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Challenges to democracy

May 23, 2018


DEFYING the doubters, the National Assembly will complete its five-year term next week. Notwithstanding the thunderbolts that frequently jolted the political process, the system has survived. Transition from one elected government to another now appears a reality, though there are still a few hurdles to cross.

It will indeed be a high point in the country’s rocky democratic journey. These five years like the previous ones have also been extremely tumultuous, in which yet another elected prime minister has bitten the dust. The unceremonious ouster of arguably the country’s most powerful elected figure continues to cast long shadows over the fragile democratic political process.

Already barred from the electoral process for life, the exit may mark the end of Nawaz Sharif’s long yet chequered political career, though not the end of the Sharif political dynasty. The elections would certainly lead to a changing of the guard but can that bring any qualitative transformation in the system?

It remains to be seen whether the much-touted transition could change the existing power dynamics and bring political stability to the country or would it result in further weakening of the elected bodies, with non-elected institutions filling the void. The apprehensions about installation of a hybrid political system with the military and judiciary becoming an informal part of the power troika are not without reason. In fact the country is already experiencing this creeping phenomenon.

Instead of an improved quality of democracy, Pakistan has been sliding in the opposite direction.

It is not just imbalance of power and persistent confrontation among various institutions of the state that has caused the disorder; the political leadership too is responsible for undermining the democratic process. Parliament has been reduced to a chaotic debating club with the leadership showing no deference to the elected house.

Members and top political leaders alike show little respect for legislative proceedings as attendance frequently falls way below the 25pc mark leading to premature adjournments and even prorogation. During the four years when he was in power, Sharif seldom attended parliamentary sessions. His slogan “give respect to the vote” sounds hollow, given his utter contempt for the elected forums.

Some of the opposition parties too have been responsible for undermining the role of parliament. The PTI boycotted the National Assembly for almost one year and Imran Khan never refrained from expressing his disdain for the elected forum. He rarely appeared in the house, even after the party ended the boycott.

Moreover, when they did deign to be present in the assembly, parliamentarians would hardly participate in debate, even on important national and foreign policy issues thereby rendering the legislative body ineffective. This has also led to the inability of the lawmakers to resolve political and institutional crises. Unsurprisingly, the country failed to make a steady transition towards improved democracy.

Despite the fact that Pakistan has entered the longest uninterrupted period of elected civilian rule in its history, democracy appears to be weakening. While elected governments and political leadership ceded space in policy spheres, the military has increased its overreach into areas outside of its professional domain.

With parliament and the civilian law-enforcement agencies having been rendered ineffective by the elected leadership, weak governance has allowed the judiciary to extend its role. Some judges too appear to have succumbed to populist pressures when they give mostly unwarranted observations during the course of judicial proceedings.

Lack of internal policy cohesion and focus on national issues has further weakened the democratic process. One of the factors obstructing the growth of a democratic culture and ethos has been the absence of democracy within the political parties. Most have turned into family enterprises or revolve around personalities.

There is no tradition of internal party debate on critical policy issues and it all depends on the whims of the leaders. Party elections are a sham and conducted merely for the sake of fulfilling a legal formality. The swiftness with which politicians change their party affiliations overnight for the sake of expediency, and the manner in which political parties woo so-called ‘electables’ illustrate the lack of principles in our political culture.

Instead of a steady transition towards an improvement in the quality of democracy, Pakistan has been sliding in the opposite direction more rapidly since 2013 when the PML-N returned to power and Nawaz Sharif was elected as prime minister for a record third time.

According to a report by the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, while the quality of democracy in 2013 scored its highest in four years at 54pc, the scores slid 10 percentage points in 2014 to 44pc, rose a little to 50pc in 2015 and slipped again to 46pc at the end of 2016. The situation has become worse in the past two years.

The challenge to democracy in Pakistan has worsened because there is a lack of crucially required reforms. There has not been any substantive improvement in the fundamental functioning of key democratic institutions. The failure of parliament in resolving issues such as the Panama scandal and the inability of the government to take the lead in formulating national security and foreign policies have further eroded civilian control.

The government’s failure in institutionalising a consultative decision-making process too has been a major factor in the expansion of space for unelected institutions such as the military and judiciary. Another aspect of the systemic failure of democratic governance is its inability to deliver on critical economic, social and political issues. That has resulted in waning public faith in democracy.

These are the vital issues plaguing the country’s political process. The coming elections are critical to the future of democracy in the country. Following this exercise, the new parliament and the government will have to address these key issues in order to consolidate governance and deliver to the electorate. It is apparent that democracy cannot function without the rule of law. There is a need for fundamental structural reform to achieve these objectives. Will our leaders learn from their own shortcomings and take the country to democratic stability?

The writer is an author and journalist.

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, May 23rd, 2018