Denial of democracy

Dr. S M Taha
Saturday, April 23, 2011


Pakistan is perhaps the only country in the world where the word ‘democracy’ has been used and abused rampantly to cover the dictatorial mindset and actions of the elected leadership. Our politicians have a great misperception that a country is said to be democratic if the government comes through an election process, however, election alone does not ensure democracy in the country.

At the 2005 World Summit, the world’s governments reaffirmed that ‘’democracy is a universal value based on the freely expressed will of the people to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural systems and their full participation in all aspects of their lives.’’ Pakistan is clearly not even close to the above mentioned standard, nor in pursuit of it.

A fair analysis of Pakistan’s history suggests that Pakistan has never experienced a real democracy since its creation. Even Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s regime and elected governments from 1988 to 1999 do not meet the most basic standards of democracy. Our self-proclaimed democratic leaders did very little to change the dictatorial pattern of governance in Pakistan. As a matter of fact, elected members of national and provincial assemblies mostly happened to be parliamentarians without training, will and vision. This is why they badly deformed democracy in the country.

Because of the diverse cultures and values of nations and regions, democracy does not provide a universal model. Fair enough, but there is a large consensus on fundamental standards of democracy among nations. These standards of democracy ensure a society in which people could decide their collective goals.

Pakistan presents a very ugly picture of democracy – perhaps even the ugliest. Democratic experiences in Pakistan have not provided for the right of public participation in governance and development. Instead of sharing and decentralising power to the grass-root level, elected governments centralised power, concentrating it in the hands of a few. It is very unfortunate that democracy in this country has become the business of a few family-owned undemocratic political parties that provide a protective shield to corrupt and incompetent people.

Why did this happen? Many reasons may be given. Voters in Pakistan, at large, have not yet matured enough to select the right people from among themselves. And the electoral system does not facilitate the entry of ordinary people in the electoral process. Moreover, the feudal set-up has hijacked the electoral process. The return of Mr Jamshad Dasti in the bi-election strongly supports the thesis that the voters have not matured enough to select the right people.

The conscious and independent opinion of voters is an essential component of democracy. How many voters caste their vote consciously and independently in Pakistan? A small percentage.

Resistance to taxing agriculture and sales income is indicative of a feudal-industrialist nexus in parliament. And the weak election commission could hardly provide a level playing field to all the people of Pakistan in the election process. Because of these reasons, our parliament has turned into a gathering place of nominated incompetent people (with few exceptions) pursuing personal agendas which translate into successive public policy failures and bad governance.

There are some structural flaws in Pakistan’s democracy. First, in this system, the opinion of the sane and the insane counts for the same. Or, in other words, democracy is the form of government in which heads are counted not weighed. Secondly, political parties are undemocratic, family sponsored and most of them are centred on personalities.

In the absence of grass-root political nurseries, that is, elected bodies, at union, town and city levels, cronies and family members get nominations in provincial and national elections.

Thirdly, highly skilled human capital is out of the political process. Last but not least, the federal structure of Pakistan divides along a number of fault lines that hamper democratic growth in the country. The federation and its four uneven units are uneven in all aspects; ethnic, religious, resources, and population. Sectarian and provincial feelings play havoc to an already fragmented society. Sixty-two years after independence, we still haven’t begun the process of nation-building.

These structural flaws prevent the growth of real democracy in Pakistan. A real democracy is one where society manages diversity, where society exercises democratic behaviour and constructs a pattern of democratic morality, where nations attain sustainable economic growth, the delivery of social welfare services to all citizens, good governance and equal opportunities to all.

Contrary to these attainable goals, elected governments from Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto till today have perpetuated corruption, bad governance, economic meltdown and underdevelopment. Elected governments have bulldozed merit and snatched the rights of public participation at the grass-root level. The failure of democracy has led to the rise of ineffective institutions which in turn have produced patterns of behaviour inimical to democratic success. Institutional breakdown has caused functional inefficiency in Pakistan. It is rightly said that a democracy without a sense of direction is like a ship with a sail, but no rudder.

The call of democracy demands betterment in the quality of citizens’ lives. Their lives can only be improved in the presence of rule of law, rights of equal access to public services, due social justice, and sustainable economic growth. Desirable and holistic growth is only possible through participatory decision making. And devolution of power (along with fiscal devolution) to local government is the right and tested strategy to strengthen genuine democracy in the country. The present state of democracy in Pakistan is not really democracy; it is a denial of democracy.

The writer teaches public policy and politics at the University of Karachi. His areas of research are policy analysis, governance and development.
Email: tahaku@

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