Election dilemmas


There is difference between procedure of democracy and substance of democracy

The election schedule has been announced and the voting will take place on May 11, 2013. The politics in Pakistan will be dominated by the election process for the next three months, involving a lot more controversies, negative propaganda, character assassination of candidates and political leaders and court cases. There will be outside runners who would question the electoral process and attempt to make it difficult to hold the elections on time in the name of free and fair elections.

It is a matter of satisfaction that the outgoing assemblies have completed their terms which has strengthened the formal and procedural aspect of democracy in Pakistan. However, the substance and quality of democracy continues to be poor. The elected governments have performed poorly and the political leadership often found it difficult to rise above their narrow, subjective and partisan mindset.

The inability, if not failure, of the two major political parties, the PPP and the PML-N, to agree on a caretaker prime minister is the latest example how the political parties take up the issues of democratic politics as an ego competition and how they can play tough with each other. This was meant to show to their supporters and voters that they had not allowed the other side to get away with its choice.

This is a good example of the difference between the procedural and performance side of democracy. The political activists of both parties are arguing that this is not a failure. After all, the nomination of the caretaker prime minister by the election commission is a constitutional procedure. Therefore, there is nothing wrong in it. From the perspective of procedures and formalities, it is constitutional for the election commission to nominate a caretaker prime minister if the political leaders fail to do that. However, from the perspective of the quality and performance of democracy, it is poor politics that the political leaders and parties cannot settle political issues and they approach non-elected institution for getting their problems resolved.

The election commission option is a conflict resolution method provided in the constitution that becomes operative when the ego-oriented politicians with feudal-tribal notion of political competition cannot solve the political problems which is their primary responsibility.

One major challenge to democracy and representative governance in Pakistan is that political leaders have a tendency to look towards non-elected institutions for settling their political scores. Political leaders and parties will not accommodate each other but would approach a non-elected state institution for helping them out or for resolving the problem. They may discreetly cultivate the military to strengthen their political bargaining position. If there is a tension between the civilian government and the military top brass, the political opposition is likely to lean towards the military or exploit the civil-military tension to its advantage at the expense of the civilian government. The Memo Issue (2011-2012) is a good example of such a political fight.

The superior judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, has become the key arena of political contestation for the competing political interests. A large number of political cases are filed in the Supreme Court or the Supreme Court (sometimes even High Courts) take notice of the matter on their own. The political issues have to be addressed at the political level by political leaders and organisations and dealt with through the elected assemblies and their committees.

Now, the election commission, a constitutional institution, nevertheless non-elected, settles the matter that the political leaders should have done it through mutual accommodation.

There was no reason to make an issue out of it because the constitution talks of the caretaker prime minister or chief minister only in the context of holding the elections. This means that caretaker prime minister or chief minister is not expected to make major policy changes. The primary objective of caretaker administration is to facilitate free and fair elections by making sure that the state institutions and officials do not adopt a partisan disposition. It also provides the necessary support to the Elections Commission for holding fair, free and transparent elections. Another important function of caretaker administration is to manage the day-to-day working of government and to maintain law and order through various state agencies performing this task, especially for the election purposes.

Another divergence between the procedures and substance of democracy will cause tension in the political circles and it is expected some of these issues will go to the courts. The election commission has given a short margin of time for filing nomination papers i.e., March 24-29.

The new nomination papers require a lot of information that places the candidates in a difficult situation. There is a widespread support for scrutinising the candidates minutely because the underlying assumption is that tough scrutiny of candidates will ensure that only angel-like people will go to the assemblies in a society were corruption is rampant. General Musharraf thought before the 2002 elections that the people with the graduation degrees will make a better parliament. He imposed that condition. How far the 20002 assemblies of academic degree holders performed better than the earlier assemblies is known to all of us. The fallout of this law is still with us as some people are facing court trials or strong propaganda barrage for making false statement about their educational qualification. It is not clear if the voters cared for the academic qualifications of the candidates.

We will soon start seeing the political and societal fallout of the new nomination papers. The political opponents are getting ready to raise objections on each other’s nomination papers. This is likely to open flood-gates of charges and counter charges. There will be more controversies and court cases this time regarding the nomination papers than ever.

Imran Khan started his election campaign with a public meeting in Lahore on March 23. His discourse (especially the initial part) comprised highly religious and nationalist statements. However, the promises he made were secular in nature. It is not clear if his close associates and policy advisers share his religious disposition. There was music and dancing for the liberals and moderates. Imran Khan is offering something to everybody, although his statements projected him more religious than the Jamaat-i-Islami.

Pakistan is on the election ride. Hopefully, the political leaders will attempt to bridge the gap between rhetoric and reality, promise and delivery as well as between the procedures and substance of democracy.

The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.