NationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 47

Democracy under critical threat

The nascent democracy in Pakistan is on the precipice as ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan is about to launch a massive long march on the federal capital as the 13-party ruling alliance, with a thin majority, instead of improving governance and offering dialogue to consolidate democracy, is in an offensive mood. This situation may inflict irreparable loss on democracy in Pakistan and even the country itself.

As Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) are about to launch the long march from October 10 or immediately after it with hundreds of thousands of supporters from across Pakistan to gather in Islamabad, the country is faced with a deep political crisis. The crisis has become more aggravated and will worsen as the federal government with Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah used incessant intimidating language against marchers and protesters. Sanaullah even hurled threats at PTI leaders and workers that they would be dealt with an iron hand. This is not a democratic and political way to deal with an opposition protest. It is important to know why Imran Khan and the PTI are hell-bent on holding the long march. The core demand of the PTI is to hold fresh elections and an announcement of election schedule without delay. The 13-party ruling alliance, on its part, is shying from calling elections because its government is highly unpopular. The reason for its unpopularity is unprecedented inflation in the country, especially high prices of food and fuel. Secondly, it comprises mostly politicians convicted of corruption or under trial for it.

On the other hand, Imran Khan and the PTI are at the moment stupendously popular as is evident from winning the June 22 by-elections in Punjab through which it got back the government of the key and largest province, a by-election on a seat for the National Assembly in Karachi and in April last local government elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the PTI has a government with a two-thirds majority.

In this scenario, when the most popular party is demanding elections and the ruling parties’ unpopular alliance is shying from calling polls, while having a razor-thin majority in the National Assembly, only the powers-that-be are keeping the government afloat. This is not true democracy at all. If stakeholders, including the ruling and opposition parties as well as the establishment, want true democracy in Pakistan, then holding national elections is the key, whosoever wins. If the ruling alliance sticks to its guns and Imran Khan in the meanwhile is able to launch a sizable protest in different cities and towns of the country, if not in Islamabad, then it will be all over for the present dispensation. One thinks the decent way would be to call new elections and let the people decide. There is a possibility that this gesture might restore some of the image of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), if not other 12 ruling parties. The PML-N, no doubt, has a strong following at least in Punjab and there is a possibility that if elections are held, the party may win a good number of seats there.

Politics is not all about always ruling; it is equally about remaining in the opposition and contributing to democratic consolidation. Though Pakistan has been experiencing a fragile democratic system of government since 2002, there has been a trend that elected governments and parliaments could be seen completing their tenures, but democracy as an institution has failed to flourish and evolve in the country. There are various reasons for the failure of democracy to evolve as an institution and these need to be examined to predict the future of democracy in the country.

Each culture and institution, whether of society or the state, evolves from the practices and customs of people. Against this backdrop, the foremost and underlying cause that democracy has not evolved in Pakistan is the incompatibility of the social structure of the country with the essence and values of a democratic culture. The nature of social structure, which comprises social institutions, values, roles and status, is largely undemocratic in form. A democratic culture primarily is based on the values of equality, justice, freedom and individualism (together creating a culture of merit, inventiveness and amity). These values are hardly to be found in Pakistan’s social structure.

The social structure of Pakistan is profoundly tribal and ultraconservative in form. In such a social structure, there is hardly any space for democratic ideals to be attained. Such social structure is hierarchical in orientation which operates on the institutionalisation of traditional authorities like tribal and clannish chiefs and religious figures. It is the fundamental reason that symbols of traditional authorities, like Khan, Malik, Chaudhry, Wadera and Sardar, on the one hand, and Imam on the other, have been dominating society through their societal power and influence to the exclusion of the common people and their consciously and freely-elected democratic and liberal leaders.

These symbols of traditional authorities have been working in collusion to entrench their power base and to ward off any challenge to them. As this challenge could only come from liberal and democratic figures, values and institutions under the umbrella of a democratic political structure, tribal chieftains and clerical leadership have been trying their utmost to prevent democracy from evolving.

Traditional authorities and elites have been successful in stunting the growth of democracy in Pakistani society. This is what really at the moment is taking place in Pakistan as the ruling alliance of 13 parties comprising mostly traditional social elites and the PTI also to an extent influenced by these elements sans its head Imran Khan, no side understands the importance of true democracy. This is really an alarming situation for the country, particularly democracy and democratic institutionalization and consolidation.

Moreover, in theory the Pakistani political system, which is outwardly democratic but inwardly not, operates on the principle of one-person-one-vote, but most of the people cannot vote freely either because of the pressure of respective traditional authorities or bonds or because of their lack of education and information. Resultantly, the government which gets elected is based on what German political-thinker-cum-sociologist Noelle Neumann called “loud minority” while the majority becomes “silent.”

Another very important aspect of the failure of democracy to evolve in Pakistan is that auxiliary institutions, which otherwise ought to provide support to the parliament, people and political leadership to build their capacities of policymaking and their execution by providing them with education and information, have been working for cross-purposes. These institutions, which include bureaucracy and all government departments, due to relatively good education and administrative skills of their human resource, have been working for personal and institutional benefits by taking advantage of the ignorance of the common people. This is the basic reason that bureaucrats and top civil servants have been enjoying all kinds of perks and privileges out of the tax-payers’ money while the purpose for which they are there, which is good governance, is a pipedream in the state of Pakistan. As the flourishing of true democracy is against the interest of the bigwigs of government institutions, they develop a natural affinity with members of traditional authorities to stunt the growth of democracy.