Democratic deficit and reform in Pakistan

Raza Muhammad Khan

AS the political drama on our screens about the candidate’s eligibility, polls prediction, tempering with public infrastructure, mudslinging, rowdy rallies and pre-poll bickering continues, the 80 percent underprivileged part of our population expects no return from the political circus for themselves. They are aware of the numerous dichotomies, across the political spectrum in Pakistan, and yet, they continue to pin their hopes on the ballot box, for a better tomorrow for posterity, if not for themselves.
I salute and espouse the common man for his continuous faith in democracy, despite the following imperfections: according to recent media reports, 60 per cent of the candidates are either tax defaulters or out of the tax net; the use of dozens of dubious and illegal methods to beat opponents is rampant; genuine internal democratic norms are hard to trace within the parties; a politician is free to contest from as many constituencies from any province, for the national assembly, with only one security deposit, however, the voter is restricted to a single place to choose a candidate from; illiterate persons can now contest elections and if they win, they could head any ministry, including that of education ; there is no retirement age for politicians and even centenarians are free to be part of this profession; a 25 years old, who wins an election can straight away hold a cabinet level office, as practical experience or managerial skills are not a prerequisite for the job; since formal medical examination is not a criterion, sometimes a physically unfit person, a narcissist or a sycophant could get elected as a law maker; occasionally, murderous criminals, slapped with court cases, and prisoners who could pull strings to emerge on bail, have contested and won elections ; hereditary politics and affluence reign supreme and often supersede merit in allocation of party tickets; Finally; most campaign promises are forgotten, soon after winning the contests and this trend is an intrinsic part of our democracy.
Due to these glaring deficits and inadequacies, the so-called ‘democracy dividend’ hardly ensues and the outcome is usually bad governance by the rich, for the rich, over the poor. As a consequence, today, Pakistan has the largest number of out of school children in the world after Nigeria, that includes 7 million primary and 25.3 million, secondary school kids. Pakistan’s Human Development Report 2017 warned that we have the highest youth unemployment in the region and unless immediately addressed, this situation is likely to aggravate further. Except for some lip service during election campaigns, addressing these problems is not a political priority. Sometimes, the wretched life of the poor and neglected, with dismal healthcare, no shelter, work, education, food or social security, depicts the dark and real face of democracy in Pakistan. The longer they live in such disempowerment, the less they favor democracy as a preferred form of government. When democratic governments fail to serve the people, it creates a doubt in their minds, whether democracy, in its present form, can ever deliver in Pakistan. This state has in turn, provided reasons to non-democratic forces in the past to intervene.
When democracy was born in the 5th century BC at Athens, it symbolized a political system that meant the rule of the people, in contrast to that of the aristocracy or the elite. Modern democracies are expected to signify the same essence as well, but it is usually missing. This is particularly true in Pakistan, where ordinary persons can only dream of participating in electoral politics, for purposes other than voting for the rich. Note the purchasing power of the Pakistani youth in 2018, worked out by the UNDP, which reveals that 76.9 per cent youth in Pakistan have to quit their education for financial reasons, 57 percent is unemployed and 77 percent cannot afford to own even a bicycle. Ponder now, over the declared affluence and assets by most candidates for the elections this year. Add to this the millions allowed by the ECP as permissible expenditure on elections and the enormous cost of the innumerable pre-election campaigns. Any hopes of the middle class, to compete with the giant elitist parties in the political arena were deliberately scuttled through restrictions imposed vide Section 202(2) of the Election Act 2017. Though this decision violates fundamental rights enshrined in Article 17 of the Constitution about formation of new political entities, it has been embraced without a question and raised doubts about the fairness of our representative process.
While a panacea may be impossible to find to reform the democratic theories and practices in Pakistan, the following ten measures may be worth considering for fixing some of the pitfalls and predicaments of our political system. First; elected representatives must hold national interests above that of the party and make provision of education, employment and health care as central issues in their manifestoes; Second; appoint ministers purely on merit, including a few from the opposition. Third; continuous, structured engagement of the majority and minority elements in a cooperative environment; Fourth; frequent use of electoral tools, like referendums for consensus on crucial or controversial national issues should epitomize major decision making; Fifth, revoking dishonest politicians before the end of their elected term; Sixth; initiating lawsuits for breaking campaign promises.
Seventh; arranging recall elections when desired by civil society or enough petitioners; Eighth; key political decisions must approximate the wishes of the median voters and politicians with tendencies to stray too far from the middle of the public opinion, may be denied public office; Ninth; revoking the restrictions imposed on registration of new political parties and Tenth; reinstating graduation as an eligibility condition for future elections. Only time will tell if the new Pakistani rulers will display the empathy, will, sagacity and audacity to transform the existing political paradigm, for the sake of the country and its people?
— The writer, a retired Lt Gen, is former President of National Defence University, Islamabad.

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