Democracy for sale – The Express Tribune

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The public must watch their elected representatives on TV, defend their shifting positions without a shred of shame
Democracy has failed to evolve in Pakistan even after more than seven decades. It has rather deteriorated, primarily because the same old dynasties are still in control of our polity. While these political dynasties lack the will, vision and capacity to reform, they don’t either face resistance or pressure from any relevant quarters, like the civil society, to reform. In recent weeks, our politics has turned into something that would even shame flesh and slave traders. The public must be watching their elected representatives on TV talk-shows defending their shifting positions without a shred of shame or remorse.
Once again, democracy has been put on sale in our country for mere power grab, and our so-called leaders expect the public to support them. It looks as if the current lot of our leaders has learnt it from their forefathers who did not mind doing anything to rise to power: they had welcomed martial laws; strengthened the hands of military dictators by joining their unconstitutional regimes; formed anti-government alliances like Islami Jamhuri Ittehad (1988); received funds from power brokers, like the CEO of a private bank in the 1990s that led to the bank’s collapse; etc. For details on what is called the Mehran Bank Scandal, just read the short order of the Supreme Court of 18 October 2012. In a nutshell, the top court ruling says: Ghulam Ishaq Khan, President of Pakistan, General Aslam Baig, Commander-in-Chief of army, and General Asad Durrani, head of ISI, had rigged the 1990 election to help Nawaz Sharif led IJI to win the election and it made Nawaz Sharif prime minister of the country for the first time.
It was, however, not the first time — or for that matter the last — that the generals and a set of power-hungry politicians collaborated. Whenever, an opposition has launched a movement against a government, it is either initiated by the establishment of the day or by the opposition with the help of disgruntled MPs belonging to the ruling lot. Most of the time, a government is formed, it is a result of the collaboration between the opposition and the establishment. However, after government formation, the beneficiaries (politicians) are seen blaming their benefactors (establishment) for “interfering” in civilian matters. Why? Most likely due to qualitative shift in the equation of power relationship.
A little explanation is required here. Every parliamentary party, including those on the opposition benches, are part of the governance as they are members or even chairs of sub-committees of elected houses, but they are not part of the government. This imbalance is perceived as a danger by the opposition which often leads to tension between the treasury and the opposition. Danger turns into a threat which, in power politics, is perceived as a potential blow worth neutralising.
Since almost all political parties in the country lack street power and popular base (consider the tiny vote bank of major parties), they rely heavily on two things to meet the threat — money and organised power. While the parties have a lot of money, they fall well short on organised power. After overthrowing a government and winning an election, it is the opposition party of the previous tenure that normally rises to the power corridors. With that, new power dynamics emerge. The new ruling party/coalition mistakenly believes that now have all the power and those having helped them rise to the power would be subservient to them. This causes stress in civil-military relations, which often leads to political instability, and economic disruption. Every time we witnessed a “struggle” for restoration of democracy culminating in success, those grabbing power proved worse than those they dislodged. For the last seven decades we have been trapped in this vicious cycle. The ongoing political tug of war is not different. The fact of the matter is that politicians have caused more harm to civilian governments than to military dictators. A little arithmetic will reveal the truth.
No wonder, working classes and intelligentsia have alienated themselves from the political process, including the current campaign by the opposition parties. To a large extent, the political elites are responsible for this situation. For instance, instead of organising political parties at the grassroots level, the civilian elites worked to corrupt civil society. Instead of allowing student unions, they established youth chapters of political parties run by sycophants. Instead of strengthening trade unions (the backbone of democracy), they opted for bribing their leaders by inducting them into the labour wings of political parties. Instead of mainstreaming women in party structures, they formed separate women wings controlled by daughters and wives of male leaders. Instead of promoting values, they have encouraged corrupt practices. To divert attention of the masses from their unfulfilled promises, new promises were made even more vociferously. Despite the Supreme Court orders, public demand and media pressure, the ruling parties conveniently ignore the rule of law. Instead of holding party elections, office-bearers are nominated from top to bottom.
Under Chapter XI, section 208 of the Elections Act 2017, every registered party must hold internal party elections on a regular basis. Except section 208, every other section of the Act is implemented by the Election Commission. The political parties that don’t practise democracy internally can’t run the country democratically.
The same mindset has infested the civil society too. Just see how civil society organisations work. The heads of even NGOs behave like feudal elite. And the practice of vote buying is rampant even in the election to pick the office bearers of NGOs, trade unions, association of traders, etc.
The biggest casualty of this politics of elite is that the civil society has lost the moral authority to observe the conduct of politicians. And this has further encouraged the corrupt elite to blatantly indulge in illegal and immoral practices like horse-trading. A provincial house in Islamabad is today’s Chhanga Manga. The practice of vote-buying in by-elections and Senate elections has polished the skills of its practitioners, who are now active vis-à-vis the no-trust move against the PM being tabled in the National Assembly on coming Monday. A success would further erode the public trust in politics and democracy. Civil society and the intelligentsia must play their role in promoting norms and ethics in politics.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 26th, 2022.
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