Thursday June 13, 2024

What should Pakistan do? (Part – II)

However, in 76 years we have not been able to make democracy work

By Asad Umar
March 17, 2024
A vendor holds a Pakistani flag as he waits for customers beside his stall alongside a street in Islamabad. — AFP/File
A vendor holds a Pakistani flag as he waits for customers beside his stall alongside a street in Islamabad. — AFP/File

Pakistan was the first country in the history of the world to have been created through the power of the vote. Quaid e Azam had said that “Democracy is in the blood of the Muslims, who believe in complete equality of mankind”.

We can say that democracy is built into the DNA of Pakistan. Even otherwise, a country which comprises multiple ethnic and linguistic groups can only be successful if all the communities of the nation feel they are equal stakeholders. Our inability to put in place, and adhere to, a constitutional democracy based on one person-one vote, is the principal reason why events led to the creation of Bangladesh.

However, in 76 years we have not been able to make democracy work. A government elected by the free will of the people, working for the betterment of the people, and solely accountable to the people is still only a cherished goal. We have during these nearly eight decades experimented with all kinds of permutations of governance models, none of which have had sustainable success. All those who have exercised power have some share of the blame for this failure including both politicians and the establishment. Having exercised the most influence and the longest period of direct control, the establishment should be assigned the biggest share in this failure.

Having stated that, those of us who believe democracy to be the only path forward for a successful Pakistan, must look towards the political leadership, and not the establishment, to find the way forward and turn this continuous failure into a success.

First and foremost, the political leadership needs to sit together and agree on the rules of the game. Parliamentary democracy is a competitive endeavour in which parties compete with their vision, and whoever is elected by the people should have a right to govern. However, there has to be a consensus on how this competition will be carried out. What is acceptable conduct and what is not. No such consensus exists.

Politicians have demonstrated that everything, including violating the constitution, is acceptable if it helps defeat the opponent. All political parties have colluded with the establishment at some point of time. As one of the ministers in the previous PDM government said “This is no longer politics, this is enmity”. He was castigated for making this statement but he was not far from the truth in describing the state of politics. The biggest stumbling block in the creation of such a consensus is the issue of how accountability will be carried out, particularly of politicians.

The Charter of Democracy was an attempt in the right direction. However, the conduct of the political leadership of the two main parties at that time made it seem to the people of Pakistan that the charter was simply signed to allow both sides to hide their corruption. For any grand reconciliation to succeed in the eyes of the people of Pakistan, it will have to pass the test of not being perceived as what has now commonly been referred to as an NRO.

The second important step that has to be taken for creating a framework of democracy on which an agreement can be reached is an empowered local government system. Such a system not only devolves power to the grassroots where local issues are best addressed but also creates tens of thousands of direct stakeholders in the democratic system.

In the context of creating a democratic structure which has something in it for all political parties and not just a do-or-die, winner-takes-all situation, empowered local governments are a vital step. For this purpose, there needs to be a constitutional amendment that binds the provincial governments to hold local government elections within the specified timelines. In addition there needs to be a better defined financial and administrative empowerment built into the constitution itself.

The third critical element that needs to be strengthened is the role of parliament itself. Parliament is treated as a rubber stamp by the parliamentary majority to carry out what the government wants to achieve.

For parliament to be the powerful institution that it must be, it has to be a place where policy debate, and to the extent possible, creation of consensus takes place on all the big challenges facing the nation. The strengthening and protection of real democracy will be done through strong institutions, and not individual leaders or political parties. Parliament is the mother of all democratic institutions and needs to be treated as such in the real sense of the word.

The extreme polarization of politics and the consequent inability to create political consensus in parliament has also had the unfortunate impact of dragging the judiciary into the political battle. Issues that should be settled in parliament routinely end up in the courts and the result is not just judicialization of politics but also in the judiciary looking seemingly divided on partisan lines.

Such extreme polarization has put strains even on the US democratic system. One of the key issues under discussion in the US is that democracy is under threat. Already the extreme political divide which has recently developed in American politics has resulted in a gridlock, undermining the effective working of democratic institutions and ability to resolve national issues. If polarization can have this impact in a 250-year-old democracy like the US, with strong institutions, there is no chance for the success of Pakistani democracy in such a frenzied state of polarization.

I know most readers will say that such a political consensus is not possible in the fractious world of Pakistani politics. If that be the case, half-baked democracy with the unelected interfering in the democratic process, will continue and will fail the nation again and again. The sooner the political leadership understands this, the sooner Pakistan can start moving in the direction that the people of Pakistan want – and deserve

To be continued

The writer is a retired corporate CEO and former federal minister.