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Opinion

June 28, 2018

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Representing the people

Amidst a mounting degree of friction between political parties, Pakistan prepares for what we hope will be its third successive democratic election at the end of July this year. Around 272 representatives will be elected to the general seats in the National Assembly and seats reserved for women and minorities will also be filled.

But some questions arise when we look at the structure of our parliament over the years. We have at least 106 million voters in the country. Of these, around 68 percent, according to the limited statistics available, are labourers or belong to the lower-income groups, performing blue-collar jobs. Yet the representation of these workers in parliament is zero. No seat is held by a worker and very few by those who do not belong to privileged families – to whom party tickets almost always go. Deviation from this trend through the decades has been extremely limited.

While Pakistan has a 21 percent representation of women in parliament, the representation is essentially based around the 60 seats reserved for them in the National Assembly. Only nine women were elected on general seats in 2013 and 16 in 2008. This hardly makes for a representative democracy. However, encouragingly, a larger number of tickets were distributed among women for National Assembly seats in 2013 compared to the preceding elections. We must hope this trend continues.

The focus on wealth as a requirement for winning polls means the majority of people who make up the country can place no one in parliament to speak for them. Attempts by the Supreme Court to balance out expenditures have never been enforced in practical terms, even if they were, we do not appear to have a political party that would make a genuine attempt to bring peasants, labourers or those from the least privileged backgrounds, into the assembly. Parties such as the Awami Workers’ Party, behind which stand figures as prominent as lawyer and social activist Abid Hasan Minto, have simply not been able to break into the ugly mainstream of Pakistani politics despite a pro-people manifesto. The amount of money that it takes to contest a single constituency is the key reason for this, though other factors play a part too.

The pattern is not dissimilar to other nations. In Bangladesh, there is only a 23 percent representation of women in parliament – although even this is marginally better than Pakistan. Some minority members have also been elected on general seats in Bangladesh. But this is beginning to look almost impossible in Pakistan. In 2008 and 2018, minority members were represented only through seats reserved for them. The often repeated suggestion that all political parties should be required to give out tickets on general assembly seats to a set percentage of women and minorities has never been followed. There are, of course, many problems with the system of indirect elections to the reserved seats.

However, change has come in other countries, even if power remains essentially in the hands of the privileged. In 1979, just three percent of the 635 MPs elected in the House of Commons in the UK were women. Margaret Thatcher emerged as prime minister that year. Today, 32 percent of the MPs are women, a marked increase in the figure from four decades ago. Other European countries have done even better. There has been a steady increase in non-white MPs elected to the House of Commons, with 52 elected to the house in 2017, compared to only four in 1987. The biggest barrier for the UK to break appears to be based around wealth and class. Twenty nine percent of the MPs attended private schools, while only seven percent of the population as a whole is able to enter such institutions. The differences are stark, but nowhere as stark as in our country, which desperately needs to give people a voice.

Despite this pressing need, attempts have been made to increasingly discriminate in favour of the privileged class. Gen Pervez Musharraf introduced a law, struck down by the Supreme Court in 2008, which allowed only those holding a BA degree or an equivalent to be elected to the National Assembly. This effectively deprived well over 50 percent of the population. There is no evidence that formal learning makes people better politicians or public representatives. Intelligence and good intention is not linked to degrees or pieces of paper. What is most important for us is that we find ways to bring such people into our assemblies for whom the true interests of their country and its people are of sole importance.

This process can only begin with political parties showing a willingness to give out tickets across a wider base than is currently the case. Some leaders have already openly accepted that ‘winnability’ is their chief criterion for allocating tickets. This means that the party places its weight behind candidates who can finance themselves, are powerful players in their own constituencies – even if they essentially act as agents of repression who do not return to the areas they have been elected from for years. The party prefers candidates who have the clout to help ensure that local administrations work with them at one level or the other.

There are, of course, a few ‘popular’ candidates who are able to claim seats despite a lack of family links or other influences, but the National Assembly includes very few such men or women. For non-Muslims, the last two elections have made it clear that it is impossible to win a National Assembly seat, no matter how qualified the candidate from a Hindu, Christian or other community may be, or how qualified he may be to represent all people from his constituency. Resultantly, we come up with national assemblies and, to an almost equal extent, provincial assemblies which are very narrow in terms of diversity, and from which the bulk of the country’s population in terms of class, income and social standing is effectively removed.

In most cases, the readiness to usher in more diverse legislative bodies arises from the continuation of democracy and stability of the system. We have seen this in the UK and other countries. Sadly, we lack both. Given the desperate need to empower the less privileged, ordinary citizens of the country, lobbying groups need to be established. These groups will work with political parties and exert pressure on them to show that they truly want a change rather than merely talk about it.

The emergence of some groups, however small, actively arguing to change the process of how people are elected, and for real issues to be taken up, is an extremely positive indicator. It is also encouraging to see young people lead these efforts. But we need many more such groups and many more such initiatives. Sadly, such groups have almost no backing from the media or other powerful sources of influence.

But perhaps a start has been made. We will, in time, have greater awareness that votes really matter and therefore need to be cast with care for individuals who represent their communities, come from within these communities rather than are inhabitants of large, isolated mansions in the midst of rural areas where poverty is rife. We will need to cast votes for those who can speak out for citizens who for now, despite all the excitement that precedes an election, have no voice in determining the events in their country.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]

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