Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Experiments and neutrality

The wide gap in perceptions of how democracy actually functions and how it should function has to be bridged. Democracy is an inherently complex and disorderly process, writes Aasiya Riaz

— Canva/file
— Canva/file

There is nothing mundane about Pakistan’s democracy – or, as they say, never a dull moment here. For the disciplined, however, democratic process in Pakistan can be very messy and very noisy. It can cause too much excitement for the faint-hearted.

There is always a perception that laissez-faire governance is combustible, and its fireworks have the potential of serious burns on the body politic of the nation. There is also fear that if allowed to continue unaided, this chaotic process can erode all order and sanity from the ruling of the republic. This reductive analysis is used ad nauseum to have at the ready a familiar concoction of remedies with all possible mixtures and therapies to apply brakes to this messy process. Evidently, however, it only offers a transient solution and naive citizens wish to return to the familiar and frustrating process of democracy.

The repercussions of each disruption, however, are far from fleeting. Each halt further stunts the evolution of democratic institutions including political parties, parliament, judiciary, and executive. The ability to fairly govern a complex country is further compromised. When, after a long pause, a reluctant return is made to the system of democracy, it has further fractured and hollowed – though expectations for this system to deliver fair and equitable governance are not amended.

Why not further alter the model and lend direct help to govern the country since public representatives know precious little of governance? Thus evolves a new model. A more suitable role of a senior partner, sort of big brother, is developed in managing the affairs of the nation. Why have a voice on national security issues alone when foreign affairs, economy and even internal security are so inter-twined? But wouldn’t that change democratic governance into hybrid governance? What is with these labels? This is only guiding the system so why should there be criticism?

The few stray citizens who grumble out of ignorance can be sorted out after all. But governance is quite complex and there are many public setbacks too, including elected governments abdicating key responsibilities. Governance indeed is the job of an elected government and lending a helping hand does not change the division of labour which leaves the responsibility for governance failure firmly at the door of elected governments only.

A few years into honing the system of working as senior partner in governance shows that too does not appear to deliver quite the intended outcomes. What will be a ‘natural’ evolution of this hybrid governance system, begin new musings. How about pre-choosing who may be fit to be elected by the citizens?

Another experiment is initiated by limiting the electoral pool for the benefit of citizens. Its rationale is that in a complex country to govern, how can citizens alone decide the nuances of who can be fit to lead the country? It is very much in keeping with the national interest and is a generous help for citizens in choosing their leader.

What about the existing legitimate parties and leaders as contenders for citizens’ votes? That is hardly a problem as they can be taken out through help from other institutions. Thus the field is prepped and a favoured leader is popped up at the cost of others. Election results are in and if numbers are not sufficient, a coalition is manufactured to help the chosen one to lead.

As the experiment takes off, so begin the familiar hiccups of governance. But it is only logical to extend help in governance as the chosen one is governing the country for the first time. Besides, the governance model so fashioned still requires guidance of a senior partner who is more adept at it anyway. There are no holds barred in the way of any help with governing. The media can be managed to help the narrative of the chosen leader.

This can be extended to managing parliament and in the passage of necessary legislation like passing a few annual budgets, facilitating some other legislation because of a requirement to get out of the grey status of the FATF and laws needed for negotiations with the IMF. Of course he can’t lose face on vote of no-confidence against the Senate chairman.

These are only small things. Help is also available to be sought to rein in political opponents. It is perceived as political persecution globally, the world might say, but no these are corruption cases against greedy politicians only and are taking their due legal course. On the same page all the way, of course. But governance might be suffering, say in Punjab? We have told the chosen one that the hallmark of a good leader is to learn from mistakes, not to be stubborn about who he chose to lead Punjab. He will surely come around.

Of course a rather longish honeymoon later, there are bound to be issues. The chosen one wants to flex his electoral muscles and exercise a free hand. There goes the experiment again and the phase of neutrality begins with the right sentiments and statements of remaining apolitical. The political opposition to the chosen and favoured leader can now do what they may like. It is unfortunate that polemical politics stops political leaders from engaging with each other directly so where required, help can be sought with any political negotiations but no further political involvement. This is followed by the usual treatment for the errant politician newly fallen out of favour.

If considerations of constitution and rule of law are set aside for a moment, this insidious system of experiments has been evolved almost into an art form. Its repetitive application has become so eerily familiar that even the global media is quick to refer to it as the standard playbook of politics in Pakistan. Except for a short-lived period of even shorter-term sense of achievement, has this ever truly yielded any positive results for Pakistan? Instead, catastrophic consequences of this cyclical model are evident through dysfunctional governance.

Politics has become increasingly polarized and is bitterly-contested. Marginalized and weak institutions are weaponized at will against the enemy of the day threatening robust and fair functioning of the state. An eternally underperforming economy is unable to meet the needs of the teeming millions. Yet we appear as unready to learn from these experiments as ever.

The wide gap in perceptions of how democracy actually functions and how it should function has to be bridged. Democracy is an inherently complex and disorderly process. When people control a system of who can govern them, the system reflects layers that are as vastly diverse as the people themselves. By its very nature, the process of democracy can and often leads to uncertain results which can be scary. But it is only through this messy system that we can elect, criticize, support, hold to account and vote out and vote in who can govern us.

The writer is an analyst working in the field of politics, democratic governance, legislative development and rule of law.

Originally published in The News