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Fixing democracy

We can say many things about late Air Marshal Asghar Khan. But one lasting achievement was his success, after a struggle of over a decade and a half, to persuade the Supreme Court to have a ruling delivered in the case involving massive rigging by intelligence agencies in the 1990 elections, to keep the PPP out of power.

The case removed all possible doubt about the extent to which outside agents were willing to go to steal an election and turn democracy into a farce by determining behind closed doors what the result would be. Through his perseverance, Asghar Khan brought the truth out before all of us.

The attempts to ‘fix’ democracy from the outside have been a feature of our political history. Small-time rigging took place in every poll but gained far greater menace after 1998, when more sophisticated means were used to control elected governments and sometimes determine who would form government.

This control in fact meant that the votes people cast and the choices they made were in so many ways irrelevant. What appeared as democracy on the surface was in almost every case through to the 2000s a government manipulated by multiple different factors. Other institutions, players from within the administration, presidents of the country and sometimes business interests all played a part in this. The phenomenon is worth looking at, since it means that within our democracy, it is not really the people who decide alone but external agents decide as well.

We have of course heard a great deal about this over the past year and over past decades. Opposition politicians have been manipulated, coerced and utilised to play specific games. Successive ballots have led to manufactured results, or partially manufactured results, through the use of rigging at three different stages. Clumsy, poll-day rigging, the reality which is most often talked about and covered by the media, has a more or less inconsequential impact on the outcome of polls. It is the carefully contrived pre-poll rigging, by interim governments in their appointment of administrative officials and through other means, and then organised efforts in some cases to alter the outcome which has the most damaging impact.

In 1997, as the PML-N began its second term in power, there were newspaper reports questioning the discrepancy between the number of ballots cast for the National Assembly and each of the provincial assemblies, in the first election during which balloting for both chambers occurred on the same day. The strange difference in numbers has never been explained, with the Election Commission at the time refusing to answer questions raised about the curious anomaly. Rumours of electronic tampering within control rooms run by non-democratic agents were also heard widely. The problem came up against in future elections when ‘ghost’ polling stations and illogical balloting numbers in terms of total votes cast were noted by independent poll monitors. Again no satisfactory explanation ever emerged.

Efforts to organise the outcome of the democratic vote after the polls and the formation of a government have been seen repeatedly. Some see the recent occurrences in Balochistan as just one example. In other cases, vast sums of money have been used to buy over elected representatives or to otherwise determine the manner in which decisions are made within the legislature, which should only the people of Pakistan. These actions are dangerous because, as the verdict in the Asghar Khan case proved, the people really matter very little in all this. There are too many other influential elements attempting to decide things for them. Sadly, the investigation in that case has still not been completed by the FIA, even after the 2012 verdict; the trial which should follow this investigation under SC orders has still to be conducted.

Whether this trial will ever happen we do not know. What we do know is that there is no guarantee future elections will not be tampered with. Some attempts already appear to be on to determine the results of the 2018 poll, regardless of what people choose or how they vote. The dangers of such practices are extreme.

The matter goes far beyond the rigging we hear about after almost every poll. In general, this is a reference to small-time hooliganism at polling stations or attempts to use administrative mechanisms to either hold back voters or bring them to the polls. The real derailment of democracy occurs in secret, hidden from the public eye and beyond the scope of the poll monitors who gather to witness the balloting process.

The result is that the process of voting, which stands at the centre of democracy, essentially becomes meaningless. It amounts then to the expenditure of billions of rupees to elect a legislature which has very limited power. This theft of democracy from the hands of the people is a key reason for many of the problems our country faces, and the tenuous hold of democratic institutions on governance.

Much of the fault lies with political parties themselves. They have turned balloting into a process involving vast sums of money used to bribe people in various ways and then bring them, sometimes through coercion, to vote. Actual choice is limited for people in a situation where fewer and fewer ideological differences exist between mainstream parties and where they are at any rate reluctant to talk about policies or their implementation.

The extremely poor effort to deliver what people need has not helped the democratic cause either. Instead, our politics has boiled down to personal attacks, big money, and no real effort to involve people in the entire process.

The elimination of people presents its own dangers for political parties and elected governments. The people are essential to hold up democracy and support it when it requires such bolstering. Their involvement is also crucial in anything that resembles a real democracy. If they are simply left by the sidelines, we cannot claim our democracy is a real one or one that holds any meaning for people.

One elected government after the other has failed to put the people first, instead using power to bolster their own interests or put in place grandiose schemes in the hope that they will impress people.

The disconnect with the electorate has to end. Essentially, democracy is a relationship between the citizens of a country and the representatives they elect. When this relationship breaks down, a vacuum will always be created into which others can move. The expertise acquired over the years in altering the outcome of elections or then determining how governments will act after the process is equally hazardous.

Political parties need to play the primary role in bringing people back to the centre stage of democracy, both at the point where ballots are cast and far beyond this when governments begin to function and make decisions important to the lives of those who voted them into power and others who balloted for different parties but of course remain a part of the democratic whole. This understanding has to be gained. Our political parties have largely lost it, and there are as yet little signs it will be recovered. This makes it easier for other elements to intervene.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: kamilahyat@hotmail.com

Kamila Hyat, "Fixing democracy," The News. 2018-01-11.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , National Assembly , Political parties , Election commission , Democracy , Governance , Leadership , Politicians , Asghar Khan , Balochistan , Pakistan , PPP , PMLN , FIA