Improving public confidence in a democracy is not just in the interest of any incumbent regime. It is in the interest of every party or individual who declares its belief in change through democratic means. The only remedy available is to focus on economics, and thus less politics.
By Ali Salman
“Democracies last longer when they perform better. And when democracies have higher quality they also tend to perform better.”
Speaking at ‘Democracy that delivers’ conference last year in the US under the auspices of Center for International Private Enterprise, Larry Diamond offered some words of wisdom. “All of the democracies that have broken down since 1999 were also illiberal, and a number of them had gradually been getting more so over time.” This article introduces five characteristics of failing democracies as explained by Larry Diamond and relates them to Pakistan. The basic argument of this article is that if democracy fails to deliver and solve at least some of the bigger problems of masses, trust in democracy as a system will even further diminish risking national integration.
1. They are poor. In many countries, resources driven wealth has created a wedge between the form of government and people’s desire of political freedom. Pakistan is not one of them. At the end of the day, what matters for every one is security and prosperity. A poor Pakistan cannot afford to hope for enduring patience of people just by offering a functioning electoral democracy.
2. They are poorly governed. ‘Most of the failed and deeply troubled democracies of the world fall into the bottom third of states in the world in controlling corruption.’ Corruption is pervasive in Pakistan, and although politicians share minor burden, given the NRO list, they are the ones who become victim of public wrath when problems are not solved. Other contributors in corruption, including business mafia and bureaucracy, seem to escape unharmed. Therefore the group which suffers, unfortunately, the biggest loss due to bad governance is politicians.
3. They are politically unstable. Democratic history of Pakistan is accentuated with political instability. Even if the main opposition in the current scenario is being ‘friendly,’ there are strong rumors of changes within the ruling party, which keep on indicating the prevalence of political instability often with references to the army.
4. They are deeply polarized on class, ethnic, or other lines of cleavage. If recent violent clashes in Karachi be considered as an example of deep ethnic tensions that run across the motherland, then polarization would bring bad news for national integration in the long run.
5. Executive power is seriously abused. Abuse of executive power occurs when mechanisms of accountability are absent or non-functioning. Fortunately, there is an independent judiciary which creates semblance of check and balance. Also, a politically and economically independent media bode well for the accountability. However a lack of diffusion in sources of power also diffuse people’s trust in the executive and under an electoral democracy, this means lack of trust on the system as a whole.
The above characterization of failing democracies around the world is a call of action for all who care even marginally about democracy in Pakistan. It is not just a zero-one type of reaction which is possible in future. We may have a notion of democracy, and don’t have the substantive part of it. This would again give a usurper an opportunity to call it a sham democracy, though he has not business running the government.
Democracy is not without advocates in Pakistan. There are democratic people in the right, left and centre of Pakistan. People across religious and secular divides, for example Awami National Party (ANP) and Jamat-e-Islami (JI), seriously yearn for true democracy and they are part of the electoral process. Even Imran Khan, who initially boycotted elections, and now repents it, wants snap polls thus expressing his belief in democratic system. Peoples Party wants to see continuity of democracy so that it can enjoy people’s power. Muslim League (N) is also dedicated to the cause of democracy so that it can champion the cause of urban poor.
But increasingly masses have become vocal to disapprove a democracy that fails to deliver. Long queues for commodities like sugar and flour, unreliable and expensive power, and worsening law & order have made people skeptic of fruits of democracy. This is not a good omen for an unstable government but more so for a fledgling democracy.
Let’s not focus our attention to who will become next Commander-in-Chief or next president; let’s worry about what is the public perception about the quality of democracy and the performance of a democratic government. It is not an issue to replace one party with another through an electorate alternation i.e. mid term elections; it is a much deeper issue. If we think that by replacing one party or one president, we will usher in an era of a transformation- we are sadly mistaken.
In the current scenario, if polls are called, the turn out would be significantly low as the PPP voters would not come to the polling stations given the performance of their government and the accompanying disappointment. That would mean that probably, PML (N) would sweep polls, but the representative character of the new government would be even smaller and weaker, as the February 2008 polls clearly suggested regional divides. We will have a strong government, but a weaker and less representative democracy. That would lead to a decreased trust of the public in the governance except on the bitter partisan lines. More dangerously, a less representative government will bode ill for national integration.
Improving public confidence in a democracy is not just in the interest of any incumbent regime. It is in the interest of every party or individual who declares its belief in change through democratic means. The only remedy available is to focus on economics, and thus less politics. As Diamond puts it, ‘good economic performance helps to sustain democracies and bad performance damages it.’ If firms and individuals enjoy substantial economic freedom under responsible institutions, prosperity will find its way into slums and goths of Pakistan. As Clinton once put it, ‘it’s about economy, stupid!’ If poor and rich of Pakistan are not afforded equal protection of law and equal opportunities for growth, then political freedom alone would not become a mantra. Political freedom must go hand in hand with economic freedom. We should give more political autonomy to provinces but what is even more important is that we give them control over their own resources. This is a rallying point for all actors in the modern political-economy of Pakistan to sit together and think how to rescue democracy from democrats!