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Democracy In Pakistan; Hopes And Hurdles

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Photo: AFP.

This Eid while everyone is trying to stay inside to avoid the new monster of the 21st century(COVID-19 infection), an elderly woman in the neighborhood tried to teach the children the exact meaning of democracy. She asked everyone in the house what to cook for dinner.

Four of all six children in the house voted yes for rice whilst the remaining two selected some food items other than rice. The woman decided to go by majority opinion and dished out rice for all. Two of the children who opposed the idea expressed displeasure for not having the dish of their choice.

The elderly woman didn’t show discontent over the matter and told them that disagreement of the ideas and thoughts is the true spirit of democracy and democratic values. She, adamantly, apprised that true spirit of democracy lies when the opinion of people is preferred in a country the way their (children’s) opinion got respected in deciding the meal.

A study conducted across 167 countries by The Economist Intelligence Unit reveals that 49.3 percent of the world’s population lives in some form of democracy while only 4.5 percent of people live in full democracies.

These countries were rated on criteria encompassing civil liberties, the electoral process, pluralism, government functionality, political participation, etc. Unfortunately, Pakistan was ranked on the 108th position out of 167 countries’ list under the head of “Hybrid Democracy”.

Democracy in Pakistan is like a blend of goods and evils. It has many hopes associated with it, and all the same, it has to confront many challenges as well. The absence of true democratic spirit in political parties, rampant corruption, poor decentralization of power and authority, and fragile conditions of the country’s economy present a horrible face of the democratic system in Pakistan.

As far as hopes are concerned the democracy in Pakistan has many hopes associated with it. Successful completion of democratic tenures of governments in the recent past, increasing political awareness among the masses, the emergence of new local government systems are not all but a very few of the hopes accompanying the sustenance of democracy in Pakistan.

Before discussing the hopes and hurdles associated with democracy in detail, we must go through the meaning and types of democracy. Democracy is often described as a rule of people, by the people, and for the people. It is a form of government in which the people have the authority to choose their governing legislation.

Merriam Webster dictionary defines democracy as the government by the people especially: the rule of the majority. It is a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections. 

There are two main types of democracy around the world, including direct and representative. However, several governments offer their own specific take on democracy.

In a direct democracy, people vote directly for any change in laws and government. Everything from fixing the roads to raising taxes requires the people’s vote. Switzerland is an example of direct democracy. The government of Switzerland uses popular initiatives, optional referendums and mandatory referendums to oppose amendments and demand bills.

Representative democracy is the most common form of democracy across the world. The people living in a representative democracy have to cast their vote in the favor of people who will represent them at the regional, legislative, and executive levels.

This small group of politicians is supposed to represent the requirements, and thoughts of the people that voted them in. Representative democracy can be further classified into presidential democracy, parliamentary democracy, authoritarian democracy as well as religious democracy.

Hopes related to democracy in Pakistan are ostensibly high. The first and foremost factor that brings hope to the democracy in Pakistan is the successful completion of democratic tenures in the last decade. Many times democracy in Pakistan was derailed either due to military coups is due to unreasonable power and authority given to the president to dismiss the National Assembly. Contrary to this, the last democratic governments have completed their inhouse duration successfully paving the way for continuity of democracy.

Another prospect association with the democracy in Pakistan is the increased voter turnout rate in Elections. FAFEN highlighted that May 11, 2013 polls in 266 constituencies recorded an overall voter turnout rate at 54.7 percent, a substantial increase as compared to the previous elections of 2008.

The 2018 general elections held on 25 July in the country recorded an even higher voter turnout rate at 55.8 percent, according to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). This increase in overall voters’ turnout rate is a positive sign for the sustenance of democracy in Pakistan.

Increased participation by women in politics is also a sign of hope for democracy in this country. Although, the number of women elected to political positions is still low. In Pakistan, few seats are allotted to women. Of all candidates in the 2018 elections, only five percent were women.

Of these 171 women candidates, eight won seats. Hopefully, women voter turnout in the 2018 general elections stood at 40% with 21 of 46 million registered women voters participating in polling.

Moreover, Pakistan is the country that has the first woman to head a democratic government. Benazir Bhutto served as the two times Prime Minister of Pakistan. Firstly she’s been in office from 1988 to 1990 and again from 1993 to 1996.

The increased political activism among the people is yet another hope pertaining to democracy in Pakistan. Almost, every political party in the country has its own social media wing. The increased use of social media platforms for the political discussion by the politicians and the general public is making people politically more vigilant and informed about government policies and actions.

Things like that also propel the administrative circles to take timely action against the odds that previously wasn’t the case. The dissemination of instant information with deeper penetration of smartphones and other telecommunication devices also helped in spreading timely and robust information.

The literacy and numeracy skill development has also improved the political awareness among the masses. People now pretty much understand the importance of human development spending and question the unwise spending by successive governments.

The revival of the institutions of local government is also one of the aspirations concerning democracy in a third-world country like Pakistan. The system of local government is all about the devolution of power and authority which is an important pillar of democracy and its survival. Local government in Pakistan is protected by the Articles 32 and 140-A, and each province also has its own local-government-enabling legislation and ministries responsible for implementation. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa system has a city/district tensile/union council and village council form of local democracy. It is the only province in the country to have the Village Council form of local democratic set-up.

There are many hurdles in the smooth running of democracy in Pakistan. One of the main hurdles to which the democracy in Pakistan is confronted with is the absence of a true democratic spirit in political parties. The true spirit of democracy as many political scientists suggest lies in the inviolability of the constitution, the sovereignty of parliament, the supremacy of civilian rule, protection of fundamental rights, transparent elections, free media, and an independent judiciary. Unfortunately, our democratic system has always lingered and has never enjoyed the true spirit of democracy.

The true spirit of parliamentary democracy is absent in the country in the sense that parliament is unable to play its role as many important decisions regarding the governance in the country are taken either out of the parliament or according to the whims of other stakeholders. Parliamentary discussions many a time in our country went out of the way and several politicians on record have used inappropriate language against rivals. Things like that do nothing to prosper democracy but damage it instead.

On and off military interventions into the system of politics affected the smooth running of democracy in Pakistan. There have been several military coups in the political history of Pakistan badly interrupting the democratic values. These military regimes are often justified on the grounds of civil-military connivances, presence of administrative vacuums as well as threats to the national security.

Whatever be the reasons behind the military’s entry into the political office, the consequences have been longstanding and deplorable. The one-man show of power greatly arrests the people’s right to govern and participate in decision-making at almost every level. It’s totally up to the whims of military ruler what exactly he’s going to decide about the running of different institutions as well as relations of the country with foreign powers.

The separation of the East Wing of the country on the fateful day of December 16, 1970, the decision of President Musharraf to assist in the US’s version of the “war on terror” and that too on the conditions of the later are nothing but the absurdities of forceful military intervention into the politics

Illiteracy and poverty also pose serious challenges to democracy in Pakistan. There’s a famous saying that democracy and illiteracy can’t move together. The literacy rate is very low in Pakistan. It has declined from 60 percent to 58 percent, according to the recent Economic Survey of Pakistan. People with low levels of literacy lack electoral political awareness.

This lack of awareness leads to unwise and short-sighted decisions at the time of elections. Resultantly, the state and its people remain deprived of the most suitable persons to govern. Being uneducated people don’t realize the importance of a democratic regime and begin to advocate the alternate ways of governing the masses.

The prevalence of dynastic culture in political parties and the absence of effective intra-party elections also challenge the democratic norms. About all major political parties in Pakistan including Pakistan People’s Party, PML-N, PTI, MQM have promoted and shaped dynastic culture in politics and elect their own family members at the seat of party chairman.

If by chance anyone else gets that privilege then it’s only symbolic and temporary. Political parties are regarded as personal properties of their founding fathers which is something against the true democratic spirits.

For instance, PPP – the national-level political party in Pakistan – considers itself a flag-bearer of democracy has promoted dynastic culture ever since its inception in 1967. First led by the late Prime Minister of Pakistan Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the party was led by his wife Begum Nusrat Bhutto after his assassination in April 1979.

Before being under the supervision of ex-President of the country Asif Ali Zardari, the reigns of the party were in the hands of Muhtarma Benazir Bhutto. In short, the sovereign authority has been circulating in the hands of family members of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto – the founder of PPP.

The situation is more or less the same in the case of PML-N where dynastic culture in politics is deep-rooted and shows no sign of recovery. Coming to the PTI – the party has always been led by Imran Khan as its Chairman ever since its foundation in 1995.

Except for Imran Khan, there is no question of being anyone else in command–be it the Central Executive or its Core Committee comprising big wigs. The political party which is now ruling the land of the pure holds intra-party elections but these elections seem only symbolic as no change in command of the party has ever been done.

Corruption is yet another challenge that democracy in our country has to confront. Democracy can’t perform well when resource utilization is not done as chanted in political sloganeering and opportunities are not given to the masses in accordance with the true democratic spirit. Corruption leads to misuse of power and authority that ultimately creates unrest and chaos in society.

Pakistan ra­nk­ed 120 out of 180 countries on the Corruption Per­ce­ptions Index (CPI) 2019 released by Transparency International, slipping three spots from the previous year’s ranking. Last year, the country was ranked 117 out of 180 nations. Corruption has profound implications for the working of democracy and instills anger and frustration among the masses.

Moreover, rampant corruption badly affects the state institutions and consequently, the credibility of institutions is compromised resulting in a crisis of governance. In short, corruption undermines the legitimacy of government and such democratic values as trust and tolerance.

Insufficient economic growth, increasing debt crisis, the backwardness of women, the irresponsible and motive-driven role of the media are some other challenges to which the democracy in Pakistan is confronted with.

About Noshin Bashir

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