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Weak democratic process

January 29, 2013

IT is a season of defections and of new alliances as the political parties gear up for the coming elections. Horse-trading is the name of the game and political loyalties change overnight. There is no feeling of shame as political parties embrace turncoats with aplomb, all in the name of democracy.

Putting on the back burner their election manifestos and the grave economic and political problems faced by the country and the people, the political parties are engaged in intense wheeling and dealing, vying to win over the influential and powerful ‘electables’.

For these power elites it is also all about managing and strengthening family and clan interests. They will obviously go with the highest bidder and where the opportunities lie. There is no political ideology involved when it comes to the power game.

Hence it did not come as a surprise when Makhdoom Ahmed Mehmood ditched his long affiliation with the PML-F faction led by Pir Pagara, who also happens to be his cousin, to accept the offer by President Zardari to become governor of Punjab.

The move by the crafty president was not only aimed at pulling out the rug from under Pir Pagara who had joined hands with Nawaz Sharif to undermine the PPP in Sindh, but also to strengthen his party’s electoral support base in south Punjab.

Weeks later the new governor announced at a public rally — in the presence of another cousin and former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani — that his three sons, one of them a member of the National Assembly and another a member of the Punjab Assembly, had joined the PPP. The decision was said to have been taken in the best interest of the country and democracy.

Another interesting defection to the PPP which made media headlines last week was that of Saifuddin Khosa, a PML-N member of the National Assembly. The son of Zulfikar Khosa, a senior adviser to the chief minister of Punjab, Saifuddin switched sides accusing his party of betraying its supporters. It is interesting that it took him so long and close to the elections to realise that. It is certainly more to do with local political dynamics than any principled position.

Such defections have not only benefited the PPP. The PML-N and some other political parties, abandoning their so-called principled positions, have also welcomed turncoats in their ranks.

It is not that party-hopping is something new in Pakistani politics. There was one instance where almost the entire treasury bench of the Punjab Assembly switched sides in 1993 and then returned to the ranks a week later when political fortunes turned around. Similarly, the majority of PML-N members joined the military-sponsored Q faction after the coup that ousted the Nawaz Sharif government in 1999.

These defections galore and shifting political allegiances on the eve of the upcoming general elections, which may for the first time in Pakistan’s history lead to the transfer of power from one elected government to another, do not bode well for the future of democracy.

It is indeed a watershed moment for democracy that an elected parliament will be completing its full term, though it may not be for the first time. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s elected government also completed its five-year term, but elections led to a military takeover.

What is most creditable, however, is that the system has survived defying all dire predictions, conspiracy theories and strains within. That has raised the hope of democracy finally taking root in the country with all its shortcomings and problems. But the faith of the people in the political process and elections, as a means for change, may diminish if the system remains hostage to a few powerful families and vested interests.

The upcoming elections and peaceful transition of power are critical to the evolution of a nascent democratic process. Therefore it is not only imperative that the elections are free and fair, but that they also lead to the strengthening of an inclusive institutional democracy and do not become merely an instrument for the perpetuation of a dynastic, extractive political system.

Indeed, elections are an essential part of the democratic process, but they are not the ends of democracy. What matters most is whether the system delivers to the people, how it governs and whether it establishes the rule of law. A functional and robust democracy requires a process of horizontal accountability and a strong system of checks and balances.

Unfortunately, all these have been lacking, rendering the democratic process weak and vulnerable. The absence of governance, widespread charges of corruption at high government levels, deteriorating law and order, and the economic downslide remain major sources of instability. There is still a danger of the process being interrupted in case the economic crisis deepens and there is a complete collapse of law and order in the country.

Undoubtedly, the passage of the 18th and 20th Amendments to the constitution will go a long way in strengthening the parliamentary and federal system and creating an environment for free and fair elections. But these measures alone do not fulfil the conditions required for a participatory democracy. The political structure continues to be dominated by a narrow power elite, impeding the development of an inclusive democracy.

A sense of dynastic entitlement dominates the country’s political culture. In this situation, elections become merely an instrument for the control of means of patronage. That oligarchic political culture has to change to make the political process more credible for the electorate.

It may be true that a representative democracy offers the only way forward for the country, however painstaking and slow the process of change may be. But a system controlled by a privileged few and disconnected from the aspirations of the broad masses cannot survive for long. Pakistani society is going through huge social changes with the emergence of a large middle class and a massive youth bulge. That has also generated conditions for radical political change. Will the upcoming elections make that change happen?

The writer is an author and journalist. Twitter: @hidhussain