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April 23, 2019

A system for the people


April 23, 2019

The suggestion in some circles to replace the current democratic system with that of a presidential one seems to have triggered a debate about parliamentary politics.

Sceptics believe that the suggestion reeks of a conspiracy to derail the system, fearing it might tear down not only the social fabric of the country but undermine the federation as well which has been harmed by a cabal of conspirators who broached the similar ideas in the past.

It is true that the presidential system proved to be catastrophic for the country. General-cum-president Ayub Khan sowed the seeds of the country’s dismemberment by showing contempt for the Bengalis, who have been seen by many as the vanguard in Pakistan’s movement; Ayub’s successor presided over the fall of Dhaka in 1971. They also dragged Pakistan into cold-war rivalries, turning the country into a stooge for Western interests that used Pakistan as a launching pad against the mighty Soviet Union.

Gen Ziaul Haq not only unleashed a reign of terror – sending political workers to the gallows, imprisoning activists, gagging media, banning political associations and flogging journalists – but also plunged the country into the quagmire of sectarianism, ethnic strife, Kalashnikov culture and drugs warfare. His retrogressive policies led to the rise of obscurantist forces that are now tearing our social fabric apart. His patronage of extremist elements encouraged a myriad of such outfits to challenge the authority of the state, pushing Pakistan into a bloody religious insurgency that claimed more than 50,000 lives and caused a loss of over $200 billion to the country.

The policies of self-elected president Gen Musharraf also inflicted deep wounds on the soul of the country. He banished the two most popular leaders of the country, creating a political vacuum to be filled by the religious right. Orthodox forces made great political strides during his tenure, demonstrating a presence in parliament they had never enjoyed in the past. His disastrous handling of Balochistan triggered a nationalist insurgency that is still causing havoc.

However, the blunders of these dictators should not blind us to the sheer incompetence of civilian leadership, misgovernance of our elected representatives and the rampant corruption that was committed in the name of democracy. The dictatorial attitude of our political elite does not want powers to be devolved to the grassroots levels. Which is why we should question why our political parties have always been reluctant in holding local bodies’ polls in time and why only dictators have held such polls (albeit with malevolent intentions). Yes, autocratic regimes failed to ameliorate people’s lives but why did democracies not extend relief and succour to the hapless public?

It is very unfortunate that our pompous political elite tends to act like an elected monarchy that hates to be held accountable for its misdeeds. It talks about the sanctity of parliament but hardly attends its sessions; the N-League in particular hardly showed up in parliament. Ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif made more foreign trips than trips to the National Assembly and Senate. His ministers followed the same path.

Politicians may hurl insults at Imran Khan for stuffing his ranks with political turncoats but which political party can claim an exception in this matter? The first government of Benazir Bhutto doled out the award of democracy to those that derailed the system again and again. Nawaz Sharif stabbed Mohammad Khan Junejo in the back, while also establishing the notorious Ehtesab Commission, imprisoning journalists and attempting to become the ‘ameer-ul-momineen’. Despite being stung by political opportunists in the past, he opened his doors to such elements in 2008 and 2013 – only to be betrayed again.

Our political elite also remained scornful towards the idea of devolving powers. What is the justification for strengthening the colonial-era police system? Which definition of democracy allows the sort of local bodies system we have in Sindh and Punjab? Which democratic principles permit the Sindh government to even keep in its own hands work such as cleaning up garbage, laying out building rules, cleaning the city and supplying water? Do politicians in the UK run local governments through a coterie of district police officers and deputy commissioners? Are the French or American governments run by a cloistered group of bureaucrats? In our case, former Punjab CM Shahbaz Sharif not only hated attending assembly sessions, he would also love to run the largest province with the help of a few bureaucrats and deputy commissioners.

These things could have been overlooked if the situation of the people on the ground had been improved. But the bitter truth reflects the apathy of the political elite towards the very people that vote them into power. More than 60 million people live below the poverty line; 67 percent are bereft of adequate housing; 44 percent children are stunted; 25 million children are out of school; 80 percent diseases are water-born; hepatitis has become epidemic in parts of Sindh and Punjab; Balochistan is witnessing the highest mortality rate and malnutrition in terms of population proportion; more than 20 million Pakistanis are condemned to live like semi-human beings in squatter settlements and slums; and millions of the youth are jobless. The story does not end here. The rising inflation, the sledgehammer tactics of the police against the most vulnerable groups of society and discriminatory laws against minorities fly in the face of tall claims by politicians.

This criticism of democratic leaders does not mean that one should start heaping eulogies on the alternative. After all, it was democratic forces that struggled for Pakistan, gifted it with a constitution, made tremendous sacrifices for the restoration of democracy, abolished some retrogressive laws, consolidated defence by acquiring nuclear technology, addressed some of the grievances of federating units, attempted to normalize ties with neighbours, introduced heavy industries, brought back war prisoners, detected the threat of extremism and gave a neutral outlook to Pakistan’s foreign policy.

The threat of derailment of the system could be real. The victory of Netanyahu in Israel and a possible triumph of Trump in the next elections could trigger a political chaos in the region. The history of Pakistan tells us whenever the region was engulfed by a conflict or a proxy war, the country lost on the democratic front. The spectre of war should haunt the democratic forces of the country because tied with it is also the future of our republicanism. To counter any possible attempt to a radical change in the current system, political parties should come up with revolutionary plans to transform the lives of the common people, ensuring the free provision of basic amenities and devolving of powers at the grassroots levels. When people see improving standards of living under the current kind of democracy, they will resist any attempts against the system. But if people’s grievances remain unaddressed, they will not bother to support a system that gives them nothing.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Email: [email protected]

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