Democratic dispensation balance sheet

By Babar Ayaz

As the out-going parliament celebrated completion of its five-year tenure, many people ask what democracy has given to the people. It is indeed a pertinent question but wrongly phrased. The question should be what has the PPP-led coalition delivered or failed to deliver in the last five years. Questioning efficacy of a democratic system implicitly means that we would have been better off with a military dictatorship, forgetting the mess they have left behind for the elected governments to clear.

To get to the right answer dispassionate analysis of the five year economic, political and governance balance sheet is in order. In the run-up to the coming elections politicians, political scientists, economist and journalists will hopefully analyse objectively to educate the masses. It is particularly important to explain that democracy and the present quasi-feudal and capitalists system would evolve if its uninterrupted growth is allowed. Unfortunately the establishment has never given a free hand to the political government to take crucial decisions. Fortunately, the politicians who have matured after being bitten many times by the meddlesome establishment were determined not to let the democracy applecart to be toppled this time. The remaining credit goes to nobody but to the tumultuous geo-political situation where army’s hands are full and they need politicians to support their actions.

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

As stated in my earlier columns, 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 an urban middle-class intellectual snobbery and an 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.  

Much of this elected government energy was consumed in trying to find the right equilibrium, between the various institutions. But this scramble for more space in the power structure is likely to continue as it happens in other developed polities also. This tussle for more power between the normal institutions of the state power i.e. executive, judiciary and the parliament did not let 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.

Elected governments have inherited the dangerous policy set by its military rulers which has always been concentrated on its geo-strategic position from a 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 benefitted much more had its rulers exploited the geo-strategic position of the country for economic growth. Coalition government’s attempt to build relations with India was sabotaged by the agencies and their Jihadi outfits. Nawaz Sharif’s efforts were torpedoed by launching the Kargil operation. Zardari efforts were check-mated by the Mumbai massacre by the Jihadis.

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. Even the oldest Westminster democracy is going through these pangs. The United Kingdom is faced with the 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.           

Politically what has democracy 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 parliament, whose basic function is to legislate, passed 134 laws and most of them with the consensus of the opposition. This is not a small feat.

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. Politicians who hold power at the federal and provincial level usurped the local government powers as it gives them more funds to pilfer from.

On the governance side it is right that the government proved inefficient. 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 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. However, the responsibility of failure to restore law and order in Karachi falls squarely on all the coalition partners.

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 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 58% in five years; falling foreign direct investment, ; and low GDP growth.

The burden of checking corruption which has affected the development work and delivery in the social sector has to be borne by the coalition government. There was no attempt to check it in spite of a howling rage by the media. The level of corruption raised manifold during the last five years, compared to the last military regime.

Energy crisis was not a doing of the coalition 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 a 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 the power sector. But this does not absolve the coalition government from the blame they failed to manage electricity resources. The major causes of electricity shortage are running inefficient public sector power generation plants, high electricity theft, non-payment of dues by the government and politically influential people and subsidized tariff which is also enjoyed by the rich.  

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 LNG 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 so far to import gas from Iran is daring. But too much interference of the judiciary in the commercial deals of the government has also slowed down the LNG import project.

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 and oil prices also rose in the same period. 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. The coalition government followed policies that lead to transfer of money from urban to the rural areas. The policy has paid in terms of higher cash crops production. As a result purchasing power in rural areas has increased. Don’t forget the burden of the ongoing war against terrorism, 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 a strong support from 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. Fiscal deficit has remained high and the government failed to pull it down. However, though official economy has not performed well because of bad management and number of external factors beyond any government’s control, the parallel economy flourished by leaps and bound to equal to almost 100% of the official GDP. This has increased purchasing power of the people and is leading the growth of consumer goods industry.

Biggest failure on economic front is 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.


  1. #1 by iqbalalavi on March 22, 2013 - 10:14 am

    I like the article. It is objective reporting of the democratic dispensation in Pakistan. iqbalalavi

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