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Tuesday May 28, 2024

Democracy beyond elections

By Husain Haqqani
December 28, 2023

Elections are an integral part of democracy. But even a free and fair election is not the only factor that makes a country a liberal democracy.

In an essay published in the journal ‘Foreign Affairs,’ in 1997, Indian-American journalist Fareed Zakaria had noted the rise of illiberal democracy around the world. “Democratically elected regimes”, Zakaria wrote, “are routinely ignoring constitutional limits on their power and depriving their citizens of basic rights and freedoms.”

A woman cast her vote during Pakistans general election at a polling station during the general election in Lahore, Pakistan, on July 25, 2018. — AFP
A woman cast her vote during Pakistan's general election at a polling station during the general election in Lahore, Pakistan, on July 25, 2018. — AFP

According to Zakaria, in the West (where modern democratic republics evolved) “democracy has meant liberal democracy – a political system marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property.” But in many countries around the world, from Hungary to Venezuela, elected leaders have gone on to dismantle constitutional limitations on their power and imposed elected dictatorships.

Zakaria had cited the worry of late American diplomat, Richard Holbrooke, “on the eve of the September 1996 elections in Bosnia, which were meant to restore civic life to that ravaged country.” Holbrooke had wondered, “Suppose the election was declared free and fair” but resulted in the election of “racists, fascists, separatists, who are publicly opposed to [peace and reintegration].” This dilemma has been at the heart of the conflict and lack of stability in former Yugoslavia. It is also something Pakistanis must be mindful of ahead of the forthcoming elections.

Pakistan does not have a good track record with elections leading to democracy. For the first 23 years after the country’s birth in 1947, Pakistan just did not have general elections. When elections were finally held, under a military regime in 1970, their results led to conflict between what were Pakistan’s two wings at the time, civil war, atrocities, and the separation of erstwhile East Pakistan.

The remaining half, today’s Pakistan, held elections in 1977 only to have the election results disputed by the losing opposition alliance. Before the politicians could resolve that dispute through talks, the country found itself under martial law and did not have elections until 1985. These polls, held on a non-party basis, were boycotted by major political parties at the time. The semi-elected government that emerged from these elections was eventually dismissed, and after General Ziaul Haq’s death in a plane crash in 1988, elections were held again.

Political conflict persisted, resulting in another election in 1990 but these elections were also not undisputed. Results of elections in 1993 and 1997 were questioned by the losing side. The 2002 elections were deemed only partially legitimate because they were held under a regime that took power in a coup d’etat. The polls of 2008, 2013, and 2018 were not free of controversy either.

Democracy requires not just determining which party or leader has more support at the time of elections but also necessitates acceptance of election results by everyone, and a willingness by those elected to submit themselves to predetermined rules. The implementation of these rules is usually ensured by a non-controversial judicial authority.

Even a cursory glance at Pakistan’s intermittent democratic record would show that, while every politician and political party wants free and fair elections, few are willing to submit themselves to agreed-upon rules. The judiciary’s credibility has also been sketchy, at best, while the overly intrusive role of the country’s invisible authorities has been the subject of exhaustive discussion for years, especially in recent months.

There is a clear lack of democratic temperament among some of Pakistan’s political actors. Instead of letting the winner of an election form the government, and the loser accept the role of the government’s critic until the next election, someone or the other disputes the election results. This sets in motion a behind-the-scenes game of manipulation and intrigue, which is often accompanied with curbs on the media and targeting of political opponents.

Parliament is supposed to be the centre of political activity in a parliamentary democracy. But most prominent Pakistani leaders have poor attendance records of National Assembly sessions, according to data compiled by the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT) and the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN).

As prime minister, Imran Khan attended a total of 38 out of 442 sittings (9.0 per cent) of the National Assembly in his tenure of three years and eight months. But while he was in opposition, his attendance was even poorer – a mere 5.0 per cent between June 1, 2013, and May 30, 2016. Nawaz Sharif did marginally better when he served as the country’s elected chief executive by attending 39 out of 289 (13.4 per cent) National Assembly sittings. The average attendance of lawmakers over the last several years has also been generally poor and continues to decline.

Members of parliament are chosen and paid to represent their voters in assemblies, which are meant to be forums of open debate and discussion. Instead, most members of assemblies see their election as a means of securing some influence over the executive and to trade in favours. With members showing less interest in the business of their assemblies, elected governments tend to rely on ordinances, defeating the purpose for which parliament is elected in the first place.

Elections are critical to democracy and are usually expected to resolve the question: ‘Who should rule?’ for the duration of the elected term of parliament. But democracy cannot flourish if election results are perennially disputed and those elected focus more on behind-the-scenes machinations than on their duties as elected parliamentarians.

Instead of focusing narrowly only on elections, those seeking to strengthen democracy in Pakistan must also help in developing a consensus on the political rules of engagement. Unless all institutions, from political parties and the judiciary to the media and the currently all-powerful military, work together to observe constitutional limitations, Pakistan will not be able to end its cycle of crises even after the next election.


The writer, former ambassador of Pakistan to the US, is Diplomat-in-Residence at the Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy in Abu Dhabi and Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC.