WINSTON Churchill, speaking in the House of Commons in November 1947, stated: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time....”
Democracy is a noble concept of governance. Yet, historically, its practice has been frequently flawed. Democracy’s embrace must be thus accompanied by safeguards against its susceptibility to abuse and distortion.
In ancient Greece, where democracy was born, populism unleashed the Peloponnesian Wars. Many of the Roman Empire’s unending wars were fought to quench its citizen-mob’s thirst for glory.
British democracy did not extend, until almost the end, to its extensive empire. The ‘mother of parliaments’ doggedly opposed basic human rights and self-determination for Britain’s colonies until the empire was near collapse.
How ‘free’ is the ‘common’ Pakistani voter to choose qualified and honest representatives?
The US Declaration of Independence declaimed that “all men are created equal”. But this did not include the African slaves owned by the framers of that declaration and the Bill of Rights. Nor did democracy protect the Native Americans from the most thorough genocide perpetrated in recent history.
Hitler and Mussolini came to power through the democratic process and then aborted it. Today, in Europe, the ghost of fascism and racism has been resurrected by economic recession and the influx of African and Arab refugees. Italy, Austria and Hungary are now governed by elected neo-fascists, who are also gaining electoral strength in Germany, Holland and Scandinavia. The UK’s disastrous Brexit was decided by ill-informed chauvinists in an ill-advised referendum.
‘Middle (and ignorant) America’ has elected Donald Trump with his promise to ‘make America great (and white) again’. His anti-immigration policies and trade protectionism, together with a whimsical and impetuous foreign policy, threaten to trigger another recession and erode the structures of the global cooperation.
The dangers of populist democracies are writ large in the electoral victory of Narendra Modi and the BJP in India, propelled to power by a slick electoral machine playing on false promises of prosperity combined with an appeal to the base sentiments of national chauvinism and religious hatred. The anti-Muslim card is likely to be played again, this time specifically against Pakistan’s support for India-held Kashmir’s freedom struggle, to secure Modi’s re-election next year. The threat of another India-Pakistan war is thus a byproduct of the workings of the world’s ‘largest democracy’.
Pakistan has been often ‘named and shamed’ for its patchy adherence to democracy. The debate on the virtues of military versus democratic governance is a false one. Democracy is preferable. What is required is to rectify the grave flaws in Pakistan’s democratic process and governance, and thereby avert the periodic domestic crises which have created the conditions for military intervention in the past.
In a separate speech in December 1944, Churchill opined that “the plain, humble, common man ... is the foundation of democracy” and it is vital “to this foundation that this man or woman should” be able to choose his or her elected representative “without fear, and without any form of intimidation or victimisation”.
How ‘free’ is the ‘common’ Pakistani voter to choose qualified and honest representatives? It is well known that in Pakistan’s rural areas, votes are dictated by feudal lords and tribal loyalties. ‘Electables’ are, almost by definition, anti-democratic. In many constituencies, votes are either bought by monetary or other incentives or coerced by threats of physical or pecuniary harm. Poor and uneducated voters are swayed by false promises. Religious and hate-filled sectarian slogans are invoked to influence Pakistan’s conservative electorate. Most political parties allegedly receive foreign funding designed to influence electoral results and their policies. Sections of the media have also become susceptible to monetary influence. And, sadly, some of the ‘champions of democracy’, the so-called civil society and NGOs, are themselves at least partially funded by external sources.
Beyond the vote, democracy cannot serve its purpose in an environment of pervasive corruption and open abuse of power. Accountability, adherence to the rule of law and checks and balances on executive, legislative and judicial powers are essential to the legitimacy of democratic governance.
Unfortunately, in Pakistan, there are few institutionalised mechanisms to ensure these prerequisites. Once in office, elected prime ministers and presidents — even more than military dictators — have consistently abused their power to extract privilege and profit, for themselves or their families and cronies. The legislature’s oversight functions have been circumscribed, not by the so-called establishment, but by parliament’s apex leaders themselves. Judicial recourse is cumbersome and has been often also susceptible to coercion and corruption. And when in the past, upon occasion, the judiciary displayed independence, it was ejected or, literally, ‘taken over’.
The damage done to Pakistan’s economic prospects by the accumulated excesses of the last ‘decade of democracy’ are now starkly evident: Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves are being drained by the day; exports are stagnant; investment is frozen; the rupee is in free fall. Recourse to another IMF bailout is inevitable. Yet, it will not provide sustainable reprieve unless the underlying challenges of generating sufficient revenues, eliminating wasteful expenditures, and mobilising domestic and foreign investment are not overcome.
Economic vulnerability has, in turn, eroded the nation’s ability to address the external challenges posed by a belligerent India, a chaotic Afghanistan and a hostile America.
The credibility of the July 25 elections is threatened not only by foreign-instigated terrorism but also by a political and media campaign led by leaders enmeshed in the delayed and uneven process of accountability. The prospects of a peaceful election and the expeditious formation of the next government are in doubt. It would be in the nation’s interest if the polls are held peacefully and fairly, and its results accepted by all parties.
The incoming government will have to assume enormous and immediate responsibilities: to ensure a peaceful transition; address the economic emergency; deter Indian aggression; help to achieve peace in Afghanistan; and restore cooperative relations with the US. It must also introduce effective and institutional checks against the abuse of power, ensure good and transparent governance and overcome the visible deficits in Pakistan’s democracy.
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.
Published in Dawn, July 22nd, 2018