Unlikely at the moment, but perhaps, someday Pakistan can trust the power of the vote and democracy to solve national problems instead of the traditional reliance on three A’s: ‘Allah, Army and America’.
There are persuasive claims that next weeks elections in Pakistan are being de-legitimised and manipulated from the get-go. Pre-poll rigging, press manipulation, impeding protests, electoral violence, and allegedly fixing outcomes, cast a shadow over the fairness of the election. Collectively, these conditions point to a deeply flawed, even sham electoral process. But voters and supporters of democracy have little choice but to stay the course. Despite the challenges, the electorates best hope still lies in trusting the power of the ballot box hoping that the future will be better with an election then without.
However, the relentless interference in the democratic process has taken its toll. It has squeezed out the vitality and dynamism required for a healthy democracy. As a result, Pakistans social, economic and political development has lagged behind its neighbours, particularly India.
Both countries started off at the same time, however, India moved far ahead by successfully institutionalising free and fair elections early and then the hope of socio-economic opportunity, accountability and the rule of law to the masses.
Despite the continuous challenges of inequality, caste, and multi-ethnicity, the Indian democratic model has served to strengthen the state and society. In Pakistan, the elites played cat and mouse with the democratic process creating conditions for the dismemberment of the country in 1971 the creation of a national security state forever paying the price for the militarys strategic games in the region.
It seems a given that forces inimical to democracy will continue to look for opportunities to derail the process. The insecure elites that exercise control over the state have never accepted the chaos, uncertainty, and turbulence that free and fair elections bring.
The fallout from the elections of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and ZA Bhutto still sends shivers down many a spine. Todays elites consider controlled democracy the safest course, the rationale employed in the earlier support extended to military despots, Generals Ayub Khan, Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf.
And the games go on. Allowing religious extremists, into the mainstream is the recent dangerous and opportunistic ploy that imperils Pakistans nascent democracy.
Several candidates tied to extremist groups, who stand accused of spreading religious hatred, instigating sectarian violence and having ties to cross-border terrorism, have been cleared to run for public office among the hundreds of candidates representing religious parties.
Historically, extremists only pay lip service to democratic norms revelling instead in foisting their poisonous and insidious views on politics and society. Regrettably, few political leaders and political parties have had the courage to face and isolate religious extremists. It is now left up to voters to reject the extremists at the ballot box.
But, the top-down governance model is destined to fail once again, in spite of being tried over and over. When there is no sharing of power, no rule of law, selective accountability, there is abuse, corruption, subjugation, and indignation. Undiluted democracy papers over the fault lines of class and ethnicity in a diverse and polarized country like Pakistan.
Democracy serves to even up the fissures in society and state. It is not a source of disequilibrium and lop-sidedness as some may believe. There is evidence that only inclusive government, politically and economically, reduces conflict between the haves and have-nots.
A quote that Fareed Zakaria made in the context of India, also applies to Pakistan: Democracy makes for populism, pandering, and delays. But it also makes for long-term stability.
In contrast, a healthy and resilient genuine democracy emerges with decentralisation and federalism. But democracy only works when given time to develop, mature and deliver. For citizens to believe in it, a democracy needs to show its citizens that it can protect their core rights and establish fair economic and political rules.
It requires meaningful elections to strengthen civil society. In turn, a vibrant civil society exercises sustained pressure to ensure the accountability of the elected leadership. In this scenario, over time responsible and clean political parties try to unite society and maximise the interests of all citizens, rather than serving only the interests of certain groups and regions.
This system allows the majority rule to proceed, but protects minority interests. Moreover, citizens themselves learn to exercise power at the local level.
Unlikely at the moment, but perhaps, someday Pakistan can trust the power of the vote and democracy to solve national problems instead of the traditional reliance on Allah, the Army, and friendly-countries. As Abraham Lincoln said: Elections belong to the people.
Its their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters. On July 25, defying the challenges, the electorate of over 100 million may yet surprise us by sending a strong message in support of democracy and change. Good luck Pakistan!
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