WHILE the decision by quite a few parties to take a common stand against those who are obviously out to scuttle the boat of democracy is something to be welcomed, it is time the advocates of the electoral system also put their own houses in order.
Nobody can dispute the fact that the cause of democracy in Pakistan has been harmed as much by its practitioners (if not more) as by its enemies. The establishment of democratic institutions in a society riven by numerous forms of inequality and class disparities, and mired in ignorance and dogma, was a daunting task the founding fathers faced at Independence.
What made the situation worse was the fact that power was transferred to a community whose experience of running democratic institutions was extremely meagre. Above all, the party that inherited power from the colonial masters not only did not have a tradition of democratic decision-making, its own structure was not democratic, except for a small degree of respect for formalities. The human resources lacked the capacity for direct investment in the construction of a democratic polity.
The result was that from day one whenever the rulers faced difficulties in laying the foundations of a new state they sought the easy way out by compromising on democratic norms. The small political capital these rulers had was exhausted within the first few years of freedom.
From 1952 onwards the proto-democratic system was at the sufferance of ambitious individuals and their cliques. At regular intervals, the people were called upon to rise up against despots and reinstall in power their elected representatives. But no elected government has come up to public expectations. A debilitating cycle of dictators replacing democrats and they in turn throwing out authoritarian rulers has become the people’s lot.
Throughout the long period of the seesaw battle between democrats and dictators the people’s faith in democracy has been progressively undermined. The authoritarian forces have targeted democracy for being incompatible with the people’s genius or belief and the democrats have devalued their system by their ineptness, corruption and lack of commitment to public weal.
Those who have supported the democratic process from outside, that is, without seeking elective office or joining active politics, have tended to criticise the political parties less than those in priestly robes. But as we move towards a most critical moment, when mistakes by politicians could endanger not only the system but also the integrity of the people as a nation, the political parties should learn to speak less and listen to the people more. They have to do a lot before they can win the people over to the system of representative government.
The first responsibility of the pro-democracy parties today is to engage the people in debate on ways out of the present crisis, because their rivals have already started distributing talismans.
They have to tell the citizens how they will fight poverty, unemployment, disease and ignorance; how they’ll cure the tillers of the soil of their land hunger or guarantee women and minorities equal status as citizens; how they’ll respect every child’s right to education and self-realisation; and, above all, how they will guarantee every citizen freedom of belief, other basic freedoms and security of life and liberty.
With only a few months to go before the people are invited to cast their votes, the political parties must capture the debating fora with their manifestos. And for once they may present achievable targets and make pledges that can be redeemed over a short period. Otherwise they could risk losing to the growing breed of pied pipers who are raising slogans of revolution without understanding what the term means or what it must entail.
Besides, while repairing their separate platforms for electoral competition among themselves the pro-democracy parties are required to develop joint strategies for securing public endorsement of the electoral process and its results.
For instance, they should collectively move towards ensuring simultaneous polls for the national and provincial legislatures. The problem caused by different dates on which the terms of the provincial assemblies expire is not insoluble. If the political parties in power in the different provinces recognise the adverse effects of a staggered poll, seen in 1977 and 1988, they can have an agreement on simultaneous dissolution of the provincial assemblies and a single date for fresh elections to them along with polls for the National Assembly.
These parties also need to act in concert to adopt legislation that will increase the Election Commission of Pakistan’s authority to guarantee a fair poll. The ECP must have the power to cancel postings, transfers and economic inducements offered to groups/individuals for securing vote-bags.
The question of providing transport for voters on polling day has become quite a thorny issue. The ECP simply cannot do this. The political parties would do well to work out an alternative in consultation with the ECP.
An issue high on the political parties’ agenda should be the removal of women’s grievances in electoral affairs. They may have had valid reason to reject the proposal to countermand election in a constituency where less than 10 per cent of women voters cast their votes but women’s free and full participation in the polling is a non-negotiable requisite of fair elections.
Political parties should not only ensure that their candidates and workers do not prevent women from casting their ballots, they must put up at least a few women candidates on general seats by way of affirmative action.
The political parties will be able to arrest the people’s alienation from democracy by making their lists of candidates reflective of a pluralist society, that is, choosing their nominees from among the working people, teachers and social activists, et al.
The minority communities have been asking for some concessions that can easily be granted. The Christians want the political parties to select their representatives for the reserved seats from different geographical areas. The Hindu community is seeking space for its more numerous ‘low caste’ members. The Ahmedis have lost any hope of relief and are not even clamouring for it. Now that the minorities’ quota of seats is being increased their women’s claim to be nominated has become stronger.
The challenge before the democrats, in a sentence, is to give the democratic edifice the sound foundations of pluralism, to make the system all-inclusive, in contrast to the dangerous designs of the exclusivists. Will they take up the gauntlet?