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March 8, 2018

Holding the reins of democracy


March 8, 2018

Despite anticipation that the Senate elections would never take place and that a caretaker government would have to take over, the polls did indeed take place, with 52 new senators elected to take up their positions in the Upper House for the next six years.

The manner in which the process took place can, however, be disputed. As has become the norm, there were accusations of money being used to trade loyalties. It was also obvious that the PML-N was made the target of a broader game, with other major parties colluding against it.

But we can now move on. With the Senate drama behind us, we can start preparing for the 2018 general elections, which will tell us how people choose and who represents us in the coming term. To protect our democracy, which on multiple occasions appeared to be on the verge of cracking and collapsing, the political parties need to join hands. They all know that there are elements which do not wish a civilian government to wield actual power, and it is the collective duty of all to work against this mindset. No matter how flawed our democratic system may be, it is still our best chance at moving forward.

Unfortunately, political leaders are aware that the will of the people can be subverted by striking deals behind their backs. Changing this trend will not be easy, given the awareness that succeeding without power brokers is almost impossible. However, as a first step, the prime minister and the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly can invite other major parties to discuss the appointment of a caretaker prime minister ahead of the election. This choice is an important one. The interim government that takes charge before any general election must be unbiased and principled. Integrity is indeed a quality we desperately need in our politics as it does not appear to exist at present.

The other task all political parties should now concentrate on is getting their manifestos in order and putting their agenda before the people. This is a part of the election process we have almost forgotten. Electioneering has essentially become a game of pointing fingers and directing abuse at the opposition candidates. What people really need to know is what a party is willing to do for them, how it intends to achieve those objectives and what are its goals going to be.

The absence of the political Left, of course, means that all our major parties are either centrists, or are very close to it, whereas many have ventured into the far-right domain. The emergence of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYR) is one example of how the Right has been gaining ground. Whether it has done so on its own or with the support of others is difficult to say. One reason for it is that the Right has a clear message and a simple slogan. Other parties have very little of both.

It is only when these parties will develop these messages that people will make intelligent choices. We all understand that our problems are multi-faceted. These involve governance, corruption, the tussles between institutions and many other factors. But if we are to wrest our country back from the forces that now hold it captive, it is essential we deal with the wave of extremism that has altered Pakistan so dramatically within decades. Looking back at the 1950s and 1960s, we see images of women occupying a far greater public space without wearing veils – without any controversy. We also have images of a Pakistan that was far more tolerant and far more open to different ideas. This has changed dramatically. Today, there is so much that is impossible to say in public without facing the risk of retaliation in one form or the other.

Winning back the space where we can talk, put forward opinions and table ideas is essential for achieving at least something that resembles real democracy and also enables us to contemplate creating the kind of change the country needs. Change happens when it is being openly talked about, and when the talk is being followed by action. This has been happening in places like Iran, where after years of discussion women have taken it upon themselves to relax the strict dress code and by doing so claim back a small portion of their rights.

Even parties that claim to be liberal need to do more than just nominate selected candidates for the Senate and National Assembly as a means to express their ideological alignments. Yes, we welcome Krishna Kumari from Thar and Anwar Lal Dean from Karachi, to the upper house, but their mere presence is not enough. We also need the parties behind them and others to openly articulate policies that can bring a change and truly empower women, minorities and other oppressed groups. To achieve this, it is essential that hard-line ideas are driven back.

Some would argue that people are no longer willing to tolerate ideas that differ from the general narrative. This is most certainly untrue. If people are given a choice, many would choose a less violent society over the one we have now, especially if it includes more social and economic parity and welfare for all. Making the country a safer place for all and removing the hatred that has perhaps become the biggest threat to the country’s integrity and security, should be the mission of any party willing to work for a real change. As the elections approach, the concerned parties need to convince us that this is also what they desire. We know how many of them have simply accepted agreements, deals, and strategic settlements with militant groups in the past to meet immediate ends. The harm this has done for the longer term is enormous. We need to see the political parties take a clear stand in a published and publicised manifesto as to how they intend to handle the problems.

This should be the next step towards building a true democracy. The one we have has been kept so occupied with the struggle to survive that nothing seems conceivable. But democracy, after all, should not be an end in itself. It should instead only be a step towards achieving a set of goals or targets desired by the people who are represented in the elected assemblies.

With the Senate process now over and the threat of a sudden dissolution of the government having faded away, we must start looking towards the general elections. These elections cannot be one dominated by allegations of rigging and corruption that we are already beginning to hear. It is up to the political parties to move beyond posturing and pretence and offer people a real plan that enables them to decide what kind of a future they want for their country and what kind of lives they wish to lead.

At the moment, people are effectively left out of the process as a result of the secret deals made too often. The Senate election exposed this in various ways. It is up to the political parties to work together and take the reins of democracy back into their own hands and deliver to the people something they would choose to make a part of their lives.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]

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