Real and fake democracy

  • Winners and losers

There are interesting political developments happening in Germany and Pakistan that shed light and show a contrast between a real and fake democracy. Let’s look at Germany first.

On September 24th German voters went to poll for the election of a new Bundestag (national assembly) and through it a new chancellor. Election of Donald Trump in 2016 rattled the voters across Europe and there was an expectation that Angela Merkel is the only sane voice left. She was to lead the western world on the global stage to deal with rising influence of Russia and China. Surveys suggested that her center-right Christian Democrats Union (CDU) will easily defeat extreme right parties AfD as well as their traditional rival Social Democrat Party (SPD). SPD had elevated Martin Schultz as the head of the party to provide it a new vigour. This helped the party generate a new wave of support and for few weeks the polls showed that they are closing the gap with CDU so much so that it was expected that Schultz will topple Merkel as chancellor. In the neighborhood, Austria elected a 32-year old chancellor that was the youngest in its history riding the wave of extreme right popular support. In France, Emanuel Macron came from behind as an independent candidate and defeated all candidates of established parties to become president. He also contained the popularity of extreme right National Front. His new party later gained a majority in the parliament as well thereby completing the routing of established parties.

In this background, Germans went to the polls and the result surprised everyone. Angela Merkel could not muster a clear majority for her CDU to form a government. SPD showed its worst performance in an election while the votes lost by them were gained by AfD, Free Democrats (FPD), and Greens. This pushed Merkel to seek coalition talks with Free Democrats and Greens but the talks faltered because of wide ideological differences between them. This paved way for old partners CDU and SPD to initiate coalition talks. But youth leaders of SPD opposed such talks and forced Martin Schultz to seek a vote from all party members who narrowly approved it. It took both parties months to arrive at an understanding but forced Merkel to concede granting finance and foreign ministries to SPD. Even then both party heads were forced to go to party members to seek approval of the coalition agreement which is where we are today. But Schultz has already lost his position as party head because of his failure to lead and Merkel is expected to step down in the middle of her fourth term.

The unlucky politician in all this is Imran Khan. He could have become Emanuel Macron of Pakistan by offering a cadre of new leadership and riding wave of the popular view that old politicians have failed to deliver

The lesson learned from the German example is that in a real democracy it is the ideology that drives coalitions rather than personalities. Party heads are bound to adhere to the mandate given to them by party members and if they depart from it then they have to seek approval from them again. Party leaders that fail to deliver have to resign and make space for new leaders. Parties have multiple narratives that compete for majority support of the party members. Dissent is normal and not considered disloyalty to the party.

Now let’s look at what is happening in Pakistan. After Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was ousted by Supreme Court, he decided to go to Lahore via GT road to create a perception that he still retains the vote bank of PML-N and hence the mandate to make all its decisions. It resulted in the appointment of a puppet PM that starts his day with the chant Nawaz Sharif is the real prime minister and goes to bed repeating the same. PML-N delivered an amendment that allowed a disqualified person to head a party. Party also organised many political rallies to strengthen the perception that Nawaz Sharif will deliver a win to the party. In other words, all that matters is Nawaz Sharif and everyone else is a disposable commodity as experienced by Chaudhry Nisar. Anyone that shows public dissent has no space in PML-N, which is controlled by a civilian dictator and his family. Both brothers in a shameless show of total control nominated each other while everyone else just acted as cheerleaders.

But there is something else at play here too that seems to be ignored by everyone else. PML-N is appearing to be a political party with a deep bench of leadership that can deliver. Two events point towards that. First was the win in NA-154 Lodhran which was delivered by the local leadership of the party without any involvement of Sharif family including Maryam, Hamza, Nawaz, and Shahbaz. It showed a party can win without relying on a charismatic personality. The second event was the cold reception of Shahbaz Sharif in Pattoki after his elevation to interim party head position. These two events show that PML-N is ready to go beyond the Sharif family and it is only a matter of time before party activists demand more involvement in key decisions. This is a good development for the stability of democracy in the country in the long term.

When Nawaz Sharif was ousted in July 2017 I corresponded off the record with some of my journalist friends and advised them to watch how Nawaz Sharif crawls back to the top. I was confident of his political skills but I also knew he will act as a civilian dictator to regain control. He did not disappoint me but now I firmly believe Nawaz Sharif is out of sync with reality and is on a path of permanent decline. In 2018 general elections PML-N has the probability of emerging as a majority party but it will not be because of Nawaz Sharif. They will gain that majority because of their deep bench of talented politicians, their delivery of comparatively better governance in Punjab, a deep understanding of managing elections, and a tangible manifesto that people can understand. The inability of PTI and PPP to offer credible alternatives is another reason PML-N can gain a majority.

The unlucky politician in all this is Imran Khan. He could have become Emanuel Macron of Pakistan by offering a cadre of new leadership and riding wave of the popular view that old politicians have failed to deliver. But, instead, he decided to recruit the same old tired faces from other parties. Imran Khan relied on Pervez Khattak, Asad Umar, Jahangir Tareen and Shah Mehmood Qureshi to deliver results but all four of them miserably failed in it.

In Pakistan we have fake democracy and just expecting that continuing election cycles will improve it is wishful thinking. The process has to be nudged forward by pushing for structural change. ECP has failed to introduce democracy in parties just like NAB has failed to curtail corruption. Party activists, like in Germany, have to demand that they be included in all key decisions and if they are not included then they will retaliate as shown by people in Pattoki. PTI activists have always rejected wrong decisions as evident from the loss in NA-154 Lodhran.