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November 4, 2017

Democratising our democracy


November 4, 2017

Nearly six decades ago, Pakistan experienced its first military rule when the then army chief, Muhammad Ayub Khan, imposed the country’s first martial law. As a school boy, I still remember the banner headlines that appeared in the newspapers in the following morning.

I have lived to see three more martial laws in 1969, 1977 and 1999 – barring the dismissal of PM Junejo in 1988. We constantly hear that democracy is not under threat. However, we have also heard that: “if there was to be a threat to democracy, it would be from not fulfilling the requirements of democracy or the aspirations of the people”.

Having had a ringside view of the developments that led to the military takeovers of 1977 and 1999 and Junejo’s dismissal of 1988, I would let the readers gauge for themselves if the requirements of democracy and the aspirations of the people are being fulfilled.

Despite 10 years of uninterrupted democracy, Pakistan continues to stumble from crisis to crisis. We are in the midst of a political and economic storm again. Over a year ago, I wrote in these pages that the state of Pakistan needs an overhaul, a restructuring of sorts. I had said that an important component of that restructuring is the need to revisit our parliamentary model of democracy. It has clearly not worked.

As a fresh wave of debate and discussion rages on the current impasse in Pakistan, the country needs to revisit and review its structure – both administrative and political. Pakistan needs to be reorganised in terms of its administrative units and with respect to the transfer of power to the people.

Many federal democracies of the world are not parliamentary in character. Yet, they are strong, vibrant and responsive to the aspirations of their people. Democracy lies in the functioning of a democratic system. What passes for democracy in Pakistan is anything but democratic. Shorn of transparency and accountability and modelled on the first-past-the-post system, it favours the strong and the wealthy and keeps the people unrepresented. As a result, there is a need to put in place a proportional system of elections that enables less privileged but otherwise capable people to be elected into local and national bodies. Until that is done, the majority will remain unrepresented with the first-past-the-post minority, propelled by their wealth, presiding over the affairs of the country.

Our democracy needs to be democratised and freed from the clutches of the favoured few. It provides an iron fist to the perpetual heads of our political parties to de-seat their very own parliamentarian who are elected by the people. Put plainly, a parliamentarian has to do the bidding of his/her party boss rather than those who have elected him/her. That is how our political elite have defaced democracy in Pakistan. This dictatorial aberration in our constitution should be done away with.

As a nation, we are impatient. The five-year term of our elected bodies and elected governments is, therefore, too long. We need to reduce it to a period of four years. And we need to take democracy down to the local governments. Why are the major political parties reluctant to empower the city and district governments? Why are they not awarding local governments their due financial resources? Until the elected local governments are empowered via a constitutional amendment, our democracy will remain imperfect and weak.

Since our parliamentary democracy has not delivered, why don’t we opt for a system where the federal and provincial chief executives are directly elected for a four-year term under a one man, one vote system? Let the chief executive select his/her cabinet from within and outside the elected houses to ensure that the best possible talent and experience is harnessed to run the country. Freed from the pressures of removal through a vote of no-confidence, the chief executive – call him the prime minister if you will – would be able to deliver better under the oversight of constitutionally-empowered house committees. The US is a federal entity under a similar arrangement. Is it any weaker because of this? No.

Accountability is an essential ingredient of democracy. In Pakistan, we see a farce being played out in the name of accountability. It is a process which dry-cleans the looters and plunderers. Recent Supreme Court interventions are refreshing but cannot serve as a substitute for an institutionalised accountability mechanism. All we need is to professionally strengthen the FIA and appoint its head through a judicial process rather than a political one. We should let a panel of prequalified professionals be sent to a committee of chief justices (as the FIA also covers the provinces) who would appoint a suitable person for a fixed non-renewable term, to be removed only by the appointing committee through a transparent process.

All the above will not bear fruit unless we create more provinces. Let’s give southern Punjab its due. Let’s restore Bahawalpur as a separate entity, which existed until 1955. Let’s merge the former Balochistan states into a separate administrative entity – as they were until 1955. And why can’t we grant provincial status to Fata?

Today, nearly 20 million people of Karachi have no representation in the federal or the provincial government and have a toothless local government. Let’s grant a special administrative and political dispensation to Karachi along the lines of Delhi without dividing Sindh as a province. A locally-empowered and peaceful Karachi will propel Pakistan on an economic footing.

To survive and flourish, Pakistan needs a new contract with itself. It needs constitutional repackaging. Who will bell the cat if the requirements of democracy and the aspirations of the people are not being fulfilled? Will our democrats rise to the occasion or wait for another messiah?


The writer is a former federal secretary.

Email: [email protected]


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