by Saad Hafiz
Pakistan’s historic path has been ridden by intrigue, strife and bloodshed overseen by power-hungry generals and money grubbing politicians. The chaos in the country also proves that a common religious identity is not a guarantee of stability, security, democracy and free elections. Past elections have not been able to foster a feeling of common destiny. Some elections were so widely and flagrantly rigged that civil rebellion broke out requiring the army to be called in, thus exposing the weakness of political leadership in the country. The army simply shoved the political leadership aside through a coup d’état when it realised that political power depended on it. The Pakistani electorate has an opportunity this week to reverse the country’s anti-democratic legacy. The people can choose the political parties that can change the historic travesty of governance that the people have endured since independence. Moreover, the holding of timely and fair elections is a significant defeat for those obscurantist elements that have labelled elections as un-Islamic and have attempted to disrupt them through violence.
Democracy as we know it today owes its development to the western liberal idea of fundamental human rights that are inherent in all human beings in the sense that they are the birthright of all men. This liberal idea is captured in the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, which among other things said: “We take these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator, with certain inalienable rights, that amongst these are the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…” These rights are also inalienable and cannot be given up nor can people be denied them. They are also universal since they apply to all regardless of nationality, gender, status or race. If Pakistan is to remain together, ways and means have to be found to harmonise individual and group rights within an overarching federal architecture.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, democracy is increasingly seen as a universal norm to which most of the countries in the world aim to conform. While government of the people, by the people, for the people seems to be a reasonable proposition, the process of attaining this political utopia is sometimes fraught with difficulties. The other aspect that is progressively more accepted is that the practice of democracy is no longer the exclusive preserve of certain races and geographies. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule such as China and a few others. These exceptions, however, do not invalidate the universal acceptance of democracy as the best form of government.
Unlike dictatorships, in the practice of democracy, political parties and elections are of vital importance. It is normal within a democratic space to have a few political parties with different ideas and ideologies trying to convince the electorate that their way is the right way. This is always welcome because progress is made through a clash of ideas in the pursuit of progress. In advanced democracies, political parties are usually grounded in these ideologies or tendencies such as Conservative or Rightist, Socialist or Leftist and also Centrist viewpoints. Usually the party with the best platform, plan and ability to propagate its ideas always has a fair chance of winning a contest for political supremacy. The number of political parties in a country is a reflection of either its ethnic, social, cultural or ideological plurality. Holding of periodic elections is central to democratic governance. Universal suffrage is, however, relatively new in the long march of democracy from its ancient Athenian roots of direct democracy to the current global practice of representative government. Elections have become investments and like any business, people take risks with the hope of reaping some dividends.
There is a clear nexus between democracy and elections and political realignment and transformation in a dynamic world. The immediate focus of Pakistani voters is to elect the right political combination that can address immediate challenges like the stuttering economy, chronic power cuts, crumbling infrastructure and severe internal security issues. The electorate also has an opportunity to consider the political parties that are best equipped to address longer-term structural issues like corruption and poverty, economic mismanagement and social disharmony. The parties need to deliver on economic deregulation, better budgetary management, enhancing tax revenues, significantly lowering borrowing costs and on speeding up economic growth. They must address the increasingly fissiparous tendencies and ethnic divide in Pakistani politics as well as the growing bitterness of the country’s ethnic minorities towards the dominant Punjabi majority. There is need for reducing the power of the Centre so that controlling the Centre will not be a matter of political and economic life or death as it is presently. Moreover, Pakistan would probably be better served by an all-comers political combination devoid of any rigid ideology but ‘the equitable sharing of the national cake’. The upcoming elections should not just be about the simple shuffling of the political deck but about fundamentally altering the country’s overall political and economic direction.