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May 27, 2018

The illusion of democracy


May 27, 2018

Can you imagine Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan coming together, in a not too distant a future, to write about democracy’s travails in Pakistan? [And if they were to need ghost writers, who would they choose – Daniyal Aziz and Naeemul Haq?]

The point is: can sworn adversaries fruitfully exchange their thoughts on their respective pursuit of a goal that they both desire? For that matter, political parties contending for power in a democratic setting should not be branded as adversaries because their common purpose would be the vindication of the democratic process.

Yet, the present scenario portrays almost a war-like situation. Political differences are defined in starkly antagonistic terms. Tempers run high. Charges are levelled that are distinctly below the belt. Civility was the first casualty of this political campaign. What happens to democracy and its values in this progressively vicious electoral exercise?

At one level, democracy has always been at least partly illusory, including during civilian rule. Things have never been as murky and mystifying as they are now. The march of so many so-called ‘electables’ from Nawaz’s party into Imran’s fold so close to the holding of the coming national election is in itself a measure of how the pack is being shuffled. Here is a thriller that is likely to deliver surprising, even shocking, results.

It is hard to dispel the thought that this is a turning point in Pakistan’s political history because of some dramatic shifts in the alignment of the political forces. There are some stirrings at the grassroots level that defy adequate comprehension in the absence of credible and widely-shared information. Indirectly, though, there are plenty of intimations of critical social and political developments.

Take, for instance, the high drama that was enacted in the National Assembly on Thursday. A grand show of unanimity between the ruling PML-N and its virulent opponents such as Imran Khan’s PTI and Zardari’s PPP saw the passage of the 25th Constitutional Amendment Bill to merge tribal areas with the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

At the fag end of this assembly’s term, when not many members are keen to be present in the House, the parties were able to ensure the presence of at least 228 members to constitute the mandatory two-thirds majority of the 342-member National Assembly needed for a constitutional amendment . Finally, the bill was passed with the majority of one. Even Imran Khan, the leading pretender to the political throne, was there.

On Friday, the bill formally known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas Reforms Bill, was passed in the Senate by an overwhelming 75-5 vote. After the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly’s similar approval with a two-thirds majority, it will go the president and his signature will make it a law.

Irrespective of how a measure delayed for so many years was finally undertaken at such an anxious pace, it is worthy of national celebration. It is certainly a move in the right direction. This should abate, to whatever extent, the growing sense of alienation and discontent among the citizens of the tribal areas. But this legislative initiative has to be quickly followed by tangible steps to develop a region that was left for so long to survive in the colonial past.

In any case, this inspiring demonstration of solidarity with the people of the tribal areas by political parties is an aberration in the present environment of sharp and venomous contradictions. Listen to the leaders of the PML-N and the PTI and you feel that they have abandoned the principles of political coexistence, the very foundation of a democratic dispensation.

There was a shrieking demonstration of this hostility towards each other when Naeemul Haq slapped Daniyal Aziz in a talk show. It was, in fact, the aftermath of this ugly incident that reveals the political temperament of these divisive times. Instead of apologising for his behaviour, Naeemul Haq, in a video message, said: “Imran Khan praised me, saying that I did the right thing because he (Daniyal Aziz) had been spitting venom for a long time”. He also claimed that the party supporters had applauded his action. It does not matter much that he later tried to qualify his statement.

This, to be sure, was not the only instance of moral delinquency on the part of our leading political practitioners. The quality of our political discourse, as the talk shows on our news channels and speeches made in rallies have shown, is very poor. At a time when citizens need to critically appraise the choices that they have in coming elections, prospects for an informed and rational debate are virtually non-existent.

Add to this the inexplicable inability of the mainstream media to delve into the reality of national affairs and objectively explore issues that are of importance for the future of democracy in Pakistan. Election campaigns particularly demand a sense of openness and freedom to allow a positive debate on contentious policy options.

Against this backdrop, the Council of Pakistan Newspapers Editors (CPNE) has expressed concern regarding media freedom, especially attempts when it comes to distribution and transmission issues in both print and electronic media.

About a month ago, a report by Reporters Without Borders or Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) had noted that the Pakistan media is regarded as among the most vibrant in Asia but that it is resorting to self-censorship due to pressure by various elements.

This restraint is obviously not conducive to the holding of free and fair elections. And this also bolsters fear and anxiety at the popular level. Meanwhile, the threat of violence born of extremism and intolerance that is endemic in Pakistani society also lingers.

Another disconcerting reminder of this spectre was available on Wednesday night when a mob demolished the place of worship of the Ahmadi community in Sialkot. Only young PPP senator Qurratulain Marri rose in the Senate to condemn the attack. “This was not Jinnah’s vision, this was not Jinnah’s vision”, she said.

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]

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