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Seeing off ‘elite democracy’

Riaz Missen
IF Pakistan is not necessarily passing through ‘difficult’ moments of its history, odd times are definitely visiting it. Odd because, we are not under dictatorial rule but people’s participation in decision-making process is virtually nil. Elite capture of state has become an undeniable reality and no meaningful force has emerged to resist it for the sake of a dignified survival of the state. Political parties, which should have geared legislation process towards reforming tax regime, transferred power to the grassroots level and brought fairness and efficiency in the working of the state institutions, have become dynastic concerns. Decision-making is less informed by the interest of the electorate but the vested interests, which sustain them in political arena.
During last a decade, when the country was duly under democratic spell, the focus of legislation was concentration of power in provincial capitals and economic policies did make the rich richer. Those who had diligently worked for devolution of power from the Centre to the provinces did not bother to make the benefits reach on to the grassroots level. A reverse gear was applied to structural reforms during the era of elite rule, denying masses the benefits of hard-earned macroeconomic stability during the opening decade of 21st century. The process of privatization was effectively halted wasting billions every year on the salaries of the dysfunctional enterprises.
Elite democracy borrowed from the International Monetary Fund loans to bridge current account deficits but they paid virtually no heed to expanding the tax net and willfully avoided the registration of the informal economy. The burden of taxes remained on the low and middle income groups while there was found an easy way in overcoming inflationary pressures by increasing salaries of government employees. Ironically, health and education were left to the mercy of private sector and as little as 5% was spent on these subjects. The regulatory regimes, which had to oversee profiteering and malpractices of the private sector were left weak and fragile. The era of elite democracy also played havoc with bureaucracy by making it subservient, immoral and inefficient.
Pakistan, after a decade of semi-democratic rule seems to be ravaged by bad governance. Cities’ filth and industrial waste is polluting water bodies. The countryside is mired deep in vicious cycle of poverty. Burden of preventable disease has increased manifold while the number of stunted children is over 50%. Pakistan is virtually divided between the haves and have not’s with no sense of equity and justice. Those controlling 90% of national wealth contribute not more than 2% of their income to the national exchequer. They move the legislature, court and media in the direction they want. Elite democracy has the distinction to preserve interests and privileges of the few. It may initiate and complete projects only to benefit businesses of their choice. It can’t’ hire judges to make dispensation of justice easy. It can’t hire school teachers to impart education. It can’t hire doctors and nurses to ensure people’s health. It spends on physical infrastructure, be it buildings or roads, but creates social capital.
A state can’t be run without a national spirit and it has been virtually killed. The country stands divided on ethnic/ sectarian lines and it serves the objectives of elite in preserving their privileges and resisting reforms. The burden of sustainable development and peace now resting with the provinces, the Centre can’t do much but to wait silently until right parties take over these last bastions of elite. The political system is purportedly designed and sealed by the 18th Constitutional Amendment. It can’t be undone with a single stroke of pen, either. There are no constitutional ways left to reform it.
In the existence of a monopolies’ ridden socio-economic system and the absence of rule of law, democracy is not fit for the country unless and until there is no mechanism to make its benefits reach the grassroots level. Implementation of article 140-A is mandatory obligation for provincial governments to form elected but financially and administratively autonomous local governments. Flouting this constitutional provision must have repercussions for the political party in power. Similarly, the provincial governments spend little on the provision of basic necessities of life. Why they can’t raise funds on their own to completely (given the highly scale of poverty) fund health and education sector. Strict implementation of environmental laws can ensure provision of clean water and lessen the burden of preventable diseases for the lower and middle income groups.
Law and order is another preserve of the provincial government. Not only reformation of centuries old penal codes remains a job still to be done but also the devolution of judicial structures down to the grassroots level. What if a provincial government fails on these accounts despite the fact that it ensures its return to the corridors of power after each and every election? There are talks, and these are widespread now, to adopt presidential form of government. Is it not something like changing police reforms and increasing salaries of the staff instead of clearly defining what criminality is and how to combat it?
— The writer is political analyst based in Islamabad.