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July 6, 2018

Democratic accountability


July 6, 2018

On July 25, Pakistani voters will deliver their verdict after having judged the performance of their representatives and the federal and provincial governments. It is a voter’s fundamental democratic right to decide the fate of their representatives. Free, fair and impartial elections are essential for a voter to exercise his/her democratic right.

However, the concept of democratic accountability is still vague in Pakistan. Elected representatives think that they are only answerable to their voters after their tenure has expired. But all elected representatives are accountable for all the actions and decisions that they take, as democratic accountability is part and parcel of a genuine democratic and transparent system.

Democratic accountability cannot be established without transparent elections being organised and an across-the-board accountability mechanism being developed. A rigged election and political system cannot establish democratic accountability. Political parties have the right to ask for votes on the basis of their performance, programme, manifestos, ideas and future plans.

The idea of democratic accountability is a larger concept through which a state and political system is held accountable by the people. The idea also ensures that all the major economic, administrative and political decisions are made through a democratic process in which parliament plays an important role. Accountability is a popular slogan in Pakistan. Whenever the slogan is raised, it calls for accountability of politicians through the judicial process. Accountability has been used as a tool to manipulate the political system. There is no doubt that accountability is an integral part of the democratic system and that democracy cannot flourish in any society that doesn’t have an efficient, independent, impartial and across-the-board accountability legal framework and system.

Democracy, or the rule of the people, is a complex web of accountabilities which holds people together and those who use power to govern on their behalf. Democratic accountability comprises justifications for these uses of power, combined with distributions of empowerments in such a way that those affected can sanction its use. Key problems for democracies include forming principals and agents among whom accountability relations might hold, designing institutions that limit costs of accountability mechanisms, and developing forms of accountability that match the complexity of political issues and organisations.

In representative democracies, accountability is seen as an ideal and an achievement, and also as partially constitutive of a democratic government. The people are neither the initial authors of laws and budgets nor the designers of the political order under which they live. But they are not powerless. Although most decisions are made by unelected representatives, appointed officials, and other power holders, rulers still have an obligation to be accountable to the people.

However, a rising number of demands for justifications indicate the limits of popular acceptance, allegiance and support. The interrelations between democratic accountability, political order and orderly change, that is, how democratic accountability processes are affected by an existing political order and how they, in turn, affect that order.

We cannot hold civil servants and professionals accountable for the consequences of policy and programme implementation. The traditional notion of democratic accountability is too narrow and linked to formal rules and the delegation of power in a representative democracy. Mainly, democratic accountability, viewed from a people’s perspective, can be carried out in two ways. The direct way people can hold their representatives accountable is through expressing anger, disapproval and disliking through protests, public meetings and rallies. They also can express their views through the media, leaflets, petitions, letters and posters. The people have every right to reject or protest against any policy, project and plan.

The direct and indirect ways of democratic accountability also differ from the accountability mechanism and the specific notion of accountability that is being promoted. The assumption is that citizens, when they vote, not only choose between competing parties and candidates who run for government, but also hold the present government accountable for the previous period’s public policy.

The majority role is an accepted mechanism for changing government and the key mechanism in this form of democratic accountability. This pathway promotes a notion of democratic accountability as a chain of delegated power and a clear division of responsibility among people, the elected representatives and the administration. A second way of direct democratic accountability is when citizens continuously hold the elected, administration, professionals and themselves responsible for any progress or failure in public policy. This form of democratic accountability evolves when citizens are actively involved in public policymaking.

If we are serious about redistributing power from the powerful to the powerless, it is time to strengthen parliament so it can properly hold the government to account on behalf of the voters. Democracy in Pakistan is still volatile and fragile. But Pakistan is still a democratic country and our politics is based on the assumption or principles that the elected representatives are responsible and accountable to the public that elects them. And they have made the state officials accountable through an institutionalised manner. The elected representatives are not just accountable to the voters but should also face the law for making illegal, unlawful decisions and misusing power for personal gains.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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