Over the past 50 years, the system of governance has been authoritarian even during democratic interludes. Elected governments have tended to follow the style of arbitrary and arrogant governance developed by dictatorial regimes that they have replaced. The present government does not strike one as an exception.
The threats to democracy
By I.A. Rehman Thursday, 31 Dec, 2009
PRESIDENT Zardari’s observation on the threats to the country’s democratic system is shared by almost all conscious citizens though they may not accept his list of sources of these threats as exhaustive or wholly correct. The divergence of views is likely to increase if ways to save democracy are discussed. At the very outset one should like to be convinced that by equating the present government with democracy Mr Zardari is not committing the Pakistani rulers’ favourite mistake in holding government synonymous with the state. No elaborate research is required for identifying the forces that have flourished at the cost of democracy. Over the decades the denigration of representative governance has become these interest groups’ second nature. But equally well-known is the fact that more often than not the anti-democratic elements’ success in their designs is guaranteed by the democratic authorities’ own acts of commission and omission. There are many ways in which a democratic government can undermine its own existence. Quite a few regimes have come to grief by forcing the pace of democratisation, by prescribing a value system their society is not ready to accept. However, in Pakistan no political authority has fallen for being over-democratic in practice nor have the challengers always possessed democratic credentials. Even if the present government’s charges against the actors out to extinguish the democratic experiment are correct its need of introspection is manifest. A cursory look at Pakistan’s history is enough to realise that lack of unity among political parties that profess to be democratic has been one of the most effective weapons in the hands of anti-democratic forces. These parties have concentrated more on fighting one another than on confronting the common enemy. The way political parties have sought the help of extra-democratic forces to gain advantage over their rivals is one of the darkest chapters in Pakistan’s history. The importance of the Charter of Democracy signed by the heads of the country’s largest political parties lay in its spirit much more than in its contents, and in the hopes it aroused that the two parties would face all attacks on democracy in a united fashion. Ordinary citizens understood the significance of the Charter of Democracy perhaps better than the parties to the accord. That is why the post-election understanding between the PPP and PML-N was spontaneously hailed by the entire population. The end of this understanding was a grievous blow to the cause of democracy. Whatever complaints the PPP leaders may have against the PML-N they had a greater responsibility to sustain their accord with their ally. That democracy can never be firmly established in Pakistan in the absence of an all-party consensus on its essentials is a fact only the purblind will deny. The government may not be entirely responsible for the rift with the PML-N; it is apparently paying for not trying hard enough to keep the promise of the Charter of Democracy alive particularly the resolve to jointly resist all attempts to derail the democratic system. The government has also increased its difficulties by ignoring the fact that a non-performing regime is its own worst enemy. When a government fails to deliver, especially on public expectations awakened by its leaders during their campaign to acquire power it not only loses the people’s support, it also alienates them from democracy. Nobody can deny the enormous problems created by the Musharraf regime. The people also know that recovery from the ravages of authoritarian regimes will be slow and painful but the government cannot retain their goodwill without offering proof of unremitting efforts in the right direction. Unfortunately, the government’s performance does not inspire public confidence. It can be criticised for muddle-headedness in fixing its priorities, but far more damaging has been its failure to carry out its tasks expeditiously. Even after making allowances for adverse factors the regime’s parliamentary performance has been dismal. It has delayed the delivery of constitutional reforms to the point of destroying public interest in them, and has failed to convince the people of its continued commitment to their welfare. Democracy does not mean that the ordinary citizen should go on suffering deprivation for the sake of an abstract idea; from his point of view democracy is a system that must address his problems —– problems caused by poverty, hunger, disease, homelessness and joblessness. One of the greatest threats to the democratic system is the growing feeling among the people that their concerns do not figure on the government’s agenda. No less important than the substance of governance is the style of governance and the regime is liable to criticism on this count too. This problem has been noticed in Pakistan throughout its history. During the early years of independence the rulers gave the impression that they found little fault with the colonial administration. Wittingly or unwittingly they consolidated the viceregal system of governance, a system that deserved the earliest possible burial. Over the past 50 years, the system of governance has been authoritarian even during democratic interludes. Elected governments have tended to follow the style of arbitrary and arrogant governance developed by dictatorial regimes that they have replaced. The present government does not strike one as an exception. Besides, no civilian government in Pakistan has realised that a democratic dispensation is not possible without functional and democratic political parties. Governments that complain of subversion of democracy from outside often fail to realise that they themselves are not democratic enough to deserve public support. In a country where feudal, colonial and praetorian norms determine social thinking and behaviour, democracy will always remain vulnerable in the face of anti-democratic challenges. Anyone who wishes to play the role of a knight in the service of democracy in Pakistan should know that the task demands much more than soapbox rhetoric or the borrowed robes of a martyr. Finally, the people have become as suspicious of the call of democracy being in danger as they are wary of slogans such as ‘Islam in danger’ or ‘stability at any cost’ or ‘Pakistan first’. The holes in the case of those gunning for the government or for Mr Zardari are clearly visible but the defenders of democracy need to see in the government’s brief more positive and weightier arguments than it has at the moment.