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How to rethink 'Pakistan isn’t made for democracy'

Updated November 25, 2014

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Pakistanis have a love for democracy that the rest of the world should admire, if the rest of the world wasn’t flinching every time we shifted in our seat. —Reuters
Pakistanis have a love for democracy that the rest of the world should admire, if the rest of the world wasn’t flinching every time we shifted in our seat. —Reuters

Democracy never sounded like a good idea to me. Not the way it was sold, anyway.

‘Government of the people, for the people, by the people,’ sounds less like a promising achievement and more like a warning.

It only works when you don’t think about the fact that the people really shouldn’t be trusted with anything, unless that thing has had all its edges sanded off and no small wiggly bits that they might accidentally swallow and choke on.

My point is, people really aren’t all that great.

And before you think I’m a snob for saying so, remember I am ‘people’ too. I know exactly what kind of an idiot I am. Just off the top of my head, I often forget to pull up my zip before leaving the house, I’m still not totally sure what relationship the Senate and the Parliament have in the government (although I pretend like I do), and I will shamelessly admit to liking the new Taylor Swift song despite being a 36-year-old man. And this is just the stuff that I’m willing to admit to.

Why should I be allowed any say in the way a country is run? My vote should be confiscated on the basis of musical taste alone.

Yet, democracy is what we want.

Pakistanis genuinely have a love for democracy that the rest of the world should admire, if the rest of the world wasn’t so busy flinching every time we shifted in our seat.

Also read: Pakistan’s experience with democracy

It took Egypt almost 5000 years to try democracy, which they then screwed up. The rest of the Middle East is even more embarrassing in how they have yet to realise why it’s a bad idea to let some random guy with all the weapons and money rule over you for the remainder of his bloated life.

Most European countries have ‘parliamentary democracies’ (see how I threw that into conversation without being 100 per cent sure what it means) but also still have kings. In 2014. And they call us backward. At least we don’t believe in Narnia.

And American democracy is vibrant and inspiring if you like the idea of a two-party system where both parties are owned by the same corporate lobbies and only about 12 people in the whole country bother to vote. Compared to all of them, Pakistan has thrown off every dictatorship that ever tried taking root here, returning time and again to the idea of democratic governance.

Also read: Pakistan: The world’s bravest democracy

In the last decade we’ve seen the diminished power of the two-party system with a genuine third party rising up and becoming a genuine contender in the next election. And in last year's election, over 55 per cent of the country voted (according to most polling data). I’m surprised we haven’t yet invaded America to install true democracy.

So, why is it so difficult? Why, once we achieve democratic governance, do we want nothing more than to get rid of it?

As soon as an election is over, everyone who didn’t win starts agitating for a new election, voters start apotheosising the last dictator, and we generally act miserable about the whole set up. The favourite Pakistani refrain is,

Pakistan isn’t made for democracy.

The problem, I believe, is that while we like the idea of democracy, the practical application is always a disappointment. It’s much like every season of Coke Studio, exciting in its promise and heartbreaking in its execution (I am willing to admit that’s a cheap shot, but then I never said I wasn’t cheap).

Also read: Beyond democracy

Maybe the issue is the type of democracy. There are, after all, many ways of doing democracy, as long as the basic principles are adhered to.

So, in my goal of continuing to provide solutions to Pakistan’s problems, instead of just whining about how things are broken, let me offer up new ways of doing democracy in Pakistan.

1. Roman Democracy:

Yes, I know, I bang on about Rome all the time. Shut up, I totally read a book about it once and I saw that HBO show and I love it. If you all let me wear a toga in public, then we wouldn’t be having this problem.

Anyway, during the Republican-era of Rome, they had a quasi-democratically elected government. Why do I say, “quasi-democratically”? Because the only people allowed to vote were men, and even then, every election was a hideous show of bribery, corruption, and thuggish intimidation.

Sounds thoroughly modern, doesn’t it?

Elections, then, were held annually, with the highest ranking elected official being the Consuls. Those were basically like the presidents of Rome. Why plural? Because Rome elected two of them every year. Often each one representing an opposing side. And they couldn’t be elected more than once.

To further frustrate each Consul, they were both given veto power over one another. However, it could only be exercised on a bi-monthly basis, because each Consul was given absolute authority every alternate month.

Can you imagine that — if the last election had resulted in both Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif as shared presidents, who then had to work together if they wanted anything achieved?

And then, before we could grow sick of them and regret voting for them, the next election starts up and we get Zardari and Maulana Fazlur Rehman. And so on.

I’m telling you, Roman history is good for more than just awesome movies and TV shows.

2. Level-up Democracy:

Video games were tough when I was young. I’m talking about shortly after the Mesozoic period, of course, when the earth had cooled and the continents separated, and the Atari was the greatest console in all the land.

Back then, you didn’t have walkthroughs and hacks and pause buttons or very many buttons at all. You had one joystick and a large red button that you mashed with your thumb if you wanted anything to happen.

In those games, I’m talking about classics like Pacman and Space Invaders, you only moved onto the next level if you did everything right in the current level. And if you failed, you died and went back to zero.

It was traumatic and upsetting and taught you important lessons about life. Which is why I think we should look to those old games for lessons on how to fix our government.

We all know that election promises are false promises. It’s taken for granted now, in fact.

Americans only recently learned this to be true, once they discovered that Candidate Obama was shockingly different from President Obama.

Pakistanis have considered this an ancient truth. We know that when Candidate N he will make education his top priority, he means that Prime Minister N will remember that education was a thing that people talked about once, but not really recall the specifics.

When Candidate Z says corruption will be stamped out, he means that President Z will giggle when you quote his older self and then pick your pocket lean, while you weep.

We have different standards for politicians, depending on where in the election cycle they exist. Those running for office should present themselves as the paragons of human virtue, whereas once they achieve office, we’re happy if they don’t debase themselves too embarrassingly.

Not if we implement my video-game approach to the government.

Every politician’s promise is listed during the election season. Then, once the election is over, they are allowed to hold office for a month. Based on how many of those election promises are achieved, that month is extended.

Make education a priority? You get three months more.

Stamp out corruption? Add another month on.

Every politician is thus held accountable and their achievements incentivised. Which, if lab mice in a maze have taught us anything, is the only way in which we can be reliably expected to do anything.

In video games, if you mess up, you die and end up back at zero. Now I’m not advocating the killing of politicians if they fail to achieve the goals they themselves set, but that’s only because it would be irresponsible of me to say so. I do, however, like the idea of a timer running out and if, after one month, the politician has done nothing towards the targets, they are kicked out of office and have to start again as a civilian running for the elections.

Holding politicians to the same standard as Pacman is literally the very least we should do.

3. Mandatory Democracy:

The problem with politics, I’ve found, are the politicians.

Being a career politician is a very particular thing, not everyone can do it. Indeed, some might argue not everyone should do it.

It’s actually not that different from being an opinion columnist, also a rare skill that relies upon certain psychological quirks and unique talents.

The successful opinion columnist is someone who must be, above all, an utter narcissist — someone with such an esteemed estimation of themselves, that they feel the rest of the world is the lesser for not having it thrust upon them.

Coupled with this indulgent self-worth is the sociopathic ability to have a detailed opinion on whatever is current in the news, yet somehow managing to keep that opinion stapled to their particular ideological bent.

In the real world, people are a muddle of dogmas and creeds; conservative on some issues, liberal on others. A columnist, much like a pundit (and, indeed, a politician) is boringly, predictably, identical on all topics of consideration.

Finally, there is the desperate compulsion to be seen; writing columns pays very little, if anything at all; if the comments section of any online article can be used as a system of measurement, every opinion columnist is equally the subject of respect and ridicule; and, in the grand scheme of things, the columnist makes no difference to the practical world at all.

Politicians are the same. These are people who believe, fervently, that they are only fulfilled when being the representatives of millions of humans, and that the lives of their fellow human beings are insignificant in comparison to their own ascendancy. That’s some seriously crazy stuff.

If your cousin acted that way, you’d stop inviting him over for dinner. If your coworker showed those characteristics, you’d report them to Human Resources. It’s no surprise, then, that when someone in your personal life is discovered to be lying, cheating, and backstabbing, it’s said they’re “playing politics”.

So the question arises, if politicians are so reprehensible and untrustworthy, why do we let them take part in politics? Shouldn’t we just do it instead?

Who ‘we’, you ask? ‘You, me, all of us,’ I say.

Much like jury duty in American, let politics be a mandatory civilian requirement as well.

Every citizen, at some point in their life, will be called upon to serve in political office, the allocation of roles being arbitrarily made using a lottery system.

So, for example, you get a letter in the mail telling you that next Tuesday, you need to report to Islamabad to serve as Minister for Foreign Affairs for a six week period.

During those six weeks, you will be paid the salary of a Foreign Minister and enjoy all the perks, but also have to perform all the duties. And if you’re worried about not knowing how to do it, don’t worry. The last few foreign ministers have included Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Hina Rabbani Khar, and Khurshid Kasuri. How difficult can it be?

And while you’re off serving as FM, Bashir Allahwalla, an auto mechanic from Toba Tek Singh, is appointed Prime Minister for the same period.

The benefit of all this, other than once and for all removing all career politicians from the public arena, is also adding some much needed diversity to the political sphere.

Currently, almost all politicians are feudal lords, powerful industrialists, or a combination of the two. There are no doctors, teachers, cooks, drivers, actors, writers, farmers, anyone really. There is no representation of real life. Yet, politicians have a say in every aspect of those lives.

Wouldn’t it be great if the next educational budget was set by, say, educators?

4. Athenian Democracy:

They say there’s no school like old school.

Therefore, if we are to continue with democracy, why not look at its origins.

The democratic government originated in ancient Greece, after which it was sold off as a franchise to neighboring nations to help Greece with its crippling debt to Germany and the rest of the EU. Or something like that.

History isn’t my strong point. Either way, what’s interesting is how democracy, particularly Athenian Democracy, was genuinely about empowering the people and involving them in the decision making process.

The way this would play out is that every time a decision was required on legislation or an executive bill, the entire population would vote on it together (by ‘entire population’, I mean ‘rich men’, of course, because if there is one thing history has been consistent about it’s the disenfranchisement of women and the poor).

Now, logistically, this was possible in small city states because you could count the number of hands, but not on a larger scale. Until, that is, the advent of the internet and cell phones.

Now, we use a combination of the two for voting purposes on a national scale all the time, without realising just how empowering that is. Currently the citizen voting system is used mainly to determine the winner of Pakistani Idol, but there is no reason why it can’t be used for governance as well.

“Should we make polio vaccinations mandatory? SMS type POL(space)Y to 250(all networks) for Yes, and POL(space)N for No.”


Those are the top four approaches to democratic reform that I settled on, after rejecting many other possibilities. Those included, “Best Nihari Recipe Democracy, Arm Wrestling Democracy, Ali Azmat Democracy, Crunchy on the Outside and Soft on the Inside Democracy, Selfie Democracy, and Cthulhu Democracy”, to name a few contenders.

One feature that seemed fairly consistent across all of them, interestingly, was decreasing the amount of time a democratic government serves in Pakistan.

I think five years is just too darn long. And it seems like everyone else agrees, when you consider just how agitated we all get by the end of the first year.

I actually don’t know many people who held the same job for five years. A child born at the start of a five-year government is doing basic math by the end of the term. That’s just too long.

It’s also why coups and protest marches happen, because you can’t just suffer through a bad government, not when the suffering is so prolonged.

To this end, I propose a three-year term of office. Three years is long enough to really become unpopular, but not long enough to do too much lasting damage, which is a best-case scenario for most elected governments.

And, isn’t that what democracy is all about, after all? Making the best of a terrible situation.