It’s the election year in Pakistan. The end of another democratically-elected government is here. For a country like Pakistan where democratic development remained hostage to intermittent military coups, and which enjoyed its first-ever peaceful democratic transition only after the last general election held in 2013, the successful completion of another democratic tenure is, undoubtedly, a landmark achievement. But not everyone seems content. And there are reasons for that.
For many sceptics, democratic functioning in Pakistan is essentially flawed. The state of the elected government remained in constant crisis. They point toward the general failure of democracy in Pakistan in ensuring the rule of law, and provision of fundamental rights and facilities to the common citizens. As it has failed to deliver, it is, therefore, no longer valued among the citizens.
The recently-published edition of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index places Pakistan among one the of “hybrid regimes” in the ranking, leaving it down from “flawed democracy”. The Index cites Pakistan as a dangerous place for journalists who face physical and death threats on a regular basis. The white paper further puts that “In Pakistan the law penalises blasphemy and defamation and the authorities have extensive powers to control and censor the media on the grounds of national security. Journalists are at risk from government, military and non-state actors and radical groups, and the threat of violence has a chilling effect on media coverage.”
It is a fact, a grave one actually, that the continuation of democratically-elected governments over the past ten years could not strengthen core governance institutions in the country. In some areas, it has, forcefully or willingly, handed over responsibility to some unelected institutions which being unrepresentative cannot address the demands of a wider populace. In short, Pakistan does not have fully-operational democracy; it’s rather a less democratic country.
In one of his influential books ‘Political Order in Changing Societies’, Samuel P. Huntington argued that “the primary problem of politics is the lag in the development of political institutions behind social and economic change.” According to Huntington, political stability in a demographically and socially evolving community depends upon the capability and workings of political institutions.
In her book ‘Pakistan: Beyond the Crisis State’, Dr Maleeha Lodhi voiced similar concerns about the relative low pace of political development vis-à-vis socioeconomic progress. “Representational and electoral politics,” puts Dr Lodhi, “have remained stuck in an old mode and increasingly lagged behind the social and economic changes that have been altering the country’s political landscape. The economic centre of gravity has been shifting but politics has yet to catch up with its implications.”
Viewed from this Huntingtonian lens and as observed by Dr Lodhi, Pakistan is going through rapid economic and social transformations – from increasing urbanization to growing pace of industries and from expansion in mass communication to rise in automation – creating new demands and expectations among the citizens, but the country lacks required political institutions capable of responding them adequately.
However, it is important to note here that some powerful, unelected institutions have long been playing an overwhelming part in Pakistan’s political process. As the country is familiar to recurrent military coups, causing disruptions and destabilization, the role of the country’s military is, therefore, extremely important in this context. Without these coups, there have been no Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf – the men in uniform whose prolonged military dictatorships sit at the carnage of democratic development in the country. They not only attempted to institutionalize dictatorial tendencies but also contributed radically toward perpetuating violent, anti-democratic dynamics (from secessionist movements to drug culture and terrorism) in the country. In fact, history of Pakistan is a classic manifestation of military-led patronage-client relation as whenever in rule the military has painstakingly endeavoured to create and sustain an elite that favours it.
There is also an increasing role of money in the election process. While the 2013 general election was arguably the most expensive election in the history of Pakistan, more money is going to be spent to influence this year’s election. The general perception is that ‘the candidate who raises the most money wins and that for every vote there is a price tag’. Though the Election Commission of Pakistan has put an upper cap of 1 million and 1.5 million rupees for expenses on provincial and national assembly seats, respectively, it is yet to see implementation in letter and spirit. The result of the involvement of large sums of money means politicians have to spend more time to serve special interest groups than to protect their electorate i.e. the people they represent.
Resultantly, the parliament has become a club of the rich as the cost of contesting an election has become so high that it has left the poor and the middle-income people systematically out of the process. Having no say in the political decision-making, the average citizen in the country is increasingly being marginalized. People are becoming hapless victims of an economic and political system that is rigged against them and over which they have little influence.
Political parties, nevertheless, have increased citizens’ participation in the political processes. However, how far it has translated into their influence into overall politics is questionable. Citizens are excluded from decision-making process. Whether it is the current ruling party PML-N or the major opposition parties like PPP and PTI, all lack strong organizational structure to rally their supporters around and mobilize their activists. Interests and insults rather than issues and ideologies constitute the core of political debates nowadays. Political parties have failed to develop themselves as avenues for channelizing their voters’ preferences to parliament and into policies. Instead, political leaders have nourished a culture where political dissent is severely discouraged and sometimes even penalized. Therefore, political parties in Pakistan are in a nosedive and organizationally weak, as they lack vision and fail to boast any leadership succession plan.
According to one scholar, the post-2013 Pakistan is struggling with two opposing dynamics: first, the political corridors of the country continue to be populated with the same conventional elite – the feudal, the tribal, the religious and the business – second, upper middle class no longer supplies fresh recruits to the country’s dominant civil and military institutions, their origin is rather from humbler background, the lower middle class. These trends are underpinning a lasting and pervasive change in the social composition of the country’s elite. Consequently, we can witness what the scholar termed ‘elite circulation’. However, in social and political realms, the new elite is more conservative and, therefore, inclined more to authoritarian impulses than democratic values.
Though democratic progress in a society is mainly a function of elite’s preferences, the people, however, play a key role in its promotion and sustenance. People’s participation and contributions toward democracy mainly result from the level of their economic growth, education and work ethics. According to the recently conducted national census, the total population of Pakistan (excluding Gilgit-Baltistan and AJK) is 207.8 million, making Pakistan the 5th largest country on demographic basis. Measured on the basis of its nominal GDP per capita—$1,629, according to an estimate—the country lingers merely at 147th in the world for 2016. The country’s education sector also does not present a spectacle of joy and contentment. In fact, it is only among the few countries in the world, mostly African, where literacy rate, already dismal, is showing a decline. According to Economic Survey of Pakistan 2016-17, the country’s literacy rate declined from 60 percent to 58 percent in 2017, revealing a disgracefully dark situation of education, thus fading away the chances of success of democracy.
It is also undeniable that a large chunk of the country’s population today faces a high level of economic and social insecurity that their predecessors did not experience. The government makes tall claims about spurring the economic growth; however, in reality, people are facing severe inequalities in their social and economic realms of day-to-day life. As indicated by a UNDP report (Development Advocate Pakistan: Volume 3, Issue 2) ‘the problem of 22 families controlling 66pc of Pakistan’s industrial assets, as identified by Dr Mahbubul Haq in 1968, remains relevant even today due to rising inequality in the country where the richest 20pc consume seven times more than the poorest 20pc.’
The persistent level of inequality is relentlessly disturbing the balance of power in the society and what otherwise would have been a healthy middle class, is left with no choice but to struggle with the unequal conditions. The interplay of these socioeconomic deprivations darkens the working of our political institutions as ultimately it benefits the few and burdens the many. In short, it is not only unfair that our society is unequal; it is also less prosperous, less stable and less democratic.
In short, Pakistan has still not come close to being a true democracy. Nonetheless, the assertions that democracy does not suit Pakistan and that it should rather be replaced with technocracy are essentially flawed, as it is not majority that is ruling Pakistan and determining government policies. It is, in fact, quite the opposite: Pakistan is more like an oligarchy where the government policy reflects the collective will of only a small subset of its citizenry – the elite.
The need is to make our governance more inclusive so that the poor, the marginalized and the vulnerable get to play a powerful role in government policymaking. To fight our governance problems, we must establish political institutions that are more responsive to the needs of the general populace. Unless efforts are made to build strong political institutions and establish the ‘government of the people’, any political discussion taking place within the confines of air-conditioned rooms and conference halls will remain quartered somewhere between the polemics of politicians and the pointless plans of policymakers. As for conditions of the life of real people, there will always remain something inherently rotten in the country.