It is flawed, but still it’s better than an authoritarian rule
Democracy is a slow and noisy process that does not meet the criteria of hierarchy, discipline and strict procedures that characterise the military and the bureaucracy. Democratic politics is an entirely different world which requires the freedom to engage in political and social activities within the framework of democratic political institutions and processes.
Angels and super pious people are not needed to run democratic politics. Normal human beings manage political affairs and political institutions within a constitutional framework through dialogue, bargaining and accommodation.
Higher academic degrees cannot be the criterion for entry into political institutions and processes. Political leaders also do not need formal academies like those established for the bureaucracy and the military. Their training centres are the political field, political parties and voluntary societal groups and legislatures. They learn over the years while working with the people. The leaders who rise gradually from local political institutions and processes to the provincial and federal level generally have a better understanding of political and societal affairs. They have a better temperament to deal with the people and their hopes and aspirations. Those reaching to the top political slot suddenly as technocrats or through the bureaucracy and the military are generally without any experience of popular politics. They cannot relate them to the people and their problems. They may adopt a patronising attitude towards the ordinary people with the objective of pulling them up in the socio-economic ladder. But, a political leader rising from below strives for cooperation and partnership with the people.
An elected leader or parliamentarian is a link between the government and the people. This is very important in a diversified society like Pakistan where regional, ethnic and linguistic identities are strong along with economic disparities among the regions and people. In such a society, representative governance helps to defuse these discontinuities and enables the people to build political partnerships provided the political and democratic institutions and processes function without any major disruption.
Elected leaders help the people to obtain basic services from the state. In a society where basic human services like health care, education, civic amenities and security against the arbitrariness of state functionaries are not provided by the state to its citizens on regular basis, the people rely on their representatives to obtain these and other services that they need for their normal living. Therefore, the service role of the parliamentarians helps the common people to cope with the day-to-day affairs of life. What matters most is how a political leader, especially a parliamentarian, is relevant to the life of the ordinary voters.
However, the parliamentarians and other political leaders need to improve their performance. This can be done through four major channels. First, political institutions and processes must continue to function to consolidate them and make mid-course corrections on the basis of experience.
Second, elections must he held regularly in a transparent, free and fair manner to enable the people to elect their representatives at the local, provincial and federal levels. If the voters are oriented to use their vote on the basis of the performance and reputation of the candidate, elections become an effective method of accountability of the political leaders. The fear of losing elections on the basis of bad reputation and non-service to the people keeps the political leaders under check.
Third, independent and expanded electronic and print media has a restraining influence on the political leaders and it also undertakes their accountability. The media can inform the political leaders about the problems of state and society and how to deal with them. It can also educate the people into democratic norms and values and make them conscious of the role of vote for strengthening democracy.
Fourth, an independent judiciary is integral to a democratic political system. It also undertakes the accountability of the political leaders, restrains the role of government within the limits of the constitution and law and protects the civil and political rights of people.
The underlying assumption of a democratic political order is the primacy of elected institutions and leaders over non-elected state institutions. The state institutions must observe restraint and show respect towards each other.
In Pakistan, traditionally the bureaucracy and the military dominated political institutions and processes. Now, the military has receded to the background and the superior judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, is endeavouring to dominate elected government and elected parliament. It is using judicial activism to step into the domain of the executive. The judges make politically loaded remarks in the course of court proceedings that are likely to be popular with the ordinary people and draw the attention of the media. Too much judicial interference in the affairs of elected institutions undermines democracy.
The judiciary must command respect voluntarily from people rather than creating fear in their mind by relying on its contempt of court power. Recently, the chairman National Accountability Board, one of the top functionaries of the state, wrote a letter to his appointing authority, the President of Pakistan, complaining about what he thought to be undue interference of the Supreme Court in the NAB’s domain, the Supreme Court issued him a contempt notice for writing such a letter to the president.
Democratic system does not necessarily guarantee good governance. Democracy offers mechanisms for resolving societal problems. The nature of governance depends on those occupying key offices. Currently in Pakistan, the poor performance of the elected provincial and federal governments has alienated people from democracy. There is a talk of a caretaker government of professionals and technocrats that should rectify the ills of the society and take punitive action against corrupt political leader and then elections should be held.
This is a flawed argument. What is the guarantee that a caretaker government would perform better? Such a government will be a major failure because it would not be able to relate itself with the diversified population of Pakistan because of it non-representative character.
Democracy is a process that must move from less to more democracy. It matures over time. If it is short of the textbook ideal notion of democracy it should not be viewed as non-democracy. What matters most is its direction: whether it is moving towards better and mature democracy and stability. Pakistan’s democracy is flawed in many respects but it can improve by practicing it rather than discarding it in favour of an authoritarian system.
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.