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The essence of democracy


By Imtiaz Gul

 The Friday Times, July 27, 2012


As a whole, the historic 18th, 19th and 20th amendments, the amicable determination of the 7th National Finance Commission (distribution of federal financial resources) among provinces, and at least a dozen laws relating to human and women's rights such as the National Commission for Human Rights Act 2012 (May 2012), Domestic Violence Prevention & Protection Act 2009 (Aug 2009), the Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Act (Oct 2011) inter alia mark a big step forward in Pakistan's democratic transition. 

Another redeeming feature of the democratic dispensation is the parliamentary committee on National Security, which has taken the centre-stage in debating and crafting the main contours of the foreign policy. Never before did a parliamentary entity deal with foreign and defense matters in such detail.

On the face of it, these are remarkable achievements by the ruling coalition. But the general demeanor of the legislators and translation of some of the laws into practice remain a big question. Under the 18th Amendment, for instance, the size of the federal secretariat was to be reduced from 50 to 32 by June 2011, but as of July 2012, the number of divisions stands at 43. These include new ministries and divisions like Climate Change; Human Resource Development; National Harmony; National Heritage and Integration; National Regulations and Services Division; National Food Security and Research Division; and Capital Administration & Development.

Ironically, in the presence of the Inter-Provincial Coordination Ministry, the government created a new ministry with the name of National Harmony. Bestowing a ministry or a post equivalent to that status seems to be the only ostensible purpose behind violation of the spirit of the 18th amendment. This also runs contrary to recommendations of a reforms committee Dr Ishrat Hussain had headed a few years ago. That committee had recommended sizing the federal ministries down to just 17.

Democracy appears to continue to flourish and the ruling coalition has plenty to show off as its achievements. Yet, it is extremely questionable whether the spirit of democracy is taking roots. Former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani headed an almost 95 strong cabinet, his successor lords over some five dozen ministers and advisors. 

There is an unusual emphasis on the claim that state authority can, and would, be exercised only by the representatives of the people. Legislation, it is said, is also solely the parliament's prerogative. But public interest legislation, such as the Anti-Terrorism Law, was not seen to be as important as legislation on other "priority issues" such as the contempt law. 

Similarly, after failing to control power shortage for several years with such short-term solutions as rental power plants, the new prime minister is now promising a law to control the theft of electricity and gas.

The reason for at least some of this emphasis on the authority of public representatives is the Supreme Court's ruling on the controversial National Reconciliation Order of 2007. The court wants the government to write a letter to the Swiss authorities to reopen corruption cases against President Asif Zardari. The court and its supporters say it is insisting on the rule of law. The Supreme Court has a right to question the immunities and privileges that public representatives enjoy, and must act against corruption and abuse of public office.

Irrespective of how the Pakistan People's Party decides to deal with the Supreme Court, five key issues will form the agenda for the next elections - rule of law, justice (almost two million pending cases in the upper and lower judiciary), inflation, load shedding, and unemployment (the Lahore Chamber of Commerce and Industries says the power crisis has rendered over half a million people jobless in Punjab alone).

These issues are even more pronounced in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA, where Baloch militants, criminal gangs and Al-Qaeda inspired mercenaries are severely hurting the economies of these regions. This has only added to the groundswell of the unemployed, undermined private business, and scared away investors. Last year, for instance, foreign direct investment plummeted to a dismal $800 million, down from $5.4 billion in 2007-2008. Moody's downgrading of Pakistan's credit worthiness from B3 to CAA1, an expected budget deficit of more than 8 percent of the GDP, and the outflow of some $6.3 billion in payments to the IMF are all but a few indicators of the financial crisis Pakistan is facing. And the electoral expedience, accompanied by the swarming corruption of the ruling parties is likely to make it even worse.

Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf is attacking precisely these issues; the graft and abuse of power by the forces of the status quo. His prime addresses are the younger voters (nearly half of the enrolled voters are below 36 years of age). Irrespective of the merits or demerits of Imran Khan's sloganeering, he is likely to gain from the youth's anger with the PPP and PML-N in Punjab, and perhaps even in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where many residents of NA-1 Peshawar are disappointed with the PPP and the ANP.

But that will not make substantial difference in a culture where socially entrenched politicians ensure victory by buying off a certain percentage of individual and collective votes, where stronger parties or candidates take entire polling stations hostage, subjecting officials and rival political representatives to threats and intimidation. For them, voting is not about free choice, but about how to buy or bully their way into the parliament. This lack of democratic spirit is the biggest threat to democracy in Pakistan. 

Imtiaz Gul is the Executive Director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and the author of the forthcoming book Osama: Pakistan Before and After, Roli Books, India

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk