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Politics minus culture

March 28, 2013


THE extended exercise to select a caretaker prime minister has shown that the price Pakistan is paying for its lack of a culture of democratic politics is much greater than is generally realised.

Heavens be thanked that the Election Commission of Pakistan decided the matter by a healthy majority of four to one and the result has been widely welcomed.

If the ECP had split 3-2 the winner would still have been installed on the unduly coveted gaddi but the barest possible margin of his success would have cast long shadows across his path. One wonders why the former judges constituting the ECP could not display the unanimity that distinguishes our superior judiciary these days.

While Mir Hazar Khan Khoso deserves and needs the support of all parties, it is necessary to probe the failure of the politicians to decide the matter. This is because doubts have arisen about Pakistan’s capacity to avoid having a caretaker regime for holding general elections and to properly implement the consensus-based formula devised vide the 18th Amendment.

The insistence on having caretaker governments for holding elections is not in accord with the practice in established democracies; the idea is a concession to countries where the election machinery is too weak to prevent manipulation by the government or anybody else.

Such countries are expected to not only develop institutions capable of guaranteeing fair elections but also to acquire the culture of decent and democratic competition. An end to the need for caretakers will signal Pakistan’s transition to a democratic polity that could function without crutches, such as caretaker set-ups and bayonets to protect voters. The recent conduct of Pakistan’s political elite does not encourage the hope that it is interested in setting its sights properly.

The authors of the 18th Amendment strengthened democracy by taking the power to appoint a caretaker prime minister away from the president and giving it to bipartisan parliamentary bodies. The parties in government and those in opposition were presented with an opportunity to develop the art of governance by mutual accommodation. Their failure to profit from this opening, especially the manner of their failure, must have hurt all democratic-minded citizens.

All the eight gentlemen on the list — unfortunately it became an all-male affair after the only woman mentioned in dispatches found reason to decline nomination — were eminent citizens and worthy of due respect and consideration. It was perfectly in order to judge their eligibility in terms of their intellectual calibre, competence and experience, but of this little was heard.

The most common reason for rejecting them one after another was that one side or the other doubted their ability to treat it fairly. What was under attack was a nominee’s integrity, something the unfortunate quarries might have found incompatible with a legitimate sense of self-respect. They did not fail the test; those who failed were the selectors.

Quite clearly each one of the parties charged with selecting a prime minister was not looking for a qualified helmsman but was keen to see its own man in power. Thus, everyone proposed by the ‘other’ had to be rejected by ‘us’. Narrow partisanship blocked the way to democratic accommodation.

The first requirement of a democratic dispensation is the ability to see merit in a political opponent’s argument. If everything the other party says is to be cavalierly rejected without due deliberation then Pakistan will never have the pluralist democracy it needs and the people will be condemned to go on suffering the tyranny of the majority.

The stakes are quite high. When it was decided that appointments to key constitutional offices and the superior judiciary should be made through bipartisan agreement, instead of being decided by the head of state in his discretion or in consultation with the prime minister, it was hoped that Pakistan’s political leaders will be able to recognise competent people beyond their favourites.

But they seem determined to disappoint their well-wishers. The new system of selecting judges is apparently not working smoothly and the lawyers’ criticism of the process and the attitude of selectors cannot be ignored. The selection of the chief election commissioner looked impossible until Mr Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim answered the call for a messiah. But there are not enough FGEs for all the offices to be filled through democratic consensus.

If the system meant to promote inter-party understanding on national imperatives instead of fuelling antagonisms between them is to succeed, the political leaders will have to abandon the holier-than-thou attitude.

Above all, each mainstream party’s resolve to see its favourite as the caretaker premier betrays an ingrained belief in his potential capacity to manipulate the polls. However valid this view may be, the answer does not lie in searching for superheroes, it lies in making the electoral process immune to manipulation by the government and the non-state actors known for disrupting it.

Steps in this direction have begun to be taken only recently. A permanent, multi-member election commission has been set up after many years of hesitation. It will take time to fix its democratic priorities (instead of bureaucratic wishes), to do its job in time and not at the eleventh hour, and to curtail its flights of fancy.

Some day we will be able to realise that elections and governance can only be managed by politicians and it will then be possible to relieve the judges, retired or serving, of the extra burden they have been shouldering on behalf of 180 million luckless bipeds.

Let the frustrations of the latest selection process be consigned to oblivion as an unhappy chapter of our history, along with a public resolve to contribute a new and more satisfying chapter in the years ahead.