The people’s will

By Saad Hafiz:

As Pakistanis gear up for elections in the new year amid clarion calls from some elected and self-appointed ‘saviours’  to rediscover clean and true politics, it may be worth examining the state of Pakistan’s democracy.

As a start, it is significant that democracy in Pakistan survived at all, as it seemed doomed from the start. The young country had no democratic traditions; in fact, Muslim culture with its ingrained authoritarianism discouraged the creation and nurturing of a democracy.
The task of establishing a democratic state was left to the feudal-controlled All Pakistan Muslim League, which had a questionable devotion to democracy. Many leaders to come, including those from the armed forces backed by reactionary elements, some of whom had opposed the creation of the country, actively conspired to overthrow democracy.

A key weakness of democracy in Pakistan since its inception has been that the supremacy of the people, including over parliament and other institutions has never been established. This is probably why unelected ‘leaders’ often strike a chord among the people, which is a source of concern, for it underscores the traditionalism of Pakistani society and the shallowness of the roots of democracy.

Many elected leaders rely on the politics of expediency to retain power instead of relying on the popular will of the people. Coalitions are often impossible to build, or are so transient that they dissolved as quickly as they formed. The hurly burly of politics or the dark side of
any democracy is that ambitious leaders manoeuvre for power, strike deals, double-cross each other, and try to find the most advantageous alliances. On the flip side, the give and take of democracy is reflected in the example of President Lincoln, who struck a deal to pass extraordinary legislation to abolish slavery in the US. Representative Thaddeus Stevens described events leading to the passing of the amendment in this remarkable quote: “The most liberating constitutional amendment in history, had been ‘passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America’, meaning Abraham Lincoln.”

Political deal making, intrigues, double-crosses and the corruption that breeds has been going on in Pakistan for years now. However, the entire blame for the massive greed and corruption that Pakistani society seems to have spawned at an alarming rate since independence cannot be placed on civilian politicians and on democracy alone. In a society that reveres power and greed, it is probably a reflection on society itself that it is unable to find elected and unelected leaders that choose ethical behaviour.

The other characteristics of a strong democracy that do exist to a degree in Pakistan are active people’s participation, engagement and dissent. Democracy fundamentally means an active role for the people in determining the affairs of society. They not only elect representatives periodically to parliament, but also interpose actively through protests, strikes, meetings and demonstrations to convey their mood to the elected representatives. There being no single mood, freedom of expression ensures that different moods have a chance to be expressed, provided the manner of doing so takes the debate forward instead of excluding it. For all this to happen, people have to be properly informed. Political activity of this kind assumes an active role of the people and prepares them for it; it is essentially democratic.

The ebb and flow of democracy among the people and the republican system of bargaining among those who are elected has been a fascinating subject through history. Together they represent the interdependence of a system that is supposed to produce a cohesive nation that is capable of getting done certain critical tasks necessary to maintain a free and ordered civilised society that moves ahead as one people. Quite apart from the
fact that democracy has to deliver tangible economic and social benefits to the people, it must also work towards removing the state of powerlessness of the people and not reinforce it. The people must do their part by electing leaders who can be trusted to keep their word. The people must also remain actively involved to ensure that their government is held accountable. Corruption happens when citizens do not stay involved and permit it to happen. The worst excesses take place when citizens do not speak up to stop them.

If democracy is allowed to continue uninterrupted, Pakistan will eventually move up among the spectrum of democracies because the democratic fundamentals, although weak, are in place. One remarkable fact remains: where there is a failure of democracy, there is usually a lack of democracy. To the extent that democracies fail, it is because the will of the people is not being carried out. Pakistan offers this lesson itself: the secession of East Pakistan in 1971, military coups and undemocratic setups for most of its 65-year history and a ruling oligarchy playing with the country’s democratic and constitutional  weaknesses to its detriment.

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