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Old Monday, December 31, 2012
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Default The great debate

The great debate
Hussain H Zaidi

It seems to be a chicken-and-egg situation. Do we need elections to reform the political system? Or do we need to first reform the electoral process? To put it briefly, should political reforms precede or succeed the electoral exercise? The threat of a mammoth march on Islamabad aside, this question lies at the heart of the debate started by religious scholar Dr Tahirul Qadri.
Conventional wisdom in Pakistan is that the legislature, representing popular will, is the right forum to discuss and bring about changes to the country’s political system, including the electoral system. The system may be full of flaws. But it is for the elected representatives to fix the system. Obviously, this can’t be done in a day. Rather, it is a drawn-out process in which all stakeholders need to show perseverance and profit from their mistakes. On top of that, the system should be allowed to work unimpeded and elections held regularly. Every electoral exercise, by benefiting from the earlier one, will have a better outcome and will bring the country closer to having a mature and clean democratic dispensation. Any attempt to reform the system from outside will make matters worse.
The exponents of this conventional wisdom may point out that significant changes have already been made to the political system by the present parliament. The 18th Amendment purged the constitution of several distortions, while the 20th Amendment, together with the 18th, contains enabling provisions for conducting a credible electoral exercise. The present chief election commissioner, a person of unimpeachable repute, has been chosen with consensus by the treasury and opposition benches and a caretaker setup will be put in place in due course to hold the elections in a free, fair and transparent manner. The next parliament will continue the good work done by its predecessor and take the political system to a higher level.
What’s even more important is that for the first time popularly elected assemblies are completing their terms and the stage is being set for smooth transfer of power from one civilian government to another. The constitutional mandate of the caretakers is confined to conducting elections. Political accountability may conveniently be left to the post-polls elected dispensations.
The foregoing is a fairly convincing and optimistic account. Like the markets, the political system is believed to be self-regulating and self-correcting, and therefore it may better be left to its own dynamics.
“Not so fast,” opponents of conventional wisdom may retort. While on paper Pakistan may have the ingredients of a democratic dispensation, in practice it’s nothing more than a plutocracy. While in theory the assemblies are a creature of the masses, by their actual composition they predominantly represent privileged classes, such as big landlords and wealthy urbanites. While on the face of it the electorate may be free to choose, more often than not it finds itself between the devil and the deep blue sea and is left with no option but to elect ‘the lesser evil’. The wealthier a candidate, the more votes he gets. Once elected, he uses his position to amass more wealth. And, with the enhanced fortune, he is better placed to make it to the august chambers. The contest between a rich and a poor candidate, a landlord and a tenant, an industrialist and a wage-earner is as fair – and its outcome as predictable – as a trial of strength between a tiger and a sheep. That is how the opponents of the conventional wisdom may argue.
Not only that, they may add, a handful of families and dynasties rule the roost. Politics in Pakistan is comparable to a family business in which parents make way only for their children and positions are shared only with siblings or spouses. Political parties, by and large, are a platform to prop up sons and daughters and are distinguished from one another not by their programmes or ideologies but by persons or dynasties calling the shots.
Opponents of conventional political wisdom argue that with their compositions the legislatures and the government, which are creatures of the elite, can’t undertake drastic, pro-people reforms, and changes they make are confined to shifting the locus of power from one set of elites to another: transferring powers from the president to the prime minister, or at the most replacing the monopolistic powers of the ruling party with the duopoly of the government and the opposition. Therefore, they conclude, staging elections without reforming the electoral system will be like moving in a circle as the same elite – Nawabs and Sardars, Khans and Maliks, Pirs and Makhdooms – will make it to the top. If in the past the caretaker government has inked agreements with donors such as the International Monetary Fund to put the economy on track, why can’t the caretakers now take steps to salvage the political system?
Intense as the debate between the exponents and opponents of the conventional wisdom is, it’s hard to come out with a definitive answer here. However, a few observations may be made. To begin with, the biggest challenge in a democracy is how to make it truly democratic; that is, to make the system serve the interests of all sections of society. The success or failure of democracy in a country may in the end be judged by how well or how badly the political system proves equal to this challenge. In the event that the fruits of democracy are enjoyed only by the upper echelons of society, we have an elitist democracy, which can be called democracy only by courtesy.
Unfortunately, in Pakistan we have had an elitist democracy where those with the carrot (the moneyed class) or the stick (the feudal class) have been both principal players and principal beneficiaries. This is the reason the ordinary people increasingly feel alienated from the political process and disillusioned with it. Constitutional and legal changes have at best been peripheral, focusing on toning up or down the powers of the president and the prime minister and abolishing or resurrecting the office of the deputy commissioner. While corruption in high places may not be as egregious as popularly perceived, undeniably those who matter are well short on commitment to fight this problem, mainly because they themselves are involved in it. A case in point is tax evasion, of which a large number of lawmakers, including bigwigs in the government, are guilty.
That said, transition from an elitist to an inclusive democracy is, in all events, a long process which requires not only political but also social changes. Yes, the rich and powerful are always hot contenders in an electoral race. Yet people’s voting behaviour also contributes to their victory as the ordinary voter is easily swayed by pecuniary, sentimental and narrow ethnic and clan (biradari) considerations and seldom looks into the ethical or intellectual credentials of a candidate.
Passing suitable laws and applying adequate administrative measures then, though exceedingly important, will by no means be sufficient to reform the political system. Take this as an example: while tax evaders can be disqualified from running for a public office, they will be replaced by their scions or spouses. This actually happened when graduation was made a mandatory qualification for contesting elections, with the result that the ensuing legislatures continued to be dominated by the same powerful families. This is not to suggest futility of legal action against the corrupt, which on the contrary must be taken with full force, but to emphasise the need for concomitant changes in the people’s attitude and thinking.
To conclude, by giving an ultimate deadline to the government to put in place a neutral caretaker setup and threatening to march on Islamabad in case it fails to do so, Dr Qadri may have overstepped the mark. Yet the pitfalls in the political system he has pointed out can’t be brushed aside.
The writer is a freelance contributor.
Email: hussainhzaidi@gmail.com
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