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Imran and Obama: Democracy’s bitter tale of betrayal

September 10, 2013

So the 90 days have passed and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf has not been able to deliver on any of its election campaign promises despite having a stable government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. And guess what, they are not even asking for an extension in the period. They don’t feel compelled to. In fact, they are sitting pretty and pretending as if they had never promised a thing.

Despite this display of nonchalance, you may want to grant another 90 days or so to the young party considering that the rhetoric of change in such an unrealistically short time frame was a campaign gimmick and that the party does actually have good intentions to deliver.

But what can one say about US President Obama’s “Yes We Can” campaign? He too, had made lots of promises with his nation and the world when he was running for his first term in 2008, foremost among them being to end wars in Asia. He did not only back out, he is bent upon pushing America into the opposite direction – a new war. Unrepentant, he is behaving as if he hadn’t raised any hopes nor promised anything, and he is well into his second four-year term.

His most vocal European ally, François Hollande, was elected in May last year on a similar high-hope election campaign that promised the French a naya France. They are already grumbling about being betrayed. Hollande has taken even less to surprise his voters, with U-turns reneging on his campaign promises.

If you expand further, you will realise that this disappointment and frustration is global – there is a pattern to it. Political parties invest billions in election campaigns to create hype and inject notions like hope and change into political discourse, which generally start and end all in the TV studio. They win and after that they do only one thing – serve the status quo. They don’t even look back at the promises they had made.

An activist in India, recently wrote to all the political parties requesting copies of their election manifestoes published over the past so that these could then be compared with each other and against what the winning parties had actually delivered. No party thought it was obliged to meet the request, except one, the Communist Party, which told the activist that its secretariat did not keep a copy for record and thus it was unable to provide one!

Once the election carnival is over, the electorate becomes redundant till the start of the next round of the electoral circus that again, offers them another dose of hope in a completely different wrapping. So, has democracy failed? It was supposed to be the “government of the people, by the people, for the people” but it only alludes to this ideal for a short while, and in a whimsical manner.

The question is important and the answer can’t be short and easy. In fact, it can be pursued as a quest. It could be tackled from many perspectives. I will here focus on one of its aspects, that is the elections. The main instrument, or the medium, through which democracy works is the electoral process. Maybe it is the mechanics of elections that is obstructing hope to translate into change. I think that a close look at the nuts and bolts of this all-important conduit of democracy might offer some help. I have below explored three points in this regard:

1: How to make the ‘silent’ majority speak?

A good part of the electorate does not cast its vote for a host of reasons. Of every 1000 voters registered for Pakistan’s 2013 general elections, 445 did not appear at the polling stations, notwithstanding that this was far better than the earlier figures. In the general elections of 2002, a whopping 582 had not exercised their right to vote. This does not include those adults who qualify as voters except that they do not possess an identity card and thus are not enrolled in voter lists.

The majority of the non-voters in Pakistan are women. Though exact figure are not available there is evidence suggesting that the number of non-voting women might be as high as double the non-voting men. And please, don’t think that this is a problem limited to the Pakhtunkhwa province. It’s everywhere. The only difference is that political parties in Pakhtunkhwa ensure through formal agreements that no one breaches ‘tradition’. In other areas, the candidates may not be as cautious but ‘tradition’ anyhow does make its way.

The candidates also fail to mobilise certain pockets of men or maybe they’re just following some other ‘tradition’.

In theory, candidates should be mobilising each and every group of electorates but field experiences suggest that they are not interested in an all-inclusive universal campaign. They instead make cautious calculations about their support bases and want only select groups to walk to the polling stations. I know of some candidates, who after securing a supposedly safe position actually went out to immobilise their potential opponents. One nasty way of doing that is to ‘buy’ the potential opponents’ identity cards for the Election Day.

I am here suggesting that it is not in the interest of the political class to make the electoral process all-inclusive. All they want is just enough votes. The objective of making elections inclusive cannot be left to contestants. The ‘democratically’ agreed upon exclusion of women can serve as a classic example of this phenomenon. How can then this shortcoming be overcome? By making voting compulsory for all, by continuing polling for more than one day, by making it mandatory for the winner to secure at least 51 per cent of the votes … anyone?

2: How to ensure a just translation of votes into seats?

Our electoral scheme follows what is termed as first-past-the-post voting system. The single biggest vote getter wins the race. So if 100 votes are divided among four candidates as 26, 25, 25 and 24. The candidate securing 26 wins, even if he/she may not represent the majority – the 74 voters.

As evident from the above graphics, in the 2013 General Elections more votes were wasted than they were represented – winners secured 267 of the 555 cast votes, while the 270 who did cast their votes are not represented in the elected houses, as the candidates polling these votes lost the race. To correct this anomaly some countries hold a second round of elections which is contested only by the top two vote getters.

This phenomenon becomes even more problematic when considered from the view of votes polled by a party. The parties that have vote bank spread out over many constituencies can get a reasonable number of votes but these might not translate into a reasonable or proportionate number of seats.

Consider for example, the 2013 General Elections where Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf has secured half the votes of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz but only a quarter of the seats. PML-N’s 14.9 million votes won it 125 national assembly seats but PTI’s 7.7 million votes translated into just 25 seats.

I have below done a hypothetical calculation just to highlight this case. Taking the 2013 results, I have ignored the votes polled by the parties that didn’t win even a single seat and distributed all the seats among the rest of the parties proportionate to their votes or at the rate of one seat for every 165,981 votes. (268 national assembly seats were contested in May 2013 elections). So if each vote cast was translated into seats following an even formula, and not the first-past-the-post system, PML-N would have got 35 less than what it now has and PTI 18 more.

Some countries follow a proportional representation system and others mix both by allocating some seats to the first-past-the-post system and then filling in an additional set through proportional representation, just like the system we follow for the seats reserved for women and non-Muslim minorities. To devise a new electoral system would need a cross party consensus, but who does not want to enjoy the benefits of an unfair system? Do you think it is hard to guess which of the above parties will favor and which will oppose any move towards a proportional representation system, at least for now?

3: How can the electorate take back the mandate?

All employment contracts start with a probation period, no business contract is without terms and conditions and every marriage law has a divorce clause. So why is then the electoral mandate an unlimited liability for the electorate? If an elected party goes against its election promises, why do the hapless voters have to wait till the expiry of its term? Why can’t they just cancel the mandate? Maybe it is this time cushion when the parties find it convenient to shamelessly violate their mandates.

The instrument of the no-confidence motion in the elected houses does not serve this purpose. It is instead used by the elected members to settle scores among themselves keeping the electorate at bay. Some countries, however, have provisions for holding a referendum on any matter that a certain number of its citizens considered important. Switzerland is famous for this.

Public interest organisations conduct opinion polls every now and then and most governments and policy makers always have an eye on these. Communication technologies have advanced so much that if intended a solution to secure public opinion instantly on any matter is very much possible. Many reality shows come with ‘voting lines’ whereby viewers offer their favors to one celebrity or the other and they are charged for it too. How about a phone application where you don’t vent by shooting angry birds but are really able to shoot down a government decision!

Whatever the methodology and the means, political parties are unlikely to behave unless they find themselves permanently subjected to a popular process of accountability. Honeymoons are nice but if later the marriage turns abusive, one should be able to dissolve it.