Making democracy effective in Pakistan


From parliamentary democracy to participatory democracy



Democratic transitions are complex. Developing countries often struggle with building consensus on institutional reform, validity of electoral practices, governance issues etc. It is not easy to do away with the effects of long dictatorial rules in the past. The current government in Pakistan faces daunting crisis conditions and it also barely survived an attack on its mandate. It is also important to note that government alone cannot achieve goals like poverty alleviation, job creation, higher economic prosperity, low persecution of minority groups etc. In fact, left on their own governments may become oblivious to the issues that really matter to people.

Although improving and strengthening democratic governance is a vast area of discussion, for simplicity and efficacy to the context I will limit it to the role of civil society and the role of opposition political parties in Pakistan. Home-grown activist movements are often effective in upholding civil rights, especially in the case of minorities and marginalised groups. Building blocks of a society lie within a fervent civil society. Upholding the rule of law is like a social norm that should reside within the heads of the citizens.

Last year in the aftermath of December 16, attacks civil society, led by young activist Jibran Nasir, staged a protest outside Lal Masjid. For the first time there was a collective outrage against reticence of rogue clerics who have been misguiding people regarding the true essence of Islam. The protest was staged by people from different walks of life: professionals, polio workers, and minority community raising their voice on infringement of their right to be free from persecution. A vibrant civil society provides a platform to people to protest in an organised and peaceful way in case of violation of fundamental rights. Democracy enables people to have freedom of expression and the opportunity to debate on facets of social, political and economic life. This year in October, a landmark verdict of the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence of Mumtaz Qadri, a fanatic who shot the former Governor of Punjab on accusation of blasphemy. Supreme Court’s Justice Khosa was quoted saying: “Will it not instill fear in the society if everybody starts taking the law in their own hands and dealing with sensitive matters such as blasphemy on their own rather than going to the courts?”

Oppressors can be anyone. Sometimes it is the government coming up with mini-budgets, passing on the onus of its incompetence on common people by tilting the tax system even more towards indirect taxes, which already accounts for more than two-thirds of FBR revenues. Sometimes it can be a radical organisation preaching hatred and violent actions against minorities or people with diverse beliefs. Our collective freedom is determined by how much injustice we can tolerate. We need to question the government if its expenditure priorities are not aligned with the aspirations, needs and demands of people. Infrastructure development is a part of economic development but human and social development cannot be a lesser priority.

The role of opposition political parties is undeniably crucial as well. After all the people have elected them and they also share the responsibility of making parliament a meaningful forum. Without accountability a government can become tyrannical and may also resort to political victimisation.

Why is the opposition not questioning expenditure priorities, distorted taxation policies, debt management, delay in constituting the NFC award, declining export competitiveness, clarity on foreign policy matters (relations with India, Saudi Arabia), on the floor of the Parliament the way it should? Many parliamentarians don’t even visit the Parliament as often as they do bickering on TV.

Governments do not behave naturally in the best interest of people without adequate checks and balances. They seek to avoid difficult policy choices, obfuscate fundamental issues and grossly misallocated resources which may result in deepening poverty, economic insecurity and financial instability.

The role of civil society and opposition parties is extremely important to uphold democratic freedoms and fundamental rights. Most political parties are stakeholders in the provincial governments anyways, hence they too share a lot of responsibility and are accountable as well.

We need to be able to evaluate the deterioration in the quality, integrity and commitment of the elected representatives and the criminalisation of politics. Voter education, electoral reforms and periodical highlighting of the performance (or non-performance) of elected representatives are high priority items to upgrade the quality of democracy. Parliamentary democracy becomes participatory democracy only with the opposition political parties’ active role “inside” the parliament.

People’s effective participation, accountability, responsiveness, consensus orientation, equity and inclusiveness, the rule of law, transparency, and strategic vision are key ingredients for good governance. We need to restore and respect rights of poor and marginalised groups, make room for spontaneous organisation, and political stability and law and order will be the natural consequences.