THE subject of democracy is a most confused and confusing debate, where it is easy to confuse form with substance, concept with practice and illusion with reality. The fundamental concept of democracy is self-governance. A democratic system believes power resides in the people who delegate it to their representatives as a trust so that it can be exercised on their behalf. This is self-governance. And it is realised through form and substance.
Form is electoral democracy, comprising a constitutional framework, the process of free and fair elections and an institutional structure including parliament, the judiciary and media. The substance consists of policies executed through institutions that enjoy autonomy and integrity, supported by strong rule of law, and a just social order. The policies must be beneficial to the people. To put it starkly: were the people to decide themselves without intermediaries would they choose policies that bring them harm?
But many people live in confusion, believing democracy begins and ends with form. How a country is run is considered a governance issue. That is a flawed perception. In fact, good governance is central to the realisation of the concept of democracy. That is the substance without which democracy will be hollow.
There prevails more confusion between the concept of a democratic system and its practice. If a country with a democratic form is failing we conclude that democracy itself has failed. Without realising that it is the practice not the concept that has failed, we start asking whether democracy is indeed a good system.
There are many impediments to democracy.
The test of a country’s democratic credentials lies in its policies — whether they observe democratic norms and benefit the people. If Pakistan lacks good polices it does not mean democracy has failed but that there is no democracy worth the name in the country.
Practice falls short of the concept everywhere including in America but a country may qualify as a democracy if it meets some minimum criteria. We need to have a shared perception of this criteria by which we can judge a country to be democratic. Otherwise, we will keep blaming the concept for the failure of practice.
By not establishing this common understanding we become victim of another confusion — between illusion and reality. Without a common understanding a country would never quite know if it is failing as a democracy. It would continue to be under the delusion that with the passage of time and repeated elections democracy perfects itself. When this does not happen people despair of democracy, and long for an authoritarian system or a revolution.
Revolutions are generally bad except those that emerge from a national resistance or people’s movement involving a collective mobilisation of society as in China and Vietnam. Nor is an authoritarian/technocratic system the alternative. It may spur economic growth but often at the cost of human freedoms and the political process. It tends to be centralised and monopolistic neglecting or reinforcing regional disparities, regressive social structure and power imbalances.
With regional, linguistic and cultural plurality in Pakistan and strong local identities seeking self-realisation, democracy is a necessity not a choice for the sake of national unity, political stability and economic development.
But there are impediments to democracy in Pakistan. A misplaced focus on faith has fostered extremism and hindered openness and tolerance. Feudal dominance has inhibited education, gender equality, openness to modern ideas and a competitive political process. And the military’s pre-eminence has led to the dominance of security over development and challenged civilian supremacy. This is hardly a life-supporting environment for democracy.
Countries change not because they have become ‘democratic’. They become democratic because they have changed. In many ways, democratisation is a painstaking struggle indistinguishable from state and nation-building. Progressive movements and the civil rights campaign in America, political and social movements in Europe and the Meiji Restoration in Japan are a few instances. The creation of a true democracy is thus a revolutionary struggle. And it must begin with the realisation that the democracy we have will not solve our problems regardless of who is in power.
How will the change occur? That is the subject of a much wider and complex debate. Pakistan has enormous strengths — remarkable resilience, faith-based optimism, a sense of exceptionalism, a vibrant media and a promising civil society. Can Pakistan do it? Yes it can. Whether it will is arguable. If it doesn’t, Pakistan may continue to live as a handicapped nation: programmed to survive but not progress.
The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct professor at Georgetown University and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore.
Published in Dawn, December 30th, 2021