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Election season

By Saad Hafiz:

This year’s parliamentary
elections in Pakistan will be the second ‘legitimate’ democratic elections for the first time since the country was founded in 1947. The upcoming elections are expected to be fought on the primary issues of the struggling economy, poor governance, the weak rule of law and the inability of the government to deliver basic services. Other important issues such as sectarianism and terrorism, institutional wrangling and foreign policy are expected to take a back seat in the election.

The politics of smoke and mirrors can thrive in a country where policy-making processes are weak, political society is not pluralistic, and checks and balances are poor. Political parties run on slogans and on short-term thinking, not on longer-term policy-based platforms. These factors skew political incentives away from promoting the public good that favours society at large. More substantive democracy requires mutual, active engagement from political actors, state agencies and groups of citizens in the daily functioning of the state between elections — in making policies address public needs, in providing services to the public in an effective way, in giving feedback for adequate reforms, and giving account to citizens and their representatives for the way public affairs are dealt with. In this environment, the role of the independent media to objectively examine the track record of political parties and candidates is crucial.

Most political systems are built on perceptions. And the victors are those who are better able to manage those perceptions. The democratic process relies on the assumption that citizens (the majority of them, at least) can recognise the best political candidates. It has been said that people are not smart enough for democracy and that democracies rarely or never elect the best leaders. If an electorate is ill informed and easily manipulated, most citizens vote through impulsive trust and the emotional tug without knowing all of the issues at stake. Winners are chosen on the basis of perception and optics with substance taking a backseat. Political parties run slick election campaigns and manage to fool an awful lot of people. While voters want political parties and their candidates to be honest and truthful, they are often told what they want to hear. The people are used to having smoke blown in their faces by candidates running for public office.

Ambitious politicians are increasingly associated with corruption, institutional wrangling and ‘truth-challenging’ rhetoric. There are a few cautious politicians around who hate big statements and under-promise and over-deliver. Most are ruthless in assailing and denigrating their potential political opponents. Self-respect and human dignity are extremely rare qualities. Vacillating and inconsistency are actually becoming the new norm. And personal success comes more from slick makeovers than from any candidate’s particular honesty or personal integrity. The best comment about the group of candidates that comes to mind is a paraphrase of Winston Churchill’s comment about the Labour Party leader Clement Attlee: “They are a modest group, which has much to be modest about.”

The current focus of all parties is on the upcoming elections and on delivering its vote banks. The tough decisions required to start moving towards addressing Pakistan’s internal problems are therefore unlikely to be taken — in the immediate term at least. The deteriorating economy, high inflation leading to high cost of living, insecurity and the ever rising unemployment levels have eroded the hopes of the citizens and confidence in the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)-led coalition government. In this backdrop, the present government can mostly point to its success in bringing about a new culture of political tolerance in the country as democratic processes and institutions are beginning to come of age. A positive trend in recent times has been a general consensus among leaders from all major political parties in Pakistan to support the country’s nascent democratic system against ‘extra-constitutional’ challenges. The historical legacy of suspended parliaments and controlled judiciaries seems to be receding. The role played by parliament in resolving conflicts, easing tensions and enacting some important legislation is encouraging.

Whether in fact the resilience shown by democratic institutions will be lasting and enduring is for the moment quite unclear. Some are of the view that the critical attention to poverty alleviation and addressing the wealth gap is lost in the ongoing democratic tug-of-war. Democracies become consolidated only when both significant elites and an overwhelming proportion of ordinary citizens see democracy as ‘the only game in town’. The consolidation of democracy requires ‘broad and deep legitimisation, such that all significant political actors, at both the elite and mass levels, believe that the democratic regime is the most right and appropriate for their society, better than any other realistic alternative they can imagine’. Democracy and democratisation have an unclear causal relationship with economic growth. More certain is that democracy will require some economic and social development to survive. In other words, popular support for democracy will depend to a great extent on its ability to ‘deliver the goods’.

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