Beyond democracy

August 21, 2014


The writer is a freelance contributor.
The writer is a freelance contributor.

Democracy is today considered the most desirable and successful form of government. In part, this has to do with the fall of the world’s major monarchies and autocracies after the First World War and the collective voice of democratic Allied forces after their victory in the Second World War. After the fall of the last counter-democracy centre of power in former Soviet Union in the early ’90s, there has been no significant worldwide governance model that rivals democracy.

Yet, in the world’s most populous regions — Asia and Africa — the benefits of democracy have not reached the common people in many parts. Despite revolutions or regime changes resulting in the ousting of some long-standing dictators in the Middle East, the region continues to be wracked by violence and new power players are still emerging as a challenge to the nascent democracies.

Where democracy is still holding ground, as in Pakistan, key performance indicators impacting the public at large have miserably failed to show substantial improvements.

The oft-arising question of whether or not these outcomes point to a failure of democracy itself, is in fact out of place. This is because over a period of time, the word ‘democracy’ has come to be used as a catchphrase promising the only silver lining available to the masses. On the other hand, the principles of democracy, such as transparency in governance and performance measurement are not brought into public discourse in Pakistan as much as the need for having democracy.

Many ask if democracy is suited for a country like Pakistan

Hence the narrative to support democracy takes the shape of it being the ‘best revenge’, and its worst form being far better than the best dictatorship.

For such a comparison to hold, there must exist statistically correct and verifiable information on public well-being that is widely accepted. This obscurity around data, eg public expenditure and development budget utilisation etc, gives virtual impunity to policy- and decision-makers to act without worrying about the consequences of public scrutiny.

Take, for example, basic operations such as raising internal and external debts via direct loans, participating in IMF programmes, issuing bonds in the international market or printing currency notes. In Pakistan, decisions to undertake these financial activities, which have an immediate impact on inflation and long-term consequences on the country’s economic health, are not arrived at through adequate participation or approval by the people’s elected representatives in parliament.

Moreover, democracy must also allow for the public to ask questions and obtain answers about the government’s day-to-day working and its long-term planning for the country, including foreign policy. The lack of internal democratic processes is clearly evident in the political parties themselves, and their nominations for party office-bearers, assembly seats, and the position of prime minister. Often, the party heads and their close relatives retain control of the party with an iron hand before and after the elections. Apart from the need for electoral parties to demonstrate democratic norms, it’s also equally important that the election is transparent and not questioned by anyone. This must be done structurally, eg through use of modern technologies such as electronic voting systems.

However, these views about democracy and transparency can only be vouched for when there is enough faith in the democratic process itself within the country. With continued deterioration in public health and education, increased cost of living, growing income inequality, decreased per capita income and poor performance against nearly all international assessment para­meters such as Millen­nium Development Goals, Humans Rights Watch, Human Deve­lop­­ment Index and Transpa­rency In­­ter­na­tional, some ask whe­ther democracy is suited for a country like Pakistan, as those elected to govern repeatedly fail in providing better quality of life to the people who elect them.

On top of poor performance against the development indicators mentioned above and lack of data available to the public to make self-assessments on the progress and direction of elected governments, political actions such as the infamous National Reconciliation Ordinance raise questions about the purpose of democracy. Is democracy in Pakistan about the people or about democrats ensuring their re-election while the masses in general suffer? Add to this the lack of visible accountability of public officers for mismanagement of disasters, such as the severe drought in Thar this year or the burning alive of people in the Karachi airport attack. Democracy thus appears an opaque and self-serving idea that benefits the same ruling elite.

For democracy to flourish in Pakistan, it has to claim a few sustained improvements in the lives of people whom it is supposed to serve, in a clear and transparent manner. Until this happens, the long marches and calls for ‘revolution’ demanding a change in the system rather than bringing in reforms for greater transparency and accountability in the existing democratic system will continue to haunt democracy in Pakistan.

The writer is a freelance contributor.

Published in Dawn, August 21st, 2014