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December 8, 2018

The power of money


December 8, 2018

The London-based weekly ‘The Economist’ has warned of four signs or stages which portend that democracy is under severe attack and autocrats are tightening their grip worldwide, particularly in China, Turkey, Russia, and Venezuela.

The first stage is marked by the rise of a charismatic leader, who promises to save the people. At the next stage, the government and the people find an enemy, such as immigrants, on whom they set down all the ills that afflict the polity. Once the leaders are well-settled, they start undermining democratic institutions and civil liberties. Finally, the leaders crush whatever is left of the opposition. As a result, democracy survives in name only.

While this prognosis seems convincing, it gives rise to a question: do autocrats pose the only threat to democracy?

Democracy is the political expression of liberalism, which rose in England in the later part of the 18th century and then spread to other parts of Europe. Throughout the 19th and for most of the 20th century, democracy had to contend with formidable totalitarian forces. During the 19th century, the chief antagonist of democracy was absolute monarchy, which was toppled or tamed in one country after the other. In the first half of the 20th century, democracy successfully faced the fascist threat. For the next 45 years (1945-89), this form of democracy came face to face with communism – the cold-war era as it’s known as.

After communism was defeated, liberal democracy for the first time had no significant adversary to confront. Applying Hegel’s dialectics to the situation, authors like Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the ‘end of history.’ That didn’t mean that the entire globe would be democratised or that the applecart of democracy wouldn’t be upset anywhere. For sure, totalitarianism survived in quite a few countries, notably China. In Pakistan, democracy was given the sack in 1999. What ‘the end of history’ meant was that democracy wouldn’t face an organised opposition capable of putting it on the spot. Unlike the former USSR, China didn’t try to export communism. Significantly enough, China began to owe allegiance to the economic expression of liberalism, viz the market economy.

Countries like China, Turkey and Russia lack strong democratic traditions, in the Western sense, rooted in the ‘inalienable’ right to dissent and the presence of a free press to articulate it. At the other end of the scale, polities with strong democratic traditions, such as the United States and India, are becoming more intolerant towards the minorities: the one on the basis of religion; the other on the basis of race and ethnicity.

‘The Economist’ is bred in the liberal tradition. In the liberal worldview, the only threat to democracy emanates from attempts to restrict civil liberties. Hence, the only antithesis of democracy is despotism – absolutism, fascism, military dictatorship and even communism. Despite all its merits, such a perspective tends to be oblivious of the foremost danger to democracy – the increasing power of money.

Challenging the liberal perspective, philosophers like Oswald Spengler have argued that stripped of the ‘pretentions’ of popular sovereignty, democracy has seldom been more than plutocracy and that wealth has always led democratic institutions by the nose. Universal suffrage, which lies at the heart of representative democracy, requires a pretty penny for its application through nationwide electioneering. To set in motion their ideologies or programmes, candidates must arrange the necessary funds. And the one who pays the piper calls the tune.

While a democratic constitution may confer several fundamental rights on the people, the ability to have these rights enforced requires a lot of money (by hiring a good lawyer, for example). The freedom of opinion, another cornerstone of democracy, involves generation of opinion, which needs money. Ownership of the press, or the electronic media, which is the main platform for freedom of expression, is also a pecuniary matter.

The money-democracy relationship is confirmed by history. It was primarily due to the efforts of the middle class (or bourgeoisie) – merchants, bankers and capitalists – that political reforms culminating in the rise of representative governments in Europe were adopted. It is not a coincidence either that one country – England – was the cradle of both industrialisation and parliamentary democracy.

Pakistan is no exception to the power of money to manipulate the political process. Over the years, wealth and influence have changed hands but only from one set of elites to another. In the first decade of Independence, landlords called the shots. During the late 1950s and the 1960s, they were challenged by merchant capitalists and industrialists. Alive to the growing power of trade and industry, many landlords turned businesspersons. Thus was born the class of sugar barons and textile millers, which has ruled not only industry but politics as well. Governments and political systems come and go but these ‘permanent interests of the realm’ continue to live by their wits.

The decade of the 1980s is widely considered an era in which democracy was pitted against military despotism. But it was also a decade when wealth began to hold politics hostage. The House of Sharif, which rose in the 1980s, represented the growing power of money, which was challenged by the power of the people, represented by Benazir Bhutto and her party, the PPP. Although in the 1988 elections, the power of the people narrowly triumphed over the power of wealth, the latter had the last laugh. Soon the PPP was forced to worship at the temple of Mammon.

Since the 1990s, the financial credentials of electoral candidates have been arguably the strongest criterion for awarding tickets by the major parties. With the turn of the century, a new corps of movers and shakers emerged. These are the people who thrive on speculative ventures, viz investment in the stock market and real estate. In common parlance, they are called financiers, whose contributions constitute the lifeblood of politics.

If the PPP and the PML have put their faith in the moneyed class, let’s not labour under the delusion that our new mard-e-momin, the most conspicuous symbol of change, has been less susceptible to the power of wealth. We only need to look at the people to his right and left – who have earned the sobriquet ‘ATMs’ – to confirm this. The PTI conducted arguably the priciest campaign in the recent elections. Not surprisingly, those who primed the party’s pump are holding sway in Naya Pakistan.

In today’s Pakistan – call it new or old – nothing drives a wider wedge between the theory and practice of democracy than money. The constitution doesn’t prescribe any property or pecuniary qualifications to run for a public office, which means that everyone, regardless of their social class, is equally eligible to get elected as a parliamentarian. In practice, constitutional equality is as meaningless as the claim of some animals in one of Aesop’s fables that they may be treated at par with the lion.

In the electoral race, money spinners have an unassailable head start over others. The Election Act, 2017 prescribes a Rs4 million ceiling for expenditure by a National Assembly candidate. Seldom has a candidate been disqualified for having overshot the statutory limit. As money continues to talk, for the citizens living at the bottom and middle of the economic heap, winning an election remains a pie in the sky.

Today, democracy in Pakistan faces two types of threat. One emanates from extremism, fanaticism, and mob politics, which look down upon dissent, constitutionalism and the due process of law. The other stems from the growing impact of wealth, which is out of kilter with the spirit of popular sovereignty and representative institutions. Regrettably, no one seems to have an answer to the power of money.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @hussainhzaidi

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