Democracy in Pakistan, a dynamic work-in-progress

Published March 23, 2017
Casting one's vote is the first step towards strengthening a democratic existence.—Dawn
Casting one's vote is the first step towards strengthening a democratic existence.—Dawn

THE Lahore Resolution portrays a vision formulated through a consultative, democratic process.

The creation of the original State of Pakistan in 1947 and its post-1971 renewal represent a continuation — with periodic suspensions — of participative methods to achieve state stability and national cohesion.

Whether through non-official mechanisms such as political parties (most of which are internally non-democratic!) or through official elective institutions such as Parliament, the democratic principle, often elusive, remains a fundamental ideal.

This dimension was distorted by four military interventions. Yet ironically, even in the military-led phases, the democratic facet was strengthened by the promotion of elected, truly empowered Local Governments (2001-2008) and the introduction, irreversibly, of private electronic media (2002 onwards). But just as the uniquely created national concept and the equally uniquely created State of Pakistan continue to evolve from the “baby” age of 70 years, so too should democratic systems be always improved and enhanced.

Like the on-going evolution of Pakistani national identity which can be termed “Pakistaniat”, democracy in Pakistan is a dynamic work-in-progress. During the past 70 years, procedures, categories and compositions of our electoral system and elected institutions were sometimes advanced.

For instance, seats in legislatures were increased to reflect growth of population. There were also substantive improvements. For example: reserved seats for technocrats in the Senate (1985); power to the indirectly elected Senate to initiate Bills to amend the Constitution (1985): 17 per cent reserved seats for women in the Senate, National Assembly and the four Provincial Assemblies, along with 33 per cent reserved seats for women in Local Bodies (2002) — all the above four changes occurring during military-led governments.

The 18th Constitutional Amendment of 2010 is an excellent example of how civil, political, elected governments can forge a progressive consensus to decentralise power. Yet the same 18th Amendment regrettably added exclusion of non-Muslims from being eligible for election by the National Assembly as Prime Minister. This came on top of the prior exclusion of non-Muslims from eligibility for the Presidency.

Why are some of us in the 97 per cent so afraid of the only three per cent?!

To address new challenges and complexities that arise in times of rapid change and to deal effectively with issues specifi c to Pakistan’s needs we should debate and eventually adopt entirely new features, such as the ten listed below. These features could strengthen, deepen and reinforce democratic values and practices.

The ten proposed reforms will seem a wishlist. So be it. Like long journeys that begin with small steps, practical changes can begin with impractical-looking dreams. Substantive changes in electoral and democratic systems and structures require overwhelming consensus between members who are already part of existing systems.

Any reform that potentially disrupts familiar privileges and predictable continuity is likely to be strongly resisted. Yet as in some other countries and, on occasions, in Pakistan too, our legislators have transcended personal interests. We can begin by debating certain proposals so as to benefit from open, sustained public discourse and eventually shape constitutional and legal instruments for reform.

The quorum quandary

The first step should be to decisively reduce, if not eliminate altogether, the quorum problem. This is a virus which infects virtually all legislatures. Even when there is substantive business to consider, majority ruling parties or coalitions are frequently unable to ensure the minimum required attendance.

All legislators, especially directly- elected representatives, face enormous pressures on their time to address voters’ and constituencies’ problems, myriad issues which require personal involvement.

However, there is absolutely no justification for the recurring tendency of the vast majority of legislators to remain absent from forums in most sittings. Being elected to a legislature is one of the highest honours that can be bestowed.

Persistent absenteeism insults those very citizens who have granted this distinction to their representatives. To deal with extreme apathy, extreme disincentives would be fully justified. These can be heavy fi nes, loss of voting privileges, and expulsion for an x number of future sittings. Different options can be candidly debated before adoption.

Make voting compulsory

A second critical need is to make representation in legislatures authentically participative, and representative of the electorate. The country’s entire electoral system is an unthinking imitation of the first-past-the-post system used by Westminster and widely practised, as in the USA, India and elsewhere. But merely because the system is practised elsewhere does not oblige us to follow suit.

Our conditions require innovation or adaptation. To illustrate the virtual absurdity of this system, let us assume there are five candidates in a given constituency. Four candidates get more votes on a combined basis than the fifth candidate who leads the rest simply because of obtaining say, just one vote more than the second highest competitor.

Yet the fifth candidate goes on to represent all those who voted against him and who are larger in number than those who voted for her or him. To cap it all, only about 50 per cent of the registered voters bother to vote. Which means the winner also represents those who did not vote at all. To make the first-past-the-post system both non-participative and un-representative of public opinion.

Two reforms can redress this anomaly. One: to make voting compulsory for all citizens aged 18 and above, as is done in over 20 countries of the world, including Australia, Argentina, Bolivia, Belgium, Egypt, Greece, Singapore. In such a system, there are penalties in case of failure to fulfil an essential duty in a democratic state i.e. to vote, to elect representatives and thus take individual self-responsibility for the composition and performance of legislators.

Two: it is equally necessary to allow for a second round of voting in situations when the candidate with the highest number of votes has secured less than 50 per cent of the total registered votes. In a second round, of, say, the top two vote-getters, only the candidate securing a minimum of 51 per cent of the total registered votes should be eligible to represent a constituency.

A directly-elected Senate

The third reform is required to address the fact that Pakistan is possibly the world’s most asymmetrical federation. Punjab contains more people than all the other three provinces combined. Another province — Balochistan — comprises an area almost as large as the other three provinces. But it has the smallest population. A directly-elected Senate with financial powers would alone be able to ensure equity and equanimity between all constituent units of the Federation.

In the existing directly-elected National Assembly with sole final financial powers, the large numbers from Punjab give an unfair advantage to one province alone over the other three less populated provinces.

With a directly- elected Senate comprising equal numbers from each province, the two principles of population, and of Federalism, would be evenly balanced with both Federal Legislatures representing direct-voting choices.

A directly-elected President

A fourth reform worth consideration is to enable the President to be directly- elected. At one stroke, this would promote inter-provincial convergence and national cohesion. When a Presidential candidate would need to secure significant numbers of votes in, say, Gwadar, Balochistan as well as, say, in Gawalmandi, Lahore, we would move faster and closer towards national integration.

Currently, as per the Parliamentary system, a Prime Minister, theoretically, needs not win a single vote from any of the smaller provinces such as Balochistan, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

As long as she or he wins from a single constituency from Punjab and as long as his party wins a majority of seats, the individual has a good chance to become Prime Minister of a State comprising four provinces, without voters in three provinces placing their confidence in him.

To date, the country has had only indirectly-elected Presidents e.g. President Ayub Khan via the basic democrats process or Presidents Zia-ul-Haq and General Pervez Musharraf through referendums. When residents of all provinces become directly connected to the election of the Head of State who would also be the Chief Executive, the federated state would be enormously strengthened. To allow for the virtues of a Parliamentary system to co-exist with a directly- elected President, adaptation could be attempted from the French model.

A shared Presidency

The fifth suggestion arises as an alternative to a directly-elected Presidency and is associated with twin considerations. Firstly, to give each constituent unit of the Federation a continuous involvement at the highest level of the State. Secondly, to reduce the role of superficial charisma. This could be achieved by adapting the Swiss model whereby members of a Council of Ministers that represents the constituent units of the Swiss State share the term of office with each member becoming Head of State for a given period e.g. 12 months.

Directly-elected women legislators

Sixth: while the reserved seats for women in all three tiers of the legislative sectors have made a distinct difference in giving women a new political profile, there is a need to consider options by which, on a rotational basis, a certain percentage of seats could be contested only by women candidates. This would endow far greater legitimacy, authority and credibility to women’s participation in political affairs than does their participation through reserved seats.

The seats earmarked for women-only candidates could be shifted across provinces over several elections spread over a 15 to 20-year period so that all constituencies are able to provide opportunities to capable women leaders.

Local is focal

Instead of describing Local Government bodies as the “lowest tier”, the seventh reform should reverse the whole sequence by placing the grassroots level, community- based tier at the apex of democratic structures. And, by holding their polls before the Federal and Provincial polls.

It is only when these institutions in which citizens and their representatives are able to frequently interact with each other at a neighbourhood level, become truly empowered and entrenched will we be able to build purposeful structures at the Provincial and Federal levels.

Health and Education — national, not provincial alone

Though the 18th Amendment substantively devolved power from the Federal level to the Provincial, there appears to have been a dangerous abdication by the Federal Government of responsibility for the social sector, including the vital subjects of education, health and population growth.

The eighth measure would require the Centre to retain a holistic, harmonious, unifying national vision for the qualitative nurturing and well-being of citizens, without interfering in, or curbing the authority of the Provincial Governments.

Political parties reforms

The ninth and tenth reforms should deal with political parties. One possible measure is a formula by which political parties that fulfi l criteria of genuine representation and enjoy a given number of certifi ed members, receive funding from the public exchequer. As practised in several countries, state funding of political parties, in whole or in part, could eliminate the scope for corruption and under-hand practices by which illicit money and political parties are synonymous. Candidates routinely grossly under-report actual expenditures on election campaigns.

Creation of a Political Parties Commission

The tenth measure should be the creation of a Political Parties Commission. While the Election Commission does presently register and validate political parties, it already has a vast, multi- layered responsibility to conduct elections and deal with the numerous pre-poll, poll and postpoll issues. Whereas, a Commission exclusively tasked with the monitoring of parties would make a notable contribution to the evolution of stable democratic organisations.

This body would exclusively regulate the functioning of political parties, conduct internal party elections to prevent manipulation, discourage perpetuation of family dynasties and cliques, demand complete transparency and accountability, and encourage equity and fairness in the award of party tickets and in the formulation of party policies.

To guarantee that such a Commission acts impartially, political parties could be represented in the Membership of the Commission which could also include independent eminent citizens, serving or former judges, and administrators.

Doubts probably already exist for each of the above ten proposals. Just as the likelihood that for every possible solution, there is a new problem. The critical task is to dispassionately examine each option to refine and enhance democracy, to move from 1940 to 2040 — and beyond — with processes and systems that cope with new realities and challenges.

The writer, a former Senator & Federal Minister, is a Member of the Senate Forum for Policy Research.



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