March 16, 2013, is a landmark date in Pakistan’s troubled political history. The elected National Assembly and elected civilian federal government completed its full tenure and came to an end through a normal constitutional procedure. The members left the National Assembly in good mood saying goodbye to one another. The prime minister addressed the nation on radio and TV two hours before the conclusion of the tenure of the National Assembly, thanking all those who contributed to strengthening the democratic process. He also highlighted what he considered to be the achievements of the PPP government at the federal level.
The politically active circles would continue to debate the achievements and failure of the five years of democracy. Given increased political divisions in Pakistan there is a greater tendency to take a partisan position. If one is a supporter of the PPP there will be some praise for the government. The opposition members have nothing but criticism to offer. The PML-N leaders appear to be more critical of the PPP than any other party but they project the PML-N government in the Punjab as the best example of performance. Imran Khan criticises both parties.
There are those in Pakistan that trash everything. Either they are idealist or pessimist. For them no government has done anything for them; prices have increased, life has become unsafe and there is power shortage. The democratic era has not given them anything, they argue. They are not interested in the civilian governments completing their terms. Some of them think that there is no hope for democracy until an ideal society and state are created and a super human and fully pious person appears on the political scene.
Despite political failures and poor governance, peaceful and orderly completion of the term of the government marks the end of the first phase of democratic transition. This needs to be acknowledged and celebrated. The second phase starts for the selection of new assemblies and governments.
The test of the people’s commitment to democracy is the general election. It is a challenge to hold peaceful, fair, free and transparent elections. This calls for a joint official and non-official effort to hold the election in a manner that it provides an opportunity to the people to elect their representatives. It should be held in a manner that its results are acceptable to the main players in the process and the elections observers describe it as a fair chance to the people to exercise their right to vote.
It is a wrong assumption that democracy cannot exist without ideal political and societal conditions and that the people in the lead political role must be pious and angel-like. Democracy is a process that improves by practising it. The process must continue and mid-course corrections are made in the light of the experience of working of democracy. The democratic process improves over time provided there is a conscious effort to improve it and its values are adopted by the society as the standard way of dealing with social, political, cultural and economic affairs. Democracy has to become a way of life and a way to look at life as well as the strategy of dealing with other.
The leadership reflects the broad features of the society because the leaders have to deal with the people and address their problems. If corruption and favouritism are rampant in the society, do not expect that the leaders will be completely free of these weaknesses. If every leader refuses to help people who have not been able to prove that they are fully justified in their demands, the people will be unhappy and turn against such a leader. Either the leader has to solve the problems of the people or convince them that they should not demand this or suggest a better alternative.
The quality of leadership can improve if the people and societal organisations scrutinise the performance of the elected leaders through mutual dialogue and discussion on national and local problems and issues. The voters need to use their right to vote on merit. If they think that a parliamentarian has not performed his job in a fair manner or engages in corrupt practices, they should not vote for such a person. This is a more effective method of accountability than expecting someone appearing on the political scene and cleansing the society through arbitrary and brutal methods.
Election provides the people with an important opportunity to hold the parliamentarian accountable for their work. When the candidates are engaged in election campaign the voters should ask them questions about their agenda for local development work and national issues. Invariably the candidates give a rosy picture of the future or make promises that are never delivered.
When a candidate makes a promise ask him to give a plan of action. For example, a candidate can argue that if his party comes to power it will provide jobs to every young persons with high school education and others and that the problem of electricity shortages will be removed in three months. Ask such a person how would his party mobilise financial resources to achieve these objectives. What are the specific plans to produce more electricity or use the currently available electricity in an efficient manner? Which methods for power generation will be employed and how would funds and technology be made available?
Everybody should check if the vote is registered and use it on the polling day. A large voter turnout reduces the chances of manipulation of results. The party activists need to take extra security caution in the course of the election campaign and on the polling day to avoid terrorist attacks. Hold small public meetings and monitor the areas closely where election activity is taking place so that none is able to plant a bomb or engage in suicide attacks.
The forthcoming election is an important occasion for the people of Pakistan to demonstrate their commitment to democracy by getting actively involved in the electoral process. Do not listen to those who argue that nothing can change by casting vote. Election is the most civilised way to elect new assemblies and new governments provided the people vote for the people who are genuinely committed to the cause of the people. The voters and politically active people should cooperate with each other to turn the election into a genuine democratic exercise.
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.
This column first appeared in Pakistan Today on March 20
- Elections on May 11 (nation.com.pk)
- Pakistan’s latest experiment with democracy (dawn.com)
- South Asia ‘Democracy’ Express (Slow) (dawn.com)