Democracy, policy and the absentee public

By Hussain Bokhari


Pakistan has now been independent for over 67 years. During this time, the country has been subjected to Military law for over 32 years. The remaining 35 years of democratic rule have not exactly been the most effective in terms of progress and serving the needs of the common Pakistani. This has unfortunately been perceived to be the failure of democracy as a political system rather than the ineptness of the few who have been at the helm. According to a recent British Council survey, only 29% of Pakistanis between the age of 18-29 believe democracy is the best political system for Pakistan, and 94% of people in that age group believe the country is headed in the wrong direction.


It is easy to attribute the failures of our attempts at democracy to the plethora of problems that plague our nation today. However, popular rhetoric blaming corruption, the poor law & order situation, foreign intervention and the role of the military establishment merely identifies the symptoms of a poorly functioning democracy instead of its root cause.


The abysmal state of democracy is due to a more fundamental flaw. In order for a representative democracy to be considered functional, it must effectively serve its core purpose – a structure through which public opinion and public policy are aligned. There are two important attributes that need to exist for this to happen: First, public policy needs to be representative of public preferences, and second, public preferences have to be informed and react to public policy.


Pakistani politics is unfortunately void of both these attributes. Political parties do not contest elections based on their positions on policy as reflected through their half baked/missing policy stances across various issues. Instead, elections are contested by family-dominated parties which cater to the interests of a few by exploiting themes such as ethnicity and religion, and by making short-term promises which rarely serve national interest. When parties subsequently come into power, the policies they pursue rarely represent public preferences.


Theoretical work on democracy (by RousseauLippmanSchumpeterDahl) suggests that representation of public opinion in policy depends on an informed and responsive public that holds policymakers accountable for what they implement. In the absence of an attentive public, the government has no incentive to address the needs of the public through policy. While public awareness about the political environment has certainly increased over the last decade, the Pakistani public still has some way to go in terms of awareness regarding the decisions policymakers take.


Joeseph de Maistre, an 18th century philosopher said Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite (Every nation gets the government it deserves). If we truly believe that we deserve better, every stakeholder will need to play a more significant and constructive role in working towards an improved future. The widely celebrated azad media needs to engage officials about public policy decisions in order to better inform the general public and hold those in power accountable. Members of society need to interact with officials and policymakers at local, provincial and federal levels to demand policies that serve their needs. Voters need to elect candidates based on where they stand on policy matters and their respective strategies to implement solutions to key challenges. Citizens with relevant skill sets need to work with policymakers to better articulate public preferences and help shape policies that are representative of public opinion.


If all the stakeholders play their part, we may just see the day when those in power actually start to serve the interests of the nation and the needs of its people through a properly functioning democratic system

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