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New fault lines

May 15, 2014

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ONE should be grateful to the political heavyweights who competed for public attention last Sunday for putting the new tug-of-war in the country in clearer perspective. While the immediate target is the one-year old government of Nawaz Sharif the longer-term target is the system of democracy.

The arguments are incredibly simple: the government lacks legitimacy because the 2013 election was not fair, and if it claims to have the support of the masses its rivals too can collect big crowds everywhere. And as far as the democratic system is concerned, for one, what is being derailed is not democracy, and, for another, Pakistan does not need democracy, it needs a caliphate.

This development is not unexpected. It conforms to the normal pattern of an intra-right battle for supremacy. Following the self-managed exit of the nominally left-of-centre parties and the political heights having fallen to different shades of the right, those on the extreme right want to have the whole cake to themselves. And soon.

The use of different assault tactics is immaterial. Whether democracy is rejected on the grounds of incompatibility with belief or with praetorian prescriptions the result will be the same — tyranny in one form or another.

Since in Pakistan no government has needed its opponents’ help in digging its own grave, it will be interesting to see whether the present government will follow the norm or whether it will be able to break with tradition.

No satisfactory explanation is available for the decision by three political outfits — the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, Jamaat-i-Islami and the Pakistan Awami Tehreek — to unsheathe their swords in concert on May 11.

There is no point in speculating on any possible coordination among them, direct or through intermediaries, or any nexus with the Geo affair, for there may not be much room for speculation. Besides, the issues raised last Sunday — the unsatisfactory state of the democratic framework, the allegations of rigging in elections, and the need for a stronger Election Commission — are important enough to merit a dispassionate discussion.

Nobody can claim that the present order is really democratic or that it is meeting the people’s aspirations. But where does the fault lie? It’s been known all along that we have been trying to impose democracy on a society that is steeped in anti-democratic values.

Over the years, the rise of religiosity has rendered the imbalance nearly fatal. The accumulated human wisdom rejects the view that a people’s political structure should be no higher than the level of their understanding.

The state structures are therefore expected to facilitate social transformation in the country so that the people’s acceptance of the ideals of equality, liberty and social justice can provide the necessary underpinning to a democratic order.

If this is not done any system chosen in place of democracy will also be corrupted. This will only aggravate the people’s plight. Unfortunately, little is being said on this point by the new champions of the people’s cause.

As regards rigging, the fact is that Pakistan’s culture does not permit fair elections. An element of irregularity has been present in each election we have had. Even when the establishment does not manipulate the polls, which is rare, the candidates and their supporters resort to all manner of foul means to achieve victory.

The more popular parties have obviously better opportunities to manipulate the outcome. Thus an element of cheating proportionate to a party’s fairly gathered votes is considered in order.

It has also been seen that those who manage elections choose to favour the likely winners. The pre-poll favourites in 1945-46, 1970 and 2013 benefited from the opportunistic preferences of state functionaries.

The answer to electoral cheating, which is not the same thing as rigging, lies with the Election Commission only up to a point. A radical improvement in the situation will follow public awakening to the need and benefits of honest elections and the rise of genuine political parties, though some minor changes can be brought about through an overhaul of the electoral system.

Such a review of the electoral system and reform of the Election Commission are issues that the government should be prepared to discuss on a priority basis. The task is quite stupendous and even if a general election is held no earlier than 2018 there is not much time to lose.

What needs to be done is far more complex than the politicians in the news can imagine. The civil society has a long list of proposals for a truly independent and efficient election authority. It challenges the basic assumption that the Election Commission should be an all-male, all-judiciary apparatus. There is much in the People’s Representation Act that needs to be reviewed.

Besides, quite a few other issues need to be addressed, such as the holding of a fair census (even more problematic than an election), the distribution of National Assembly seats among provinces, the monstrous eligibility provisions (Article 62, 63), the undue favour to clerics by including them with technocrats (for the Senate), and the practical denial of representation to peasants, workers and the poor in general.

Everybody has a right to raise these issues in the media and at public rallies but neither of these forums is adequate for arriving at a proper settlement. The best way out is to create an all-party committee, with due civil society representation on it, to devise an efficient electoral machinery that can absorb some of the shocks of our cultural aberrations.

Published in Dawn, May 15th, 2014