The way forward (on democracy) -Express Tribune

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Instead of moving forward to consolidate the country’s march toward democratic consolidation, Pakistan’s present leadership is pursuing certain policies that tend to promote authoritarianism. The recent effort of the PTI government to bulldoze its proposal to introduce Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) in the next national elections when the performance of the machines and familiarity of its use by the voter are still in its infancy is one such example; and especially when its introduction at this stage is being strongly opposed by all political parties and independent think-tanks. Not surprising that the PTI was unable to get the bill passed through the parliament but contributed to further polarising the environment that has its own downside. The use of EVMs inherently is sound but the course adopted and the haste shown in introducing it is certainly questionable. More disturbing, the quality of political discourse and the type of language being used in the parliament by some of the members, including ministers, invariably vitiates the political environment. It is also a reflection of the general decline in our national values. These events demand serious introspection by the leaders and should not be taken lightly and need to redressed.

The opposition too is pursuing policies that do not contribute to strengthening democracy or lend hope for better prospects of governance if they came to power. Instead of focusing on the parliament and Senate and its committees and putting across counter proposals to improve legislation, they seem to have taken to protests and public meetings. This initially were fairly impressive as a show of force but have not been able to sustain the momentum due to internal dissensions between the PPP and the PML-N. In any case how are lackluster protests going to change the quality of lives of our people, strengthen democracy, or raise the prestige of the political party’s in the eyes of the public? The chances are that by disrupting normal life and hurting the economy, it would keep away prospective investors. More importantly, it sets a dangerous trend as our history bears out. The street protests against late PM Zulfikar Ali Bhutto ended up in the army capturing power. The infamous dharna of the PTI stretching over months without a justifiable cause was a huge disruption. The object of recalling these events is that Pakistan’s democracy is still fragile and the policies adopted both by the government and the opposition should be such that they strengthen and not weaken democracy. And it is time for us to move toward mature politics especially when anti-democratic forces in the region are gaining strength.

Certainly, street protests are a part of democratic ethos but its criteria should be to promote a cause or ensure the rule of law. By all means street protests should take place when there is injustice or to highlight a just cause. Presently, we are witnessing that laws are being framed that could be used to suppress freedom of expression and thought. This reflects that the government feels insecure and considers any deviation or alternate course of action suggested by the opposition as a threat or an obstruction in its functioning. This reflects the fragility of our democracy and the insecurity of our leaders. The irony is that our leaders when in opposition seem to be very open to pluralistic ideas but turn conformists and inflexible when in power. More recently I had written in one of my columns that it is unlikely that Pakistani leadership would be influenced by Taliban’s proclivity to a regimented and highly authoritarian regime. I only hope these assumptions turn out to be right. It is, however, inconsequential if authoritarianism is a result of outside influence or homegrown.

We must be conscious of the reality that the quality of democracy plays a major role in enhancing a country’s power potential. America’s and Western Europe’s phenomenal economic progress and global power, apart from other factors, is largely attributable to its democratic character. China may be an exception. However, the rapid rise in China had an element of economic liberalisation. It was influenced by the policies pursued by Deng Xiaoping, which acted as triggers for fast-growing Western economies. Deng was simply brilliant. I still recall during my visits to China how public awareness about economic wellbeing was developed through the democracy movement in 1978. People were encouraged to express their grievances or complaints through writings on the walls or by holding small gatherings and expressing their thoughts. Industrial units and firms that had remain jacketed were allowed to make their own production decisions at the factory level. Similarly, there was greater freedom given to the farmer and he was permitted greater flexibility in fixing prices. The object of recalling these events is to relate how economics and politics go together. A relaxed and a freer economy even in socialist systems would strengthen politics. And a more representative political system would contribute toward a better economy. These had a transformational effect, and China’s economy since then has been a great success story. At that time there were expectations among Western observers that China would in the next phase further open up its politics. That of course did not happen and the Communist party and the President continue to wield enormous power. China has taken a political path wherein seemingly collective good takes precedence over individual liberties. Whatever one’s views regarding the Chinese political system, the fact remains that its leadership has lifted the country to great heights and projections are that if the economy continues to grow at the current pace in coming decades it is likely to match that of the US.

Every country has its own identity, and is influenced by its historical past, present challenges, and compulsions of geography. It is in this framework that Pakistan should formulate and execute policies that facilitate sustained economic growth, promote political stability, and take care of internal and external security without which policy benchmarks will remain unattainable. Pakistan can draw lessons from other country’s experience but essentially it has to develop its own policies.