The way of democracy

Published August 16, 2017

THE presidency was rightly returned to the status of a constitutionally ceremonial office by the 18th Amendment, but under President Mamnoon Hussain the office has drifted towards something undesirable: irrelevancy. As a symbol of the federation, the president, acting on the advice of the political government, can say and do things that help promote harmony and better integration among the constituent units of the country. Unhappily, given Mr Hussain’s apparent political temperament and the desire of his political patron, Nawaz Sharif, to have a silent figurehead, the president has virtually disappeared from the national discourse. The annual speech by the president to mark the beginning of the parliamentary year, which used to be a highly anticipated, somewhat charged event, has under Mr Hussain become unremarkable and uninteresting. But on Aug 14, a different kind of speech was delivered by Mr Hussain.

Possibly at the behest of Mr Sharif or perhaps because Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s office did not issue any guidelines, Mr Hussain appeared relatively free to speak his mind. It was not as forthright a speech as could have been hoped for, but the president has raised an important point: when the people of the country have repeatedly and emphatically expressed a desire for a parliamentary form of democracy — as evidenced by the healthy and increasing participation in parliamentary elections — then why does it appear that every few years a debate is reopened about a so-called right kind of democratic system for Pakistan? Undoubtedly, the political class in the country is flawed and can be myopic and self-serving. But the political system is something bigger than and separate to the politicians who seek the public’s vote. Surely, to arrive at a better quality of candidate and more substantive system, continuity of the basic democratic framework is necessary. There is hardly likely to be a better quality of public servant if every decade or so an argument erupts again, mostly at the urging of anti-democratic forces in the country, about what system of democracy the country needs.

Indeed, the parliamentary system of democracy serves well the important and essential diversity in the country. Parliament, divided into two houses to prevent majoritarianism from taking root and requiring diverse political forces to cooperate, helps produce a democratic consensus that can survive the test of time. The presidential system or military dictatorship achieves the opposite because it is rooted in an authoritarianism about what is good for the people and the state. The president could have gone further in his assessment of the democratic deficit in the country. The demand for a better quality of democracy while frequently tinkering with the foundations of democracy is itself anti-democratic. If there are undemocratic forces at work today, the political class and the custodians of democracy should have the courage to publicly identify them.

Published in Dawn, August 16th, 2017

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