Monday, February 12, 2024

Arresting democratic downslide

A quick return to routine adherence with democratic norms is necessary

A woman reaches out to a ballot box to cast a vote at a polling station during the general election in Karachi, Pakistan February 8, 2024. —Reuters
A woman reaches out to a ballot box to cast a vote at a polling station during the general election in Karachi, Pakistan February 8, 2024. —Reuters

For the better part of a decade, Pakistan has witnessed a serious democratic downslide. There is an urgent need for not only arresting it but also a turnaround.

One of the top items in the to-do list of the new parliament should be the restoration of public trust in the credibility of the leadership and the political process. Both substantive and operational aspects of electoral reforms should accommodate the emerging social and political realities such as the youth bulge in the population and the larger number of women candidates seeking election of general seats. What makes states sovereign is the high regard their institutions show for their people. By post-colonial standards, Pakistan’s progress as a serious candidate for democracy is promising.

The purpose of the electoral process is the assurance that the formation of the next government represents the collective will of the people who, actually, are sovereign. Hence, it is of utmost importance that transparency, competitiveness and a level playing field for all contenders are ensured. Free, fair and transparent elections are essential for the legitimacy of the government. A crisis of legitimacy has long undermined civilian supremacy in Pakistan. Successive elected governments have been further stigmatised with allegations of corruption and abuse of authority.

An important plank for the restoration of public confidence in the political system over the upcoming years will be the effective management of the economy and overcoming of the present economic crisis wherein high inflation has reduced the purchasing power of most people. Structural economic reforms may therefore be the top agenda of the new government. When the PML-N formed a government in 2013, the country faced a severe energy crisis and the security situation was precarious. To a large extent, the issues were addressed over the next few years. The point is that given the democratic legitimacy, this is always doable.

The PML-N manifesto has categorically stated its intention to do away with the National Accountability Bureau. Other parties are less clear about the future of this institution, which has historically limited the capacity of the bureaucracy and blocked local as well as foreign investment in Pakistan. Abolition of the NAB may be a step in the right direction. This will hopefully provide breathing space to the political class as well as the senior civil servants to plan, initiate and complete substantial projects without the fear of a future witch hunt. The SIFC seems to have been designed for the same purpose: the joint ownership by the civil and military leaders of major economic projects that will keep the NAB at bay.

Led by Justices Qazi Faez Isa and Mansoor Ali Shah, the apex court is expected to play an essential role in strengthening democracy and restoring public trust in civilian leadership. Both the learned judges are seen as pro-democracy and favouring the supremacy of the parliament. The judicialisation of politics and governance in the recent past is expected to decline. The court may provide broader legislative and decision-making space to the representative institutions.

The political parties, meanwhile, should initiate reforms within their organisations to accommodate more women and the youth. The PTI has done better on both counts so far, although mostly by default rather than by design. In the face of recent challenges the party has faced, it awarded tickets to more women candidates than any other party. As a result, women have emerged as symbol of resistance through the party platform. This trend needs to be consolidated and other political parties should mainstream the youth, women and minorities.

Political polarisation and a perennial blame game have flourished as negative trends in recent years. These have hindered the political process and trust building. A grand dialogue among the political forces is the need of the hour. There is a broad consensus among the political parties for basic issues such as economic recovery, improvement of the security situation, control of religious extremism and normalisation of relations with the country’s neighbours. The government should take the lead and invite all political forces to solve these issues.

Local governments can play a very important role in building public trust in democracy and the political process. At the local level, most people are concerned with solving their immediate problems without indulging in polarising debates. The system also provides a direct link between the voters and their representatives. People can understand the concept and benefits of democracy through local bodies. In the past, the people were hoodwinked by local government setups of the military regimes. For instance, under Gen Musharraf, the local governments were used to sideline the political class and the provincial tier. Pakistan needs a genuine devolution of power and resources from the Centre to provinces and from provinces to the local governments.

The new government should go beyond paying lip service to the preservation and extension of minority rights in the country. There is a need for policy changes to restore the religious minorities’ confidence in the state’s ability to ensure their security and provide equal economic opportunities, social equality, equal citizenship and justice. Comprehensive reforms and legislation are also needed to improve the mechanism of representation of minorities in elected assemblies. A minorities’ commission can be formed to examine these issues and evaluate policies in terms of adequate representation and redress of grievances.

Pakistan has experienced a marked downslide in its democratic credentials and witnessed a nose-diving of public trust and confidence in the political process due to the undemocratic practices of some institutions and past leaders. It is high time for it to turn around and fix the faults of the past and the present, to be able to stride confidently and respectably into the future.

The writer heads the History Department at University of Sargodha. He has worked as a research fellow at Royal Holloway College, University of London. He can be reached at [email protected]. His X handle: @AbrarZahoor1

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed in this piece are the writer's own and don't necessarily reflect's editorial policy.

Originally published in The News on Sunday