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Imagining real democracy

November 16, 2011


AKBAR Zaidi rightly argued in this paper recently that Pakistan’s governance problems under elected governments reflect failures of particular regimes rather than democracy, since Pakistan is yet to experience genuine democracy.

What is genuine democracy? Democracy is the government of the people by the people for the people. ‘Of and by the people’ means that state power must be attained democratically through elections. ‘For the people’ means that power is subsequently exercised democratically. Real democracy exists only when state power is attained and exercised democratically.

The concepts of democratic transition and consolidation help in unpacking the black box of democracy further. Democratic transition represents the first move towards democracy, i.e. a country’s first free elections with near-universal suffrage, competition and acceptance. Thus, it refers to how state power is attained. Pakistan’s democratic transition started with the ‘Pakistani Spring’ of March 1969 which overthrew Ayub and subsequently fostered free elections with near-universal suffrage and competition. Unfortunately, the transition was imperfect as the elections results were not universally accepted and caused Pakistan’s bifurcation.

Democratic consolidation consists of democratic stability and quality. Democratic stability occurs when democracy is accepted as the only game in town, and free elections with near-universal suffrage, competition and acceptance are held regularly. Pakistan’s post-transition history poignantly reflects its struggles with democratic stability. Half of those 40 years have been spent under military rule. The seven elections held since then have all fallen short of global standards. Democracy is still not seen as the only game in town by the military and militants. It is not clear whether this government will complete its term and whether the next government will emerge democratically.

Finally, democratic quality means that power is exercised democratically after elections. It consists of six sub-dimensions. First, the elected government’s power must not be unconstitutionally fettered, functionally or geographically. Functionally, Pakistan’s security policy always resides with the military while donors often exercise undue influence on economic policy. Geographically, parts of Pakistan often become ‘no-go’ for governments while many rural elites maintain their own mini-kingdoms.

Second, the flip side of power not being fettered unconstitutionally is that it should be fettered constitutionally through its distribution. Horizontally, it must be distributed across the executive, legislature, judiciary and political parties. Vertically, it should be devolved provincially and locally. Shorn of considerable power unconstitutionally, Pakistani central executives become reluctant to share further power constitutionally. While the judiciary has succeeded in wresting some constitutional power, other horizontal institutions remain powerless. The 18th Amendment represents the first salvo in achieving provincial autonomy. However, local governments, toothless even earlier, are in limbo presently.

The third requirement is the rule of law, with clear, non-discriminatory laws and an efficient justice system to apply them to public and public officials. Pakistan still uses many anachronistic British-era laws and has added other laws which discriminate against women and minorities. While the Supreme Court has breathed fire (two-pronged) into the judicial system, lower courts do not provide efficient justice while the police are notoriously corrupt. Finally, public officials escape justice because of NAB’s disempowerment.

Fourth, elected governments should guarantee civic liberty and equality. Beyond discriminatory laws, large sections of Pakistan’s population, especially women and minorities, have lost these rights to non-state actors, e.g. militants and landlords. Even elected governments exhibit neither the capacity nor the willingness to redress these usurped rights.

Fifth, real democracy requires policies which enhance economic equity, i.e. equality of opportunities for all and safety nets for the vulnerable. Beyond populist rhetoric and makeshift programmes, economic policies even under elected Pakistani governments remain elitist, with little attempt to tax the rich adequately and implement socio-economic programmes.

Sixth, real democracy requires vigorous feedback loops from the electorate to the elected in between elections. These loops include electoral mechanisms and civil society activities. Pakistani media has definitely become vigorous lately though not necessarily mature. CNN transformed news from what had happened in the past to what is happening presently through on-time ground coverage. Going one step further, certain Pakistani media outlets have miraculously transformed news into what will happen in the future, through armchair analysis. Consequently, much of their news consists of predictions, e.g., about when the government will fall.

So, it seems strange to blame democracy when Pakistan has never experienced it. Clearly, high democratic quality, as defined above, could help Pakistan resolve many knotty problems, e.g. corruption and poverty. Why has Pakistan struggled to attain real democracy? Some would argue, partly validly, that the frequent interruptions of democracy have undermined its quality.

However, more crucial is the absence of certain societal characteristics, i.e., high education, incomes, urbanisation and meritocracy. These characteristics foster democratic quality by strengthening the feedback loops unleashed by civil society activities. These factors, in turn, are facilitated by increasing economic opportunities for common people. While poor governance hampers such opportunities in Pakistan, industrious Pakistanis escape this vicious circle of stagnation by migrating abroad and subsequently sending remittances, which create further opportunities. The process will be slow but such improvised opportunities represent Pakistan’s best chance of attaining real democracy and good governance.

Any mention of the fact that Pakistan’s societal characteristics may not be immediately suitable for real democracy provides fodder to imaginative minds looking forever for alternatives. Martial law has lost charm because of its repeated failures, but a controlled form of presidential democracy where the vast majority is disqualified from not only competing but even voting seems to be the current favourite. This option seems suspiciously similar to Ayub Khan’s failed experiments.

Another favourite in some circles is the ‘khilafat’ option. In Muslim history, righteous khilafat lasted merely a few decades. Which is more likely to emerge in today’s Pakistan? Some people never learn from history it seems. To paraphrase Thatcher’s comment about capitalism, there is no alternative to democracy. While this slogan is certainly not true about capitalism, applied to democracy, there is no escaping from this simple truth.

The writer is a political economist at the University of California, Berkeley.