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Opinion

November 5, 2016

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What ails our democracy

The dialectics between democracy and politics defines the quality of governance and the concomitant public weal, the two objectives of a democratic mode of governance.

If either of the two objectives is not served, the democratic dividends fail to accrue resulting in bad governance and public disenchantment. Tolerance, pluralism and public accountability are the three core tenets of true democracy sans which it degenerates into an illiberal democracy.

According to Fareed Zakaria, illiberal democracy has all the trappings of democracy – like electoral politics and representative institutions – but lacks the spirit of constitutional liberalism. In illiberal democracies the people are not truly empowered, due to ineffectual institutions that do not enable people to oversee and monitor the quality of governance.

An ineffective judiciary, a pliant media, an ineffective parliamentary opposition and curbs on freedoms of speech and information are the classic symptoms of an illiberal democracy. According to Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, “though an illiberal state does not reject the values of the liberal democracy it does not either adopt those as the central element of state organisation.”

Pakistan is one such illiberal democracy that has the form of democracy sans its substance. In illiberal democracies a ruling elite captures the national resources without holding itself truly accountable to people who suffer structural violence begotten out of state apathy and skewed distribution of national resources. It is a democracy wherein the people undergo the electoral process, select their representatives, and empower an elite that, having attained political power, feathers its own nest.

The autocratic mode of governance during the ensuing constitutional tenures excludes common people from political participation, resulting in autocratic decision-making and uneven sharing of public goods. Inequality, social polarisation and penury accompany such a democracy, which is also totally unresponsive to the needs of the people.

Why do we have a democracy that fuels inequality and public exclusion? The answer lies in its genesis. Our democracy is a colonial bequest initially grafted on the Government of India Act of 1935 that was crafted as a colonial concession to the political aspirations of a colonised majority. The two dominions slavishly copied that model without establishing their own brand of democracy.

The founding fathers of the US constitution chose a model of democracy responsive to their own needs, retaining an ideal balance between the administration, parliament and judiciary with effective checks and balance on all institutions.

What we plagiarised in Pakistan was a Westminster polity that might have served the British interests well due to their peculiar history and socio-political realities but was not ideally responsive to the realities of a new state. Due to a mismatch between an over-developed state and under-developed political institutions, our democratic project kept getting derailed.

After several dalliances with authoritarian dispensations and presidential form of governance the nation got an opportunity to frame a new constitution in 1971. Our political leadership, however, succumbed to the blandishments of few ambitious yet visionless provincial leaders who could not see the pitfalls of a colonial bequest and yet again embraced a colonial project in the shape of Westminster polity. Without a strong tradition of public accountability and institutional mode of decision-making, our predilection for the politics of patronage has made our democracy unresponsive to public weal. What we see now is a democracy that concentrates power in the hands of a tiny elite at the provincial and federal levels without sharing power with people at the local level.

The institution of mayor and local government is a universal participatory mechanism the world over, regardless of the variant of democracy. Here we have provincial governments that have steadfastly and vociferously opposed sharing political power with the people at the local government level. Here we have prime ministers and chief ministers constantly being politically blackmailed to dole out cabinet positions to undeserving political carpetbaggers.

The ludicrous spectacle of an entire provincial assembly earning cabinet positions through political blackmail is still fresh in public memory. Politics of patronage and a nexus between politics and big business have rendered Pakistan’s democratic project unresponsive to the needs of the people.

According to a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Pakistan ranks 108 out of 115 countries on indices such as political participation, pluralism, functioning of government and civil liberties. Democracy Index Values place a country in four categories – full democracy, flawed democracy, hybrid regime and authoritarian regimes.

Pakistan has been placed in the hybrid regime category, only a step away from the much reviled authoritarian regimes. The upshot of this flawed democracy is an increase in social inequality and poverty, sliding the country further down on the Human Development Index – 147 out of 188 countries.

Unless our democracy becomes participatory, with strong independent institutions guaranteeing public freedoms and transparent governance the public imagination will continue to hearken for a ‘Deus Ex Machina’. It is time we reassessed the state of our democracy to figure out the need for reforms to make it truly responsive to the needs of a disempowered majority that yearns to reap democratic dividends in the form of better livelihood opportunities, education and healthcare.

The writer is a PhD scholar at Nust.

Email: [email protected]

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