The Democracy Train Chugs Along

In a developing democracy, what is important is the systemic entrenchment through constitutional norms and uninterrupted electoral processes; the issues of public propriety and moral turpitude get sorted out as the democratic polity takes roots. Indeed, with each election, the system receives new vigour. The UK, the US and our neighbor India have all traversed this path. The Senate elections have taken the country one step forward in its democratic journey. Indeed, the elections point to many an interesting fact and development.

Firstly, this is the first post-constitutional reforms Senate elections. Now the upper house is occupied by the members who have been returned by the legislators elected in the 2008 general elections. Thus, the Senate elections have led to the expunction of the last vestiges of the Ziaul Haq and Musharraf era political system. True, many newly elected members may also have been part of the previous system, but now they stand on a much sounder constitutional pedestal. Yet, surprisingly this qualitative leap in the development of democracy has been lost on much of the political and media space. Why?

Actually, the alleged use of pelf and power in the elections has stimulated such a raucous debate on political morality that the underlying virtue of the graduating democracy has gone unnoticed. The media gurus do not reckon that democracy works like a mechanic in a garage, perennially engaged in fixing the malfunctioning vehicles. And that until the socio-political realities of the common men are transformed, the face of democracy would seem like a façade, carried on by the ruling elites. But even in the same democracy are latent the seeds of redemption for the shackled masses. Hence the cliché: even a bad democracy is better than autocracy.

Many of us were unhappy when General Ziaul Haq lifted martial law, in lieu of the infamous 8th Amendment to the constitution that drastically distorted the parliamentary system, and led to the dismissal of as many as four elected governments at the hands of the establishment-sponsored powerful presidents. Yet, a political process of sorts was triggered by the end of martial law. And a wish to revive the original 1973 Constitution remained kindling in the heart of every democrat worth his salt. The wish was finally realised much later by the present parliament, the very members who are berated day in and day out.

Secondly, the Senate elections have also shown that democracy not only reforms misgovernance but also chastens errant leadership. This time round, none of the parliamentary parties, not even the PML-N, allowed the system to crumble just to deny the PPP more seats in the Senate. It is a departure from the past when the political system was marred by perpetual confrontation and fissures and the main political parties — the PPP and the PML-N — went so far in hurting each other that they ignored the cost of their bellicosity. As a result, both suffered at the hands of the establishment.

Thirdly, the Senate elections have also set the course for the coming electoral alliances. One can now cautiously predict that the present coalition may give way to some kind of electoral understanding, if not an alliance. The fact that the PPP leadership has stitched together varied rather hostile political forces for more than four years reflects not just President Zardari’s ‘magical management’, but there is logic behind the coalition partners’ affinity. The PML-N is overtly anti-establishment, a fact not palatable to the PML-Q and possibly the MQM. And the PTI is too soft on the ‘fundos’, hence not acceptable to the PPP and the ANP.

Fourthly, the successful conclusion of the Senate election also shed a new auspicious light on our political system: the establishment’s power to stall or influence the electoral process seems to have been diluted by the ongoing democratic process. Politicians do not seem as pliable as they used to be in past decades. Probably that explains why President Zardari has survived so far and so successfully; why he has proved wrong all those who predicted the fall of his government before the Senate polls; and why he warded off an array of real and perceived threats — the contempt proceedings, the Memogate affair, and the Swiss case.

However, it is too early to say that the country is out of the woods as far as the establishment’s political ambitions are concerned. The country’s social and economic conditions are too precarious, requiring not only democracy but good governance. Hence, the PTI received much response from the despondent electorate. But of late, Imran Khan too is finding it hard to keep the momentum of his popularity going. Some pundits are already talking of his bubble having burst and pointing to his being present more on the TV channels than amidst the hordes of his ‘tsunami makers’. They attribute the fading of his charisma and puritanical politics to the entry of a host of tainted politicians into the PTI.

The other promising leader Nawaz Sharif may retain his popularity in his stronghold Punjab, but not enough to get a clear majority in the National Assembly. To be fair, he may not form the next government, not because he has lost his popular base to Imran Khan but because he has too many forces arrayed against him, including the establishment and possibly the US. Unless he relents on his anti-establishment rhetoric and takes back the powerful and wealthy rump of the PML-Q turncoats, his chances of capturing power are rather dim. Therefore the PPP-PML-Q-ANP-MQM alliance, bolstered by a Seraiki ethnic appeal, may still manage to retain much of the present count in the Centre and provinces.

The smaller parties and independents can also play a useful role in breaking a tie that may develop in a hung parliament. Their role may also be more pronounced if the seats are divided among all the major political parties.

Lastly, the Senate elections have aroused an interesting debate as to the ethical side of elections. The stories of big bucks being used to ‘buy’ votes (read the elected representatives) are being circulated in the media. A petition has been filed in Balochistan requesting the court to inquire into the alleged misuse of public funds to buy off provincial assembly members. Likewise, a technical hitch to the legality of by-elections has led to the passage of the 20th constitutional amendment, which ‘ensures’ a neutral interim government and an independent election commission.

Thus the train of democracy that has been derailed many a time before is now chugging along. It is has crossed many a station and many more are still to come. What is important is that it must not be allowed to be derailed. If it is, then there is no possibility of getting it back on track, let alone getting it to reach the destination — a peaceful, progressive and welfare state.

The writer is a lawyer and academic. He can be reached at shahabusto@hotmail.com

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