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Democracy beyond elections

People will cherish the cumulative benefits of democracy if democratic process is not confined to general elections only

Democracy beyond elections

The Election Commission of Pakistan has now finalised the candidates’ tally that is competing the national elections from various constituencies. Top leaders and their sidekicks are now in action – at least in constituencies from where they are contesting the polls.

Political pundits are fuelling speculations and predictions about the winning and losing candidates on TV screens and elsewhere. Many commentators and analysts are terming the present sequence of events ‘good omen’ for the country’s continuous progress on the democratic front. The key question is whether democracy and its cumulative benefits are only confined to general elections and trouble free conduct of polls. Are matters such as making the elected governments responsive to issues related to ensuring fundamental human rights, quality of decision-making related to development and management affairs, safeguarding the rights of the most vulnerable communities in the country are also of any worth?

The polity in Pakistan appears to show great keenness in electoral process – whether it is the national elections or the franchise episode of a small scale trade union or a usual by-election. In important national events such as national and provincial elections, bands of supporters of competing candidates even resort to hooliganism, violence and quasi-terror infested tactics. Political leaders and other harbingers of democracy casually consider these happenings as the usual norms of democratic culture. But a stronger set of counter arguments set forth the actual agenda to further this debate.

Does the voting process represent the entire spread of democracy? If no, then why the avid participation and consequent enthusiasm of ordinary people do not move beyond the rudimentary attributes of electioneering? And how the essential ingredients of democracy can be revived and linked up with the polity? These points can become the baseline for any regime that is genuinely interested to engage the masses in the practice and promotion of democracy in its true spirit. A test case thus emanates for the present regime in power.

Voting process and the entire sphere of electioneering is part of democracy, and not the whole democracy itself. The frenzy of the common folks around election process is often misconstrued by many stakeholders. Political parties’ wizards think that by instigating the electioneering frenzy, they can get their clandestine designs executed. On the other hand, the establishment seems to believe that the masses can be tricked to participate in any kind of voting process by trumping up voting games as democracy. These bluffs often fall apart.

Referendum facades of Generals Zia and Musharraf soon became reasons of embarrassment for both the regimes. Similarly, the on-going bashing of former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, by some quarters seems to have backfired. It is abundantly clear that the collective wisdom practiced by the silent majority is wholesome in nature. They elect representatives with an expectation that their problems will be resolved through legislative input, political intervention, deliberation and lobbying.

Growing awareness has instilled courage among people to hold the elected representatives accountable. For example, residents in Badin district recently demonstrated to obtain access to clean drinking water in their locations. Although a conservative locality, the legislators had to agree to cooperate towards their demands. Similarly a senator recently voiced her concern on the alleged demolition of a place of worship of a minority community in Sialkot. A brave attempt indeed!

The spread of democratic norms into various institutional frameworks and organisations is another direct benefit of democratic culture. Statutory professional bodies such as Pakistan Engineering Council (which is all set to its own elections now), Pakistan Medical and Dental Council, business chambers and bar associations are examples. When elections are properly conducted and candidates contest on the basis of carefully prepared programmes of action, the performance and conduct of these bodies improve.

Worker unions and trade bodies are found shackled under vertical tutelage of main political parties. Due to this grave handicap, the agenda of real progress and policies of staff welfare are seldom pursued. Collective Bargaining Agents (CBA) elections in utilities and national organisations such as the airline and railways are overwhelmed by political interest groups. The dubious performance of these bodies constitutes a moot point for deliberation and research.

From the working perspective, certain key parameters can be used to measure the existence and performance of a true democratic mechanism in a specified context. The existence of an up-to-date legal framework, institutionalised decision-making process, operational transparency, financial accountability and open reporting are some cardinal variables. Unfortunately, our national and provincial administrations fall short on key factors. For instance, no major party – with very few exceptions – has a credible process of party elections. At best, these parties are family fiefdoms which do not promote open ended leadership development.

The decision-making process is entirely whimsical and controlled by party chiefs. No research cells or think tanks inform the leadership about policy options and strategic measures. Barring a few outfits, NGOs and other bodies are tightly controlled by individuals or groups. The elections to the governing body of arts council in Karachi is a case in point where the second generation of controlling groups traditionally contest against each other.

In respect to transparency and accountability, the less said the better! A milestone will be achieved when at least the audited accounts of all political parties, institutions with elected representatives or public organisations shall be made accessible. Effective safeguard of the places of worship and communal properties, access to housing for the urban and rural poor, balancing the development initiatives such as Thar Coal with environmental and social sustainability, protecting the lives, livelihood and right to lead a normal life for Hazara community in Balochistan, effective enforcement of laws and statutes related to women rights are some mentions. And the freedom of speech, as enshrined in Article 19 of the Constitution, must be upheld. Sections of media have reported that an English language newspaper is facing difficulties in distributing its copies to its readers in certain parts of the country. This fact does not bode well in a functioning democracy.

 

The writer is Dean, Faculty of Architecture and Management Sciences, NED University, Karachi

Dr Noman Ahmed

Noman Ahmed
The author is Chairperson of Department of Architecture and Planning at NED University, Karachi. He can be reached at nomaniconn@gmail.com

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