When democracy fails the people

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“If liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost.” – Aristotle

What does it say about a state were a girl-child is abducted, brutally abused, raped and murdered? What does it say about a state when over last three years, over 700 cases were reported on child rapes and murders from a small town (Kasur) alone?

What does it say of a state when a case of pornography child scandal case burst upon the scene in 2015; is still pending with four accused granted bail on grounds of benefit of doubt in the same small town of Kasur?

What does it say of the state when the villagers tell Reuters that a prominent family there has for years forced children to perform sex acts on video? The footage was sold or used to blackmail their impoverished families. (The Dawn; Updated January 10, 2018)

What does it say of the state when over the abuse, rape and murder of Zainab police shoot straight at unarmed protestors at the DPO office? Two died, injuring five others. One reportedly died later. What does it say about the state when no one is apprehended for the crimes against the girl-child Zainab?

This clearly states that the system has completely splintered. It offers no protection to lives and property. It says law operates one way for the influential and not at all for the unprivileged.

We have reached this state of affairs progressively and with dedicated focus. Instead of being democratic in nature, Pakistan has turned ‘dynastocratic’ for all practical purposes. Whereas power is craved for, the accountability and responsibility that goes with it is shirked. Vested interests supersede national interests. The political parties over years have failed to represent the common people in the true spirit of democracy.

Wajid Shamsul Hasan, Pakistan’s former High Commissioner to the UK, quoted this term “dynastocracy’ by this scribe and written, “Yasmeen says that Pakistan instead of being democratic in nature has turned into ‘dynastocratic’ for all practical purposes. True. Indeed. Pakistan’s position today is both paradoxical and enigmatic. On paper it is democracy and we have an elected government in power but far from it.” (CRSS Blog: October 13, 2017)

There are two principles built-in within the very definition of democracy. These are equality and freedom. These principles are reflected in all citizens being equal before the law and having equal access to power, and the freedom of its citizens is secured by legitimized rights and liberties which are generally protected by a constitution. This explanation raises many questions: Do our political parties within their cadre allow its workers equal access to power? Can a worker within a party structure have the opportunity to rise to the status of the Chairperson of that party in due course? Unfortunately, in Pakistan, we remain stuck in the groove of dynastic dynamics and have not progressed from this point.

From PPP to MQM, to PTI to PML N and all shades of parties in between, we see the mantle of leadership worn by the one who originated the party – much like a family heirloom passed on from one generation to the other. Is this the much touted democratic order? Where is the democracy WITHIN the party cadres themselves? Is heredity to determine who heads the party and merit to be ignored? When heredity becomes the corner stone of the political parties, this in turn inevitably leads to sycophancy and appointment by favoritism, not merit. There is no accountability within the party from those who purport to lead the party.

The second part of the definition deals with the right of Pakistani citizens protected by the Constitution. These rights are determined from Articles 8 to Article 28 in the Constitution. Among them is Article 25 which professes that all citizens are equal before law and have a right to equal protection of law; Article 14 deals with inviolability of dignity of man and subject to law, in the privacy of his home is inviolable, so on and so forth. However the violence against Zainab and many like her before her, the murder of Shahzeb Khan (to quote two recent examples only) are huge question marks for our system.

Many think “elections” is synonymous with “democracy”. One often hears that once the system is “allowed to continue” it will lead to a “better democracy”. Those advocating this thought process fail to appreciate that there are elections is a step only in the process of democracy. It is not democracy itself.

Democracy is a method of deciding who shall rule. It does not determine the morality of the resulting government. At best, democracy means that government has popular support. But popular support is no guarantee that government will protect your freedom.

How these ‘democratic leaders’ respect the law that they are first and foremost supposed to uphold is reflected in the unfolding saga of Panama Leaks. Nawaz Sharif, having been disqualified by the Supreme Court by a panel of five judges unanimously, in the words of Justice Khosa who opened with reference to well-known novel of Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather”, stated “In the above mentioned sorry and unfortunate state of affairs a conclusion has appeared to me to be unavoidable and inescapable that in the matter of explaining the wealth and assets respondent No. 1 has not been honest to the nation, to the nation’s representatives in the National Assembly and even to this Court.”

Instead of accepting the decision of the apex court with grace, Nawaz Sharif went about to change the law that disallowed a disqualified person from heading a political party. He was successful in achieving this objective largely with the help of Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) and BNP-Mengal (with Senator Jehanzeb Jamaldini). Triumphant, in denial of his loss of face internationally, Nawaz Sharif returns to head his party making a mockery of democratic norms.

A number of fiery speeches against the superior judiciary were delivered, he then challenged the July 28th Judgment of the top court. On numerous occasions Nawaz Sharif’s government has chosen a similar path of confrontation with the Army as well – Dawn Leaks is one example.

During the turbulent period of his government’s tenure, the issues that should have been addressed to improve governance and the lives of the common man have been sacrificed at the altar of politics revolving around the survival of the former First Family and the elite entourage.

The bug of dynastic politics erodes the very fabric of the democratic political landscape of Pakistan. The lack of focus towards priorities, appointments of the ‘blue-eyed’ rather than deciding the appointment on merit, corruption scandals and the following of weak policies internationally allow space to other institutions in the public arena in wake of the vacuum created. This may either be judiciary or the army.

One is reminded here of Aristotle: “If liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost.”

What has happened over these years during PML-N’s tenure is Nawaz spending more time confronting other institutions and following schemes that should have been in the sub-text rather than the main text. This has has created a yawning vacuum.

He was removed in 1993 by the President. Second time round he was fired by Musharraf in 1999 and let off to Saudi Arabia. Third time round to his bad luck, the Panama Leaks exposed his investments abroad, not disclosing his receivable assets from a foreign country that is mandatory by law of Pakistan.

His strategy of handling this issue, or as he was advised, further destroyed his credibility. “At each stage, however, the rocket fuel that powered Sharif’s crash landing was his own incompetence, stemming from his original failure to properly declare his income and assets to the electoral commission. This was followed by a perplexing decision to claim victimhood, followed by comical differences between his official account and that of various relatives. A laughable effort to explain the family fortune through contacts in Middle Eastern royalty has further eroded his credibility.” (Foreign Policy, AUGUST 3, 2017)

The Army in Pakistan is traditionally a powerful institution. Military’s role past few years within political matters has increased owing to the internal security situation. Unfortunately the civil security agencies on their own are not capable of handling the critical crisis (read War on Terror) that the Army is fighting.

This involvement of the Army is not an ideal situation. It leads to friction between both state institutions especially in the backdrop of military having removed many elected prime ministers. However, the tussle has often in this tenure resulted owing to the bumbling of the government in handling various situations, whether the economy, the corruption that threatens to frighten off investors and thereby posing a serious setback to CPEC, foreign policy so on and so forth.

It was not until a few months ago that a Foreign Affairs Minister was appointed and that too predictably from close coterie of Nawaz Sharif. Countries are not run like personal fiefdoms. They must be run with the best team of subject experts with excellent knowledge on both theoretic and practical side of the field. Unfortunately, in Pakistan individuals have strengthened at the cost of institutions. This has created the space for other institutions to cover the gap. Pakistan has come to a point where the state working has become dysfunctional. The system is buckling and going down on its knees.

A certain section of the society feels that Army should formulate and run state policies but from the background with a civil set up as a front. This thought is put forth on the basis of a weak political system and substandard politicians. Strengthening the political institution by lending it unending support will only lead to stretching the Army and thereby losing focus on the most important business at hand: countering terrorism.

Further, constant support and working as crutches for the political institutions will never allow the latter to become a robust institution it should be.

The first step that must be taken is to conduct in-party elections on every three yearly basis. However, merit must govern, not heredity. No one must be allowed to contest more than twice for a party seat. The same must hold good for the MNA and MPA elections as well as seats for senators.

The second step must be ‘None of the above’ option (NOTA) on ballot paper thereby giving an option to voters to reject all contesting candidates in a constituency. Many who oppose this concept state that it as a step against democracy. Is it?

If the voters are allowed the chance of rejecting all, it offers them a broader base than to choose between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. In a number of cases, one hears people refraining from voting particularly in the urban areas because they do not want to vote for the same electable who has brought in no change for the better. Urban areas are marked by low resident interaction, an absence of the ‘baithak’ (general commuting place for residents) culture. This is not only true of upscale areas but also lower-middle income neighbourhoods.

The logical outcome of NOTA will be those elected will be more answerable to the voters. This will make them more answerable in terms of broken promises to people they represent. It will also make them more answerable to the people in cases where rampant corruption committed, if any. In the final analysis let the people decide whom to vote for.

That is the essence of democracy. This should also mean they cannot be appointed as advisors and chairpersons of organizations. Though NOTA will not solve everything, it will certainly involve greater number of people in the process of elections, offering transparency, giving a weapon to the masses to be exercised judiciously. In case of straight 50% voting None of the above, security of all candidates must be seized and said candidates banned for contesting for ten years; parties need to put up fresh candidates instead of those put up earlier. This option relies heavily also on the transparency of the election process itself.

Pakistan will not be the first country to introduce NOTA. Various countries and territories like Bangladesh, the American state of Nevada, Greece and Columbia etc have incorporated the ‘No Vote” or “None of the above” option on their ballot papers. Canada and Spain etc. do not specifically have this provision on their ballot papers, but they do allow their citizens the right to decline to vote or to leave the ballot papers blank in dissent. Former Soviet Union had this provision in 1991 and after its break-up; Russia had kept on giving this privilege to its voters till 2006.

These steps that make individuals subservient to the system and give a life line to the institution will make the institution stronger. No amount of continued support without the structural changes direly needed can make the political institution strong. It is already on a ventilator and need revival techniques at base level.

Both the army and the civil dispensation need to realize that in today’s world different departments overlap each other, for example national security may overlap other areas at different levels like foreign policy (especially in light of U.S Afghan Policy), relations with India (continued violations of LoC leading to martyrdom of many on an on-going basis) and economics.

Many issues will need to be determined in synchronization with the army and the civil government in times to come. Together both can form a strong front for the country. With a robust political institution, the present imbalance should be resolved. As equally strong intuitions the only way for Pakistan to go will be forward.

CRSS Blog