

A ‘substantive democracy’ is supposed to produce two things: political stability and economic growth. We have had 11 elections over the past 48 years. Our version of democracy has also produced two things: extreme political instability and a national debt of Rs63,000 billion. Our version of democracy surely has all the elements of a ‘procedural democracy’: Political Parties Act, Electoral Rolls Act, the Representation of the People Rules, an Election Commision of Pakistan, the Delimitation of Constituencies Act, provincial assemblies, a National Assembly and a Senate. We have the entire menu of procedures but little or no substance.

Democracy is meant to be a ‘positive-sum game,’ where the total gains and losses are greater than zero. Under a ‘positive-sum game’, political parties interact and collaborate to enhance the well-being of their constituents. Unfortunately, our version of democracy has turned into a ‘negative-sum game,’ where the total gains and losses are less than zero, and political parties interact in ways that diminish the well-being of their voters. Zaman Park is a classic example of a ‘negative-sum game,’ where no one – absolutely no one – has gained, and the well-being of Pakistanis has actually decreased.

Our constitution has ‘separation of powers’ between the three branches of the government – the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. This ‘separation of power’ is supposed to produce three outcomes: prevent the abuse of power, promote accountability and encourage compromise and cooperation. Our version of ‘separation of powers’ has also produced three outcomes: facilitate abuse of power, obstruct accountability and discourage compromise and cooperation. Interestingly, China’s constitution has no ‘separation of powers’ and all the three branches of the government have just one goal: economic growth.

Democracy is a competition in which political rivals strive to enhance the welfare of their voters. In our current version of democracy, political opponents resort to using their entire arsenal of weapons to annihilate and destroy each other. Our version of democracy is more of an ‘intra-elite power conflict’ in which the country’s elite battle to monopolize political power in order to control resources and shape the country’s political and social landscape according to their interests.

What we have in our country is a ‘procedural democracy’. And as a consequence of this ‘procedural democracy’ we are destined to experience political instability and little to no economic growth. In order to benefit the 53 million Pakistanis who voted in 2018 rather than the 1,192 who were elected, we need to strive for a ‘substantive democracy’. Unfortunately, we are experiencing a ‘democracy-in-reverse’ situation where the elected officials extract all the benefits while the voters are worse off after the elections than before. As long as we continue to have ‘democracy-in-reverse’, we will inevitably face political instability and economic stagnation.

Pakistan is currently trapped in a vicious cycle, where an unstable political environment creates uncertainty, which in turn reduces business investment. The lower levels of business investment, in turn, result in poor economic performance, which generates public unrest and ultimately leads to government collapse. It is crucial that we take action to break this cycle and put an end to it.

The writer is a columnist based in Islamabad. He tweets @saleemfarrukh and can be reached at: