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Democracy after elections

Imran Khan will make a place in the annals of history if he takes upon himself to bring real democracy to this country

Democracy after elections

In his victory address after getting the highest number of seats in the national assembly, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf chief Imran Khan outlined the focal interests of his government. Eradication of poverty, creation of employment options for the burgeoning youth, improving governance, strengthening state institutions and repairing relations with United States, India and Afghanistan were the core messages.

He spoke of a clean and fair election that catapulted him and his party to power through a democratic process. He also talked about a mandate that empowers him to take drastic steps to curb corrupt practices and institute drastic reforms. He appeared open to investigate all charges of rigging in these elections by his political opponents.

The national mood in many parts of the country, including Karachi, displayed as if democracy has triumphed and that all the woes that make the humanity suffer shall vanish after their leader — at the national level — would be sworn in as the chief executive of the country. The reality seems to be different from this perception.

A sizable number of ordinary folks are completely oblivious of the state of affairs of powers, resources and institutional arrangements between centre and provinces after the 18th constitutional amendment.

Healthcare, education, maintaining law and order, provision of municipal services such as water and sanitation and many other sectors of performance are almost entirely controlled by provincial governments. Sindh is being governed by the same party since 2008 and hence the ‘change’ factor trumpeted by the PTI ranks shall not be directly applicable in this province.

Similarly Balochistan, as usual, is managed by political groupings that evolve and dissolve along very different considerations than the mainstream national politics. In any case, not too much transformation is expected to arise there. One will have to closely watch the policy and non-policy moves of the incoming federal government in respect to foreign policy, communication projects, water and power management initiatives and other federal initiatives for the positive and negative implications on the provincial and local situations.

One of the most vocal displays of democracy is to keep national elections process clean, open, transparent and verifiable. Since most of the ideological debates seem to have taken a back seat, the focus of electoral competition now revolves around mundane municipal issues or proven or unproven matters related to financial corruption. Some proclaimed democracies, where the mechanics of conducting elections are well oiled and relatively transparent, consider decline of interest in elections as a grave concern.

Basic unit of democracy is the political party itself. Most of the parties in the west have standard procedures of managing their routine affairs.

World Development Report 2017 informs that average voter turnout rate has declined by 10 per cent during the last 25 years. In sharp contrast, the conduct of elections is perhaps the only visible sign of democracy in countries like Pakistan. Enormous amount of resources are invested to finance campaigns. All means and clandestine connections are brought to work to satisfy at least the surface conditions of electoral process.

Strong perceptions of rigging in elections are termed death knell for democracy as happened in Kenya. But there is no guarantee that elections would generate a truly representative government.

Relatively peaceful elections in Egypt in 2014 did not change status of governance. As famous American intellectual and social critic Gore Vidal concluded, “A democracy is a place where numerous elections are held at a great cost without affecting the main issues and with interchangeable candidates”.

Despite long preparations, the present Election Commission is being singled out by many opposition parties. Practice of democracy shall remain a fallacy without potent, credible and independent election commissions. This vital institution has the most important role of generating the new leadership according to people’s choice. It has done ‘wonders’ in the past.

In 1977, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was left gazing at the unexpected number of seats his party won according to official notification. It led to a subsequent derailment of democracy and inflicted irreparable damage on the country. One of our past presidents won so many votes in the referendum that even shocked some of his closest aides. In Ukraine, Georgia and Haiti, the election commissions were infested with members of the ruling parties which severely affected their credibility.

Election observers from European Union, British Commonwealth and the United Nations have notified persisting irregularities in many countries, including Pakistan, on different occasions. Situation analysis has indicated that without strengthening Election Commission, real democracy can never be achieved. Composition, legal and administrative autonomy, competence and proper resource allocation are a few basic ingredients. These institutions have a continuous workload to deal with before and after elections. Data base creation, testing of procedures, revision of information, voter education, monitoring of political parties, checking the moral, professional and financial conduct of elected members are some of the key points to be addressed on a regular basis.

Basic unit of democracy is the political party itself. Most of the parties in the west have standard procedures of managing their routine affairs including membership induction, fund raising, campaign management, intellectual preparations/research, manifesto articulation, public contact and internal elections. The closely fought competition between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in the US in 2016 is a glaring example.

Our parties speak tonnes of democracy but practice none of it. Party funds are secret affairs in which ordinary members have no participation. They are also not open for public scrutiny. Dynasties and fiefdoms control the internal governance structure. Anyone falling from the eyes of party head — even on intellectual dissent — has no place in the party politics. Some fascist looking outfits even eliminate dissenters, as alleged by countless critics. Leadership of provincial, divisional and lower level party positions is chosen through nominations. In majority of the cases, the party chief hand picks his favourities for these positions. The same is true for the finalisation of electoral candidates.

Powerful and rich interest groups are approached that assure lavish contributions to the campaign and an assurance to win. The poor and middle class workers and party supporters do not make it to the high places. At times, non-elected offices are created to accommodate those who lose elections or personal favourities of party chiefs. Can Imran Khan and his affiliates change this status quo?

Imran Khan will make a place in the annals of history if he takes upon himself to bring real democracy to this country. Conducting regular party elections in his own political party on credible lines, organising and facilitating a database of party workers and members down to the grass root level and empowering tiers of the party to perform assigned job are some essentials. Similarly he must bolster the position of his ministers and reduce his role to the principal decision maker on key policy issues. That shall send the correct message to the masses that custodian of powers have the moral courage to live up to democratic traditions.

Dr Noman Ahmed

Noman Ahmed
The author is Chairperson of Department of Architecture and Planning at NED University, Karachi. He can be reached at [email protected]

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