Dark days for democracy

Published February 3, 2024
The writer is a former police chief
The writer is a former police chief

THESE are difficult, frightening times. In the words of Martha Beck (The Way of Integrity, 2021), “A value system built on avarice, ambition, and oppression shows up in unprincipled leaders, corrupt groups, and then entire national cultures.”

Unfortunately, Pakistan has lost its way of integrity. The current caretaker regime is complicit in punishing dissent and criminalising opposition, jailing and torturing people. Democracy is ominously passing through dark days on the eve of the national polls. Are we going through a ‘democratic recession’ as Larry Diamond, a Stanford professor puts it: “There is a spirit of the times, and it is not a democratic one.”

In my last piece in this paper on Jan 8, I had pinned hopes on two chiefs for ensuring that the national polls on Feb 8 will be free and fair. One honourable chief ensured that a major political party continued to be dismantled by another chief heading the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP).

The party symbol verdict by a Supreme Court bench was widely criticised as denying a level playing field to one of the major mainstream political parties. The principle of fair play was seen as having been grossly violated. After watching the intense and gruelling display of verbal onslaught in the apex court over a weekend, I was willing to bet that the party in question would not be denied its ballot symbol and may well be directed to hold fresh intra-party polls in accordance with their own constitution. The decision led to a burst of dismay followed by a ripple of woe.

The conduct of another chief is beyond any doubt fraught with double standards. The former bureaucrat, heading the ECP, is living up to his reputation of actively promoting a partisan political agenda. Crude ways have been adopted to literally disenfranchise a huge chunk of the electorate by denying their preferred candidates a level playing field.

The electoral watchdog is blatantly ignoring what the current chiefs of police are involved in: massive transgressions in violating the basic human rights of citizens. The rallies of the targeted party are disrupted, their workers arrested, the privacy of their homes violated with impunity. There is no one to check such acts of persecution. The courts are helpless as their lawful commands are disregarded with contempt.

As a former police chief, my head hangs in shame at seeing some police commanders stoop so low to please the ‘invisible forces’ of the deep state. They lack the courage to say no to the illegal manoeuvres of political engineering. They see their role only as serving the powers that be.

Meanwhile, there has been a report in a daily paper quoting the army chief at a function where he is said to have interacted with students from various universities in the public and private sector. He was reported to have said that people should carefully choose their representatives and asked whether political parties should be permitted to break the country and if people should have to wait till the end of the five-year term.

At the same event, the youth were reportedly told that it was not possible to govern virtually, as “it must be performed on the ground” and that decisions should not be based on what is displayed on mobile screens, an apparent reference to social media.

The choice is simple: keep your head down and survive, or speak out and suffer.

This news item reported him as saying that the army paid the most taxes in the country, with half its budget going to the government in taxes, and that no other army anywhere was functioning on such a low budget. The remarks, it was reported by the paper, also centred on Pakistan’s financial prospects with $10 trillion worth of reserves in the shape of mines, minerals, and earth metals, in contrast to $128 billion in foreign debt. It was pointed out, according to the report, that the military-run Green Pakistan Initiative would end the country’s reliance on imported food and make it self-sustaining.

Many questions have arisen following this event. One of the foremost on the minds of some observers has been whether a public political discourse was needed by the head of an ‘apolitical’ institution on the eve of national polls, while some have also asked whether the message for the youth was to not be led astray by social media and Western influence on our culture.

With the challenges to security and territorial integrity on the rise, perhaps remarks that can be construed as political reflections are best left to those within political circles.

The real issues facing the nation are: the elite capture indicative in the widening gap between the rich and poor; stagflation and economic deprivation; lack of security and justice; corruption in public institutions; unaccountable intelligence agencies; poor governance; inadequate health and education facilities; and above all, lack of inclusive democratic practices.

In the current environment of spin and cynicism, the choice given to the people is simple: keep your head down and survive, or raise your head and challenge the atrocities and suffer the consequences.

The response must be a principled one: it should be refusal to be part of an immoral, devious regime and a commitment to bring a change through ballot, by being brave enough to reach the polling stations on Feb 8 and casting their votes. Then it would be the test of those who will count the votes. Will they defy the choice of the electorate or become part of a shameless legacy of yet another rigged election?

We should not forget a perennial truth: that the potential tools of democracy are integrity, public trust and transparency. As Margaret Mead famously said, thoughtful and committed citizens can change the world. “Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Let the people of Pakistan freely choose their leaders.

The writer is a former police chief.

Published in Dawn, February 3rd, 2024

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