Has democracy delivered (Daily Times)

Has democracy delivered in Pakistan?

Babar Ayaz

The quick and pithy answer, which may not satisfy any TV anchor, would be ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. In a society where we see the world in ‘black’ and ‘white’ this answer is not satisfactory. To get to the right answer we would need an analytical paper of some length or a whole seminar. Most of the people who generally raise this question in a disgusting tone have no stamina for reading research papers, books or indulging in serious discourse.

But as this question has been asked by many friends and some of my young readers I would attempt to answer it succinctly.

A point to be noted here is that any particular government should not be confused with democracy. Democracy is a system which provides for electing the government and the opposition. And if they do not deliver they can be removed as prescribed in the constitution. The constitution is supposed to be the consensus bible guiding this system in any society. Rarely in the political history of Pakistan has a government elected through a democratic process lasted for four years. This government has the distinction to survive these tumultuous four years and is perhaps going to complete its tenure minus or plus a few months. Bhutto completed his term but was removed through a military coup violating the constitution. Musharraf’s government cannot be classified as democratic government.

To get the right perspective let’s take a pause and analyse the society we live in.

First, it has to be understood that economically and socially Pakistani society is multi-structural and multi-ethno linguistic. The structure of the society has a direct bearing on the level of democracy or even dictatorship in any country. While most critics of democracy in Pakistan undermine this hard fact, there are many who argue that given the low literacy rate, tribal and quasi-feudal structure of the society democracy is not suitable for our country. Now this is urban middle-class intellectual snobbery and insult to the 60% rural population of Pakistan. History, of even partially fair elections, has shown that people have given votes to the parties and their local leaders who they felt would be useful for them.

Second, there are those who want to see revolutionary changes notwithstanding the fact that democracy evolves it does not give you overnight solutions. Such a revolution would be desirable but at present Pakistan has to go through the evolutionary process of democracy. One reason that it has not delivered as much as it could have is that it was interrupted and mauled many times — directly and indirectly — by the military.

Third, in the absence of a democratic dispensation the institutions of the state did not get enough time to find the right equilibrium, hence the present scramble for more space in the power structure. This tussle for more power between the normal institutions of the state power i.e. executive, judiciary and the parliament is not letting the system which is in its infancy to stablise. Unlike many other countries where democracy has evolved, in Pakistan military has been a dominant power and has refused to accept the supremacy of any elected civilian government. This factor has played an obstructive role in the development of democracy and has created distortions.

Fifth, Pakistan has always concentrated on its geo-strategic position from military perspective and India phobia. This embroiled the country in regional disputes with devastating social, economic and political consequences. People of Pakistan and the region could have been benefitted much more had its rulers exploited the geo-strategic position of the country for economic growth. We could have become a peaceful neutral hub of business connecting east to the west and prospered in leaps and bound.

Sixth, the global and historical perspective is important to assess the success and failure of democracy. In India many governments changed in the 90s because the coalitions fell apart. Nobody questioned the efficacy of democracy and the constitutional process was followed. At present coalition partners play a hard ball with the majority party and take their pound of flesh. Nobody blames democracy for all the noises and bargaining in the parliament.

Even the oldest Westminster democracy is going through these pangs. The United Kingdom is faced with question of separation of Scotland. They have offered to hold a referendum on this issue as the Canadians did on the Quebec issue. Nobody said that they will send the British troops for protecting the national integrity and the military has not toppled the government. That is the civilised and democratic way of settling disputes and difference of opinion, in sharp contrast to what our establishment is doing in Balochistan. Left to the politicians this issue can be resolved amicably with the Baloch dissidents.

Now for a change first look at what democracy has delivered. It helped the bloodless ouster of a military general by the politicians. A great leap forward was taken towards transfer of power and resources from the center to the provinces through the 18th Amendment and NFC Award something which we could not do in 64 years. Arbitrary presidential powers to oust an elected government and dissolve the assemblies were taken away. Press freedom which some people use to show their disappointment with democracy is an integral part of the same democracy. The opposition which is a part of any democratic dispensation is playing a positive role in the parliament and outside.

The political parties have matured and stand united against any unconstitutional intervention, a great proof of democracy at work. Only fools who don’t know about the responsible role an opposition is supposed to play are taunting the PML (N) as friendly opposition.

Valid argument of the critics of democracy is that how these constitutional changes and new formula of division of resources between center and provinces is going to help the common man? Here teething pains and poor handling of the transfer of ministries and resources both by federal and provincial governments has to be criticised. But gradually these problems would be solved as it is in the interest of the provincial governments. This would help in bringing power closer to the people and development decisions would be made at the provincial level. It would be easier for the people to hold their leader accountable at the provincial level instead of running to Islamabad for everything.

However, the biggest failure of all the provincial governments is that the power and resources have not been devolved by them to the local governments. This issue gets very little coverage in our media although it is more crucial for the people than the much-talked about corruption.

On the governance side it is right that the real issues of the people are terrorism, religious extremism and sectarian and ethnic killings, poor law and order situation and providing better governance in all government institutions. These issues have not cropped up because of democracy they have been piled up because democracy was not allowed to function in this society. It is the democratic consensus that gave strength to the armed forces to fight the terrorists. It is the consensus developed by all leading political parties, that is challenging religious extremism and cutting across the sectarian divide.

Failure to control the law and order and poor governance is not the failure of democracy. Many countries are faced with these problems but there the government is blamed for its poor management, instead of questioning whether the country should have democracy or not. The solution lies in democracy which allows voters to push their elected representatives to perform. And if they fail to do that, voters are free not to elect them again. In contrast in a dictatorship neither can you push the bureaucrats and nor can you dislodge them through vote.

Major failures for which the present coalition government is criticised are:   corruption, energy, increased unemployment, high inflation, low tax revenue collection, public sector hemorrhaging impact on economy; depreciation of rupee against dollar by 7.08% since January 2010; falling foreign direct investment, ; and low GDP growth,.

Is this a failure of democracy? No. It is failure of the coalition government but partially. To be less charitable to them it can be said that their omissions and commissions have played a larger part than the objective economic constraints which would have squeezed any government in their place.

The burden of checking corruption which has affected the development work and delivery in the social sector has to be borne by the present government. There was no attempt to check it in spite of a howling rage of the media. But here we should not forget that corruption has been there even in undemocratic regimes.

Energy crisis is not a doing of the present government it was very clear as early as late 2004. Top government bosses had realised that by 2010 we will have a 5000 MW shortage during peak hours. They started on the mission to attract the foreign investors. But the approval process was slow and the bureaucracy was too afraid to approve projects as the private sector was asking for 8-9 cents a unit. This delayed investment in power sector.

People tend to forget that it was Benazir’s elected government that opened up investment in the power sector with its model investment policy. It was because of that policy that today almost 35% of electricity is produced by the IPPs. There was more investment in the pipeline but Nawaz Sharif’s government changed the policy and harassed the investors away.

Many drawing room critics blame democracy for not harnessing the indigenous coal. The fact is otherwise, Benazir had brought in investors in her first government, but as she was dismissed in about 18 months or so. It was during Musharraf’s era that I witnessed the Babus of the Ministry of Water and Power sabotaging the Thar coal project because they were not willing to give away power to the province to exploit its coal reserves and produce power.

It is under a democratic government now that the issue of control over these resources has been sorted out in the 18th Amendment with the opposition’s consensus. As a result progress has been made on the coal-power projects. It is under a democratic dispensation that Bhasha Dam consensus has emerged and work has started.

Another issue is that of the shortage of natural gas, this was also clear during the previous government that CNG splurging of gas is not sustainable. There are only three options to meet the gas shortage: import through pipeline which is a long term solution; import of LPG can ease some pressure in a shorter time frame; and raise the gas price to attract more investment in the exploration and production of oil and gas resources of Pakistan. As a matter of fact all these are not either and or options, all these measures will have to be taken simultaneously. The stand taken by the government to import gas from Iran is daring. But let’s hope that we do not buckle under the US pressure and move away from it. A democratic government can withstand this pressure better than a dictatorial one. In all these options people have to understand that oil and gas is becoming expensive internationally, so the people who blame democracy for higher prices should read the international market trend. No country around the world would be able to subsidise energy in future, unless it is a huge producer of oil & gas – like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and UAE.

Unemployment is increasing because of a number of factors. The population growth rate is still unsustainable and this is our chronic problem. The fragmentation of agricultural land by natural course inheritance and mechanization of farming is pushing the rural surplus labour to the cities. In the cities because of the security situation and constant efforts to destablise the democratic system has slowed down investment in new projects so not enough jobs are being created. At the same time we should keep in mind the global perspective. The developed economies have a larger unemployment ratio than Pakistan.

Similarly inflation is also a global phenomenon. The world food prices are rising roughly by 30 % a year and same is the case of oil prices. Yes, this is hurting the poor but the answer is not demanding lower commodity prices because it also hurts the agriculture producers who employ 42% of the workforce. Keeping to the policy introduced by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, all PPP governments had tried to make policies that lead to transfer of money from urban to the rural areas. The policy has paid in terms of higher cash crops production. This government has done the same as a result purchasing power in rural areas has increased. Middle class professionals who shed tears on rural poverty should be happy. But the flip side of this policy is increased price pressure on the urban poor. The fine balance was not mainained.

Don’t forget the burden of the ongoing war against terrorists, rehabilitation of internally displaced people and two major floods in a row.

The government had failed to impose the Regulatory General Sales Tax because of MQM and PML (N) resistance. Both are parties with strong support of the bazaar. But it has to be remembered that even General Zia and Musharraf governments failed to tame the tax evaders. So democracy cannot be blamed for this, weak resolve of the successive governments is the real cause.

Agreed that the landless peasants and wage workers are still being exploited but this issue is not debated in the drawing rooms and talk show studios. To bring change to begin with our attack should be against the growing inequality and non-implementation of labour laws for the agriculture workers. Unfortunately the democracy-busters do not join the struggle against inequality and exploitation. All they do is blame democracy and politicians from their air-conditioned offices, waiting for a benevolent dictator Messiah.  ayazbabar@gmail.com

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