The development of democracy has been hampered by the troublesome legacies of the military regimes, including ethnic fragmentation, alienation of the smaller provinces, and concentration of wealth and privilege among the class co-opted by the dictators
People often put this question to us, at intellectual forums or social gatherings. And then, without waiting for comment, answer it themselves: no, we don’t have democracy!
Why do people think we don’t have democracy, when we have held elections, have representative governments at the centre and in the provinces, and Pervez Musharraf is no longer our president?
The answer we get is in the form of more questions, about everything that is wrong with our society, policies, education, the economy etc. People ask: what has really changed; is this government not following the same policies as its predecessor; don’t the same people get elected every time elections are held; is it democracy when the same ruling families return to power again and again?
There are other questions, too, that raise doubts about the relevance of democracy to the socio-economic conditions of Pakistan. Some literate urbanites wonder in their conversations about democracy how a poor and illiterate population can make sensible decisions in the electoral process. They ask: is this why the same lot is elected again and again; why aren’t the poor or even the middle class represented in the provincial and national assemblies?
These are the kind of questions that we need to discuss and debate as we reflect on the quality of democracy in our country, so that we can make it better by putting greater effort into our democratic project. Interestingly, the people who raise doubts about the quality of democracy would not welcome dictatorship, they also don’t believe there is a better alternative to democracy.
Let us address some of these doubts and questions. But before that, some general remarks about democracy:
First, democracy in its simplest and basic form is about giving people the right to elect their government. Second, through this system, the aim is to create stability and certainty in society by establishing a system under which a government can be created and changed peacefully. Third, public approval of a political party to form government gives it political legitimacy and social support to manage public affairs, and formulate and implement policies. At the centre of this system is the idea of fundamental rights, political equality and individual freedoms.
These are some of the underlying assumptions about the goodness of democracy and its relevance to all cultures and civilisations. Why, then, do some societies have democracy and others don’t; why is it that the quality of democracy in some countries is better than others; and why are some societies better candidates for a transition to democracy?
The answers to these questions lie in the history of political development in a society, the nature of its elites and the political consensus among them, and how long democracy, even it its procedural, basic form, has been practiced.
Thus when looking at Pakistan, questions about democracy are more about what it could and must have done than about its inherent weakness as a system or about its relevance. Natually, popular expectations of elected governments to deliver services, maintain law and order, promote economic progress and social stability are much higher than of other forms of government. And it should be noted that other forms of government, especially dictatorships, do not require popular legitimacy; they want acceptance based on better performance.
It is still debateable whether military dictatorships have out-performed civilian governments or vice versa. Though it should be kept in mind that except for the government that came to power in 2002, no civilian government after 1985 was able to complete its tenure. We also cannot ignore the distributive effects of economic growth and investment in social projects, which were emphasised more during democratic periods than during dictatorships.
The development of democracy, let us not forget, has been hampered by the troublesome legacies of the military regimes, including ethnic fragmentation, alienation of the smaller provinces, and concentration of wealth and privilege among the class co-opted by the dictators.
Democracy is an evolutionary system; and it does not come in a perfect template. We may have some universal principles like popular sovereignty and representative government, but these have to be rooted in the socio-cultural climate of a country. The class character of society and the layers of influence and power are reflected in who usually gets elected.
During the first phases of democratic development, it is always the aristocratic classes that dominate the electoral process, but the urban landscape may have a different set of representatives, for example from Karachi or some urban centres of Punjab. Greater representation of the middle and professional classes increases over election cycles, within political parties as well, and the stability of elected governments increases too.
To meet popular expectations, and to out-perform rivals and predecessors, elected leaders need to ally with the middle and professional classes. In many countries, this has become a political necessity rather than a choice.
The quality of democracy and its stability has thus depended generally on the growth of the middle class, which in our view has expanded, and continues to rise. But the middle clas is neither organic nor ideologically homogenous. Its economic character wants to achieve more and pulls it closer to the idea of freedom, and makes it a stakeholder in political stability.
The Pakistani middle class may not be seen as yet in the elected assemblies but it occupies alternative spaces of influence, in the robust civil society movement, in the intellectual circles and in the media. The freedom of the media and the emergence of civil society and its successful movement for the restoration of deposed judges are signs of democratic change.
Pakistan may remain a transitional democracy until we have had at least three peaceful transfers of power through elections. Our elected representatives have a heavy burden to disprove the sceptics inside and outside the country by forming coalitions as they have and by building national consensus on difficult issues, as they appear to be doing.
Democracy is a natural system for an ethnically diverse and culturally pluralistic society like Pakistan. And this is why after every failed and discredited dictatorship, we have returned to democracy. Yes, we have democracy, but it may not be comparable with the quality of democracy in countries that have consistently followed this path of social and economic development.
We need to make our democracy better in the interest of the common man. And it is a collective social enterprise that we cannot leave to the dominant elites. Popular stakes and popular civic engagement will keep us on the democratic track and will speed up the process to make up for lost time.
Dr Rasul Bakhsh Rais is author of Recovering the Frontier State: War, Ethnicity and State in Afghanistan (Oxford University Press, 2008) and a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He can be reached at email@example.com
Reproduced by permission of DT