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Democracy is only bottom up

This situation is unlikely to improve unless the democratic discourse is put upside down

Democracy is only bottom up

One of the least recognised surprises thrown up by the general elections 2013 is the participation of the highest ever number of independent candidates. For the National Assembly, it had crossed the figure of one thousand only once since 1988. But in the last elections it went as high as 2,356. Why was it so?

The number is generally considered inversely related to the strength of party politics at the time of any given election. The independent candidates are thought of as freelancers who offer their loyalty to the highest bidder after having demonstrated their ability to win voters.

But the 2013 elections were hotly contested by three, and not two, big national level parties for the first time, leaving no space for non-party adventurers, except in a few small pockets. That makes the high increase more difficult to explain.

A deeper look at the performance of these candidates, however, offers some light. These candidates (of the National Assembly elections) polled, on average, 2,537 votes each and if you take out the tallies for 28 winners among them and of the runner-ups, it falls below a thousand. These, too, were concentrated at one or two polling stations.

The real constituencies of these candidates, thus, were the size of local government councillors and, in fact, many of them had served as councillors in the recent past. These candidates were conscious of the fact that they lacked resources to join the big game and stood no chance in the absence of support from the political parties.

They were aware of their political size but what pressed them to take up the rather obvious humiliation was their desire to sustain themselves as political actors through the uncertainty about the local governments. They weren’t trying to move up the political ladder but were struggling to maintain their nascent political careers.

For democracy to survive and grow, it must be owned by the people. The local governments are at the root of it as they serve as the main interface between democracy and people.

The local government system introduced during General Musharraf’s period had, by the time of 2013 elections, exhausted its constitutional life and there was no clue about what the new elected governments will opt to do in this regard. The new political class that local elections had created was anxious about their survival and the general elections provided them with an opportunity to keep alive their relationship with their electorate.

The fact that they could perform well at one or two polling stations shows that the electors of these small units, too, expressed their confidence in them.

In terms of number of polled votes, independents were the fourth largest ‘party’ at the national level.

Tallies from provincial assemblies of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa offer an even bigger surprise. Independents were the second largest ‘party’ after PML-N in Punjab as 3,361 independent candidates polled 6.3 million votes. PTI was third with 5 million votes. Similarly, in Pakhtunkhwa 565 independents polled 0.87 million votes to stand second to PTI that polled 1.04 million votes.

How can such considerably large portion of the electorate decide to ‘waste’ its votes on candidates that stand no chances of winning? Can so many of them be naïve, if not stupid? If one truly believes that votes are a representation of people’s will, there can be only one explanation of this voting behaviour.

The electors voted in favour of local government system not recognising that the elections were for national and provincial assemblies. They cast their ballot for democracy that they can relate with. They supported the candidates that they personally knew and found accessible. More importantly, these micro clusters of voters recognised them as agencies that can take their collective political causes forward.

For the common voter, the national and the provincial constituencies are so large that they make the areas where they spend their lives irrelevant and their issues unimportant. The leaders are inaccessible to them and law-making and constitution-amending is an abstract business with no easily understandable consequences for them.

The ‘illiterate’ electors earn a rebuke every now and then from the well-wishers of democracy for this poor understanding of politics of ‘drains’ and ‘roads’ and it is seen as a major impediment in the maturing of democratic systems in our country.

What we often fail to fully recognise is that the people first need to experience democracy and accrue its benefits to become believers and defenders of it.

The current democratic system is top down. It concentrates power in a few hands that can’t be held accountable by the electors. At the popular level, democratic experience is limited to an electoral fair that is periodically organised with the sole purpose of legitimising and further strengthening the traditional power structures and on the sidelines of which the common people get a chance to collect minor benefits.

This approach towards democracy has its origin in our colonial past and the post-independence regimes have only taken this forward in the same direction.

The current political crisis in the country kicked up by few thousand protestors in Islamabad has once again exposed the weakness of our democratic system. A government that has all the right numbers in the parliament and enjoys full constitutional protection has been made to look vulnerable, hapless, and weak in the political realm.

This expose of the absurdity of the electoral system shows that if democracy is considered as merely a grand total of some numbers oozed out by an electoral machine, it cannot create strong governments.

This situation is unlikely to improve unless the democratic discourse is put upside down. For democracy to survive and grow, it must be owned by the people. The local governments are at the root of it as they serve as the main interface between democracy and people. That’s where people actually get to see, experience, and benefit from it.

The phenomenon of  a high number of minnow independent candidates and the support that they have mustered in small pockets is a hidden verdict in favour of local governments. It is a call that democracy needs to be nurtured at the grassroot level. It’s about time to heed to it as howsoever huge a tree trunk may grow; it can hold the ground only if its roots are allowed to spread wide and deep.

Tahir Mehdi

Tahir Mehdi
The author works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy.

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