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Democracy in peril?


Democracy, certainly, is proclaimed loudly as the panacea of all troubles and tribulations we presently face. While this may be debatable, the democracy demands highest levels of integrity and honesty. The system is endangered more by lack of integrity, compromise on ethics, dishonesty, incompetence and deceit of the dêmos themselves, than any conspiracies. The article by Babar Sattar is an insightful analysis of the dilemma, we as a nation face.  We are posting it from The News for the consideration of our readers. [Awaam]

By Babar Sattar

The issue of filing fake degrees to qualify as candidates for the national and provincial legislators is now haunting our politicos. Investigating the issue is a conspiracy against democracy, we are told, for at least two reasons: One, the graduation requirement imposed by a dictator as a mandatory criterion to be satisfied by public representatives in fact disenfranchised an overwhelming majority of our population and was a fraud on democracy itself; and two, with the graduation qualification no longer being a legal requirement for standing in electoral contests, the timing of this issue coming to the limelight is not just suspect but a sinister design to hold midterm polls which will tantamount to derailing democracy. But then is this an issue regarding educational qualification or fraud?

The reaction in Pakistan to the fake degree scandal has been extremely insightful. Those in the political arena caught with their pants down and others sympathetic to them subscribe to the conspiracy theory. On the other extreme are the drawing-room liberals and closet Praetorians who identify the Jamshed Dastis as evil incarnate and declare that the representative process in Pakistan will only throw up cheats and clowns and we are therefore not a nation fit for democracy. In the middle on the one side are apologists of the cheats who recommend that a general amnesty scheme be legislated to avoid accountability and by-elections this time and to let bygones be bygones. And on the other side are cynics who claim that genuine across-the-board accountability is not possible as everyone has skeletons in the closet and the angels that we seek through strict implementation of electoral laws are simply not in our midst. Unfortunately, both the arguments – the one assuming an imminent threat to the ‘system’ and democracy, and the one declaring us unfit for self-governance – spring from the flawed belief that our present political dispensation, the autocratic structure of our political parties, our corrupt political ethos and compromised electoral processes will continue to define democracy in Pakistan for all times.

Both the arguments suggest implicitly that the only choice available is between the type of messy democracy presently being practiced and an autocratic setup controlled by the khakis. Why should this woebegone nation allow its fate to be hung on a Hobson’s choice? Why must criticism of Asif Zardari or Nawaz Sharif and the political class that they lead be interpreted as an invitation to khakis? How does one’s disdain for Jamshed Dasti and the party structure, political culture and electoral process that facilitates his reelection as a national legislator translate into love for military dictatorship? Why would a large number of by-elections and cleansing of political stables derail democracy and threaten the system?

What is this ‘system’ that we are trying to preserve here? Must we preserve the sum total of a system without any amends that allows and encourages ruling political elites to make hay while the sun shines at the cost and peril of the distraught people of Pakistan? Just because we have suffered at the hands of rotten generals and their abettors in the bureaucracy, judiciary and the political class over the last 63 years, are we now condemned to suffer indefinitely at the hands of rotten politicians and the pygmies that surround them? Where does the ruling political class acquire this sense of entitlement?

Is the plunder by our representatives preferable to that of the generals because it has some trickle-down quality? A bad democracy is most certainly better than the best dictatorship. But aren’t these fake choices? It is a widely accepted thesis that dictatorships and dysfunctional civilian autocracies are two sides of the same coin. A political class that begins to believe and advocate that hiding or justifying the blemishes, incompetence, malfeasance and corruption of ruling civilian elites is a recipe for strengthening democracy and investment in the continuity of the political process is only deceiving itself.

Unequivocal and unconditional support to a political class committed to nurturing, retaining and defending its prevalent ethic comprising dishonesty, lack of integrity and contempt for the law is the surest way of encouraging our khaki saviors. Let us remember that the resistance that our nation mounted against the Musharraf regime was not motivated by a burning desire to see the Bhutto family or the Sharif family once again take turns at running nonperforming governments. The struggle for democracy was driven by the principles of self-governance and constitutionalism and subsisted despite the fact that we would see a return of political dispensations that have been tried before and found wanting.

Notwithstanding the various limitations of the Charter of Democracy, the document was well received and celebrated in Pakistan as it lit a candle of hope that the political class had learnt from the mistakes it made during the lost decade of 1990s. This hope started to dissipate with the breakup of the coalition between the PPP and the PML-N, once the former dug its feet over the issue of restoration of the judges. And with each passing day and week the general sense that the ruling political clique is neither interested in making a serious effort to deliver vital services to citizens through a functional system of governance nor willing to review a political ethic rotten to the core gets further entrenched.

It is this realization and the audacious defense of otherwise indefensible acts of the ruling regime and its cronies that is challenging the argument that continuity of the representative process will build sustainable democracy overtime. How does continuity of the process help, critics ask, if all continuity will do is produce more of the same politics and politicos that have landed us in the mess we are presently in. Returning to the fake degrees, this scandal isn’t about educational qualification or whether or not such qualification was desirable or legitimate in the first place. It is about lack of personal integrity, corrupt ethical values, use of deceit to achieve a personal end and shamelessly justifying wrongdoing when caught red-handed.

If democracy is to survive and prosper in Pakistan we must put to practice the principle that the authority vested in public representatives and office-holders is a scared trust to be exercised for the benefit of the people. How can you allow someone to become or remain a fiduciary that not only lies and cheats his way to such position of responsibility but also defends such deceit? The degree scandal is only the tip of the iceberg. It has thrown light on the serious flaws that mar our electoral process. The provision of the Representatives of Peoples Act that required honest declaration of educational qualifications also requires honest declaration of financial assets and liabilities. And such disclosure is still a mandatory legal obligation, adherence to which must be scrutinized.

Our law prohibits ruling national and provincial governments from using state resources to influence the outcome of elections. And while the federal and the Punjab governments have both used the entire state machinery and authority at their disposal to campaign for their respective candidates, the Election Commission has taken no cognizance of such blatant disregard of the law. Likewise, we have had no serious public discourse on campaign finance requirements that are crucial to weed out financial corruption from the political process and lower the barriers against entry into politics. While our law mandates that the total expense on an election (by the candidate and his supporters) must not exceed one million rupees, we have never heard of anyone getting disqualified due to enforcement of this requirement.

The now maligned ethic of expediency and success that helped justify military takeovers and polluted our constitutional jurisprudence is no less harmful to democracy when practiced in the political arena. Let us continue to reject arguments that entice us to do the wrong things for seemingly right reasons.

The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.

Email: sattar@post.harvard.edu

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Vision 21 is Pakistan based non-profit, non- party Socio-Political organisation. We work through research and advocacy for developing and improving Human Capital, by focusing on Poverty and Misery Alleviation, Rights Awareness, Human Dignity, Women empowerment and Justice as a right and obligation. We act to promote and actively seek Human well-being and happiness by working side by side with the deprived and have-nots.

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