Pakistan: Time for democracy
|Sunday, February 17,2008 13:11|
|By Ishtiaq Ahmed|
On February 18, 2008 general elections will be held again in Pakistan. The philosophy behind elections is that if people elect their government and lawmakers they empower them to exercise legitimate authority on their behalf. Equally, those who occupy positions of authority know that without the support and approval of the people they would not be in power. This way a democracy which is based on a contract which ensures mutual rights and obligations between the rulers and the ruled comes into being.
Yet, democracy is not without its critics and sceptics. Not until the 20th century did democracy begin to receive a positive emphasis in political theory. It was feared that if the poor and ill-informed masses were granted the right to vote they would act irresponsibly and thus create disorder and upheaval. Another argument against democracy has been that demagogues and powerful forces in society can join ranks to dupe the gullible masses into voting for incompetent candidates while competent and qualified individuals lacking resources are greatly disadvantaged.
I hear quite so often that if democracy can produce leaders such as George W Bush and Tony Blair who imposed an unjust war on Iraq notwithstanding worldwide opposition, then where are the checks on the unwarranted use of brute force by powerful states? Quite honestly, I have no good argument against such a criticism. The problem is always power and its misuse or abuse, and politics is indeed about power.
Another way to approach this problem is to consider what are the alternatives to democracy? Can we reasonably wait for some divine intervention to correct mischief on earth? Even Ayatollah Khomeini had rely on the Wilayet-e-Faqih – that pious ulema can take over of on behalf of the Imam in his absence.
Sunni-dominateed states such as Saudi Arabia have relied on dogma to establish their version of the Islamic state. But in all honesty can anyone claim that both these states are anything but repressive and outmoded autocracies? The performance of Iran and Saudi Arabia is there to be seen by anyone interested in individual freedom and social justice.
Should we repose our trust in the military because as the custodian of national security they would know best how to promote the public good? Or, have we reached such a level of human responsibility and mutual respect that we can abolish the state, government and all the paraphernalia of a modern polity as the anarchists want?
I think all the alternatives to democracy can be dismissed as less commendable. However, we should most certainly discuss how to make democracy work fairly, efficiently and successfully. To begin with, it is in place to distinguish between liberalism and democracy. Liberalism is a doctrine in which an individual is entitled to inalienable rights that the state or society cannot usurp. It requires the rule of law, a system of checks and balances, limited government, and established, transparent procedures to exercise authority. A liberal order can exist without democracy, but not the other way round.
Thus for example one can trace the origins of English liberalism to the Magna Carta (1215), Habeas Corpus Act (1679), the English Bill of Rights (1689), and so on, but the right to vote for common men dates only from the 19th century and to women from the early 20th century. Britain became a full-fledged democracy after 1945 when universal and inclusive democracy was introduced in that country.
Nascent democracies can sometimes elect wholly inappropriate leaders. The classic case is the election of Adolf Hitler as German Chancellor in 1933. The election of Narendra Modi in the Indian State of Gujarat points out that brute majorities can still vote rabidly illiberal and racist individuals into power, but Indian democracy has to go a long way before it matures and consolidates not only at the level of state but also the society. All democracies face the constant threat of being subverted by extremists from within, which calls for great vigilance against such rogue elements.
However, there is no other system that allows for corrections and adjustments better than democracy. Therefore we have to work hard to earn the right to democracy, and by that I mean not only the right to vote but also to create and maintain a democratic socio-economic, political and cultural order.
Now, when we go to the polls on 18 February it would be imperative that the vote is cast on the basis of some reflection on the suitability of the candidate and the party he/she represents. If we are allowed to take part in a free and open election; it should be celebrated as the first step in our right to enjoy all the other rights given by our constitution.
The elected representatives of the people of Pakistan should consider this as the last chance to save this country from going to the dogs. This I say somewhat rhetorically and in a prejudiced manner because I find that dogs are faithful creatures who return more love than what is given them, but we human beings are not that reliable. We are capable of divine magnificence as well as downright meanness and treachery. That is why democracy must be able to accommodate all sorts of human beings as long as they obey the law.
The writer is a professor of political science and a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore.