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Opinion

February 20, 2018

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Sham democracy

It is election year. The end of another democratically-elected government is here. For a country like Pakistan where democracy remained hostage to recurrent military coups, and which enjoyed its first ever peaceful democratic transition only one general election ago, the successful completion of another democratic tenure will be a landmark achievement. But not everyone seems content, and there are reasons for that.

As for many sceptics, democratic functioning in this country is essentially flawed. The state of the elected government remains in constant crisis. They associate the general failure of democracy in Pakistan to the failure to uphold rule of law and guarantee fundamental rights and facilities to citizens. And since democracy has failed to deliver these, it is, therefore, no longer valued among citizens.

The recently published edition of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Democracy Index has ranked Pakistan among ‘hybrid regimes’, compared to its previous ranking as ‘flawed democracy’. It is because The EIU’s White Paper cites Pakistan as a ‘very dangerous place for journalists, who face physical and death threats on a regular basis’.

It is a fact, and a grave one, that despite functioning under democratic rule for the past ten years, the country’s core governance institutions did not improve. In some areas, either forcefully or willingly, responsibility has been handed over to some unelected institutions. Since these institutions, donot represent the public, they cannot address their demands either.

In one of his influential books ‘Political Order in Changing Societies’, Samuel P Huntington argued that, “The primary problem of politics is the lag in the development of political institutions behind social and economic change.” According to Huntington, political stability in a demographically and socially evolving community depends upon the capability and workings of its political institutions.

At one point in her book ‘Pakistan: Beyond the Crisis State’, Dr Maleeha Lodhi voices similar concerns about the relative low pace of political development vis-à-vis socio-economic progress. “Representational and electoral politics”, puts Dr Maleeha Lodhi, “have remained stuck in an old mode and increasingly lagged behind the social and economic changes that have been altering the country’s political landscape. The economic centre of gravity has been shifting but politics has yet to catch up with its implications.”

Viewed from Huntington’s lens, and as observed by Dr Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan is experiencing rapid economic and social transformations – from increasing urbanisation to growing industries, and from expansion in mass communication to the rise in automation – creating new demands and expectations among the people. But the country lacks the required political institutions capable of responding to these transformations.

However, it is important to point out here that some powerful, unelected institutions have for long played an overwhelming part in Pakistan’s political process. The country is familiar with recurrent military coups which have caused disruptions and destabilisation. Without these recurrent military coups, there would not have been Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf – whose prolonged dictatorships ended up perpetuating violent and anti-democratic dynamics in the country.

There is also an increasing involvement of money in the election process. The 2013 general election was arguably the most expensive election of the country’s history, but more money is expected to be poured in to influence this year’s general election. The general perception is that ‘the candidate who raises the most money wins, and that for every vote there is a price tag’. Resultantly, parliament has become a club of rich politicians who spend more time serving special interests of groups, than protecting the people they represent.

Nevertheless, political parties have increased citizens’ participation in the political process. But how far this participation translated into their overall political influence is questionable. Whether it is the ruling PML-N or the major opposition parties, the PPP and PTI, all lack strong organisational structure to rally their supporters and mobilise their activists. All around the country, interests and insults, rather than issues and ideologies constitute the core of political debates. Political parties have failed to develop themselves as avenues for channelising their voters’ preferences to parliament and into policies.

According to one scholar, the post-2013 Pakistan is struggling with two opposing dynamics. First, the political corridors of the country continue to be populated with the same conventional feudal, tribal, religious and business elite. Second, the upper middle class is no longer interested in joining the country’s dominant civil and military institutions. It is those from the rather humbler backgrounds – the lower middle class – who join them now. The new elite, according to the scholar, is more conservative and, therefore, more inclined towards authoritarian impulses than towards democratic values.

It is also starkly undeniable that the people today face severe inequalities in their social and economic realms. The persistent level of inequality is relentlessly disturbing the balance of power in society. What needs to be an otherwise healthy middle class is left with no other choice but to struggle with these conditions. The interplay of these socio- economic deprivations darkens the workings of our political institutions as it ultimately benefits the few and burdens the many. It is unfair that our society is not only unequal, but also less secure and undemocratic.

In short, Pakistan does not have a fully operational democracy. It has still not come close to even becoming a democratic state. Therefore, the assertion that democracy does not suit Pakistan and that it should rather be replaced with technocracy is essentially flawed, because it is not the majority that is ruling this country and determining the government’s policies; it is, in fact, quite the opposite. Pakistan is more like an oligarchy where government policies reflect the collective will of only a small subset of its citizens – the elite.

The need is to make our governance more inclusive so that the poor, marginalised and vulnerable get to play a powerful role in policymaking. To fight our governance problems, we must establish political institutions that are more responsive to the needs of the general populace. Unless efforts are made to build strong political institutions and establish a ‘government of the people’, any political discussion taking place within the confines of air-conditioned rooms and conference halls will remain quartered somewhere between the polemics of politicians and the pointless plans of policymakers. As for the standard of peoples’ lives, there will always remain something inherently rotten in the country.

The writer is a freelance contributor.

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