111 510 510 libonline@riphah.edu.pk Contact

The real threat to democracy

It is time to celebrate. The current democratic order, which appeared to be wobbling and on the brink in the wake of Dr Tahirul Qadri’s long march and four-day protest in Islamabad, has triumphed in beating what is being dubbed by many as a ‘nefarious conspiracy’ to derail the system.

The ruling coalition showed sagacity in the way it orchestrated the anticlimax of the nail-biting drama in the federal capital. The mainstream opposition parties, in a rare show of unity, unanimously sent a loud and clear message that no tampering with the democratic institutions will be allowed. Many civil society members – represented by human rights activists and liberals – lit candles and put their weight behind the current democratic order.

In a nutshell, all the democratic forces did their bit to ensure a happy ending to Islamabad’s D-Square sit-in which had started with a vow to bring the system down. In the end, all Qadri got were promises in line with the constitution, which can hardly be described as a game-changer.

Conspiracy theories aside, which see Qadri as one of the newest wheelers and dealers in Pakistani politics and an alleged proxy of certain players on the political chessboard, the fact of the matter remains that the Canada-returned cleric’s first attempt to shake the system ended with a humble compromise that left the status quo intact – at least for the time being.

This, indeed, is a huge achievement for democrats in the murky waters of Pakistani politics which thrives on convoluted deals, questionable arrangements and treacherous plots.

But after Islamabad’s long march declaration – which includes promises of greater scrutiny of candidates for national and provincial assembly elections and dissolution of parliament before Match 16 – is the threat to the country’s fragile democratic system really over? Has the existing democratic order in any way become more pro-people, fair and transparent? Does it have the capacity to deal with the multiple internal challenges faced by the nation? But the paramount question is: who is the real enemy of democracy? Those who seek continuation of a dysfunctional democracy, which failed to deliver on all key fronts, or the power centres of the army and judiciary so often accused, in private and in public, of trying to disrupt the system?

If history is any guide, enemies of the people often get an excuse to derail democracy because of its inherent flaws and contradictions that hurt every segment of society and threaten the state itself. Today, there is no dearth of critics who wish to clean the Augean stables before the general elections in the country or even install a caretaker government for a longer term to take tough political and economic decisions in an attempt to put the house in order first.

But others say that timely elections will eventually help bring about the desired change in line with the wishes of the people and, therefore, the method of elections must be preserved at any cost.

The nation waits for the general elections, even if they are likely to bring back the same old faces, scions of the tried and tested feudal, tribal and super-rich urban families to the assemblies under the banner of this or that political party. In essence, the power will stay in the hands of the privileged few, who enter parliament without paying their taxes and have a blemished record of limitless greed and corruption, together with the display of apathy toward the plight of the masses, who suffer economic hardships and brave the increasingly perilous law and order situation.

The inability of the ruling elite to deal with the key challenges is manifested in the present crisis of governance, economic mismanagement, rampant crime and terrorism and the crumbling writ of the state that now pose the greatest threat to both democracy and the country.

It is time to confront these realities for the sake of democracy, which we cherish despite the cost Pakistan has paid for its preservation during the last five years.

The main reason for Pakistan’s having a flawed democracy is our continued denial of the fact that democratic institutions require a modern state to sustain them. A state where mediaeval, feudal and archaic tribal systems still hold sway in large parts of its territory can hardly support a modern functioning democracy. Therefore, for any serious push toward sustainable and strong democracy, doing away with the feudal and tribal systems remains one of the fundamental prerequisites. Ironically, this is not even part of the main political narrative, and nor is it on the agendas of the major political parties.

At best, the current system can ensure the election of members of the same few hundred elite families, largely from the rural areas, to parliament. Many of these families, which also have a stake in industries and businesses, are connected to one another through marriages and family ties. In many cases, members of these extended families represent rival political parties pitched against one another in the same constituencies.

As a result, whatever the outcome of the elections, power largely stays in a few hands. Rich urban industrialists have integrated themselves with the rural elite, by design or by default, and behave and act like them. The culture, traditions, values and mindset of the ruling class or classes dominate every sphere of society. And in Pakistan, it is the feudal and tribal mindset that dominates, even though it is incompatible with the 21st-century world.

The representation of the middle and lower middle classes by urban parties like the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the religious groups are no more than a sprinkling in the power structure. Even political families from military background have joined the elite club. These have stakes in the country economic structure both as landowners and industrialists.

This remains one of the main flaws of Pakistani democracy, which has overwhelmingly turned into the dominance of big and small political dynasties which are reluctant to agree to reforms because they want to maintain their hold on the political and economic power structures.

Most of the mainstream political parties, which have no concept of internal democracy, are run like political fiefdoms with all powers centred in the hands of dynastic political families.

To sustain democracy, which goes beyond the process of merely casting votes, it is necessary to bring about change and reforms, so that the political situation does not remain indefinitely in favour of the privileged few.

Lastly, dominance of pluralistic and secular values remains a must in the political fabric of the state for a functioning and successful democracy. There can be a secular state which is undemocratic, but, in the true sense, there can’t be a democratic state which is not secular and pluralistic in nature. There should be greater participation of the people in decision-making, and it is time to give them the right to be equal partners and beneficiaries of the system. Here, the conservative Islamic and rightwing parties and militant groups do not allow this to happen.

Until various stakeholders, including the man on the street, are prepared to address these fundamental issues, democracy will remain fragile and under threat in Pakistan. Unfortunately, there are hardly any forces on the political horizon that can act as the catalyst for this change.

The writer is editor The News, Karachi. Email: amir.zia@gmail.co

Email: amir.zia@thenews.com.pk

Amir Zia, "The real threat to democracy," The News. 2013-01-22.