In search for a representative democracy

Democracy as a system of government, must aim to achieve peoples’ representation, and not just majority representation

Political systems are created to be a means to an end, and hence, they can be re-examined. The means of representing people can always be improved, notwithstanding the court decrees declaring certain features of that system as salient or inalterable. This piece is certainly not an attempt to extol transcendental institutionalism and completely discount non-institutional features, such as, the actual behaviour of people and their social interactions emerging from political structures and institutions. At its broadest, this write up is a sweeping testimony that indeed state and all its structures are a product of a legal fiction and one such product is the form democracy we practice. So, this system can be tweaked, altered and even radically transformed for better or worse simply by changing the laws that enable such structures and institutions.

Pakistan, with its long history of experiments, settled for the parliamentary form of government with bicameral legislature at the centre. Our democracy, still choked by our colonial heritage, adopted the Westminster’s model of first past the post system. This system does not represent the masses at large. We must make our system of government more representative. The buck does not simply stop at devolution of more power to majority. Any solution must envelope plurality and more than just numbers.

As we break down our model of the ‘one man one vote’ concept, we reach an inescapable conclusion; that our government formed in the centre isn’t a truly representative government. Of the eligible voters, the total voter turn-out in the last elections was 55 percent. Almost half of the eligible voters never turned up to cast their vote. Secondly, per the last drawn electoral rolls by Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), there are 84.36 million registered voters in Pakistan but our population, per the last census, has ballooned up to approximately 220 million. This figure, one can argue, is a very conservative estimate of our population.

In the 2013 general elections, 46.2 million people exercised their right to vote in the elections. The PML-N formed the government with 14.8 million out of the popular vote. It did not get the majority of the total votes, but simply more votes than the other parties

Moreover, in the 2013 general elections, 46.2 million people exercised their right to vote in the elections. The PML-N formed the government with 14.8 million out of the popular vote. It did not get the majority of the total votes cast, but simply more votes than other parties in certain constituencies to get the requisite members. From Punjab alone, PML (N) received 11,365,363 votes and returned adequate members to form the government. There may be many, like yours truly, who are averse to numbers, but a simple break down indicates that the real majority does not vote at all; is not a registered voter; of the registered voters, the majority does not vote for the party that forms the government in the centre and one province alone helps formulate the federal government. So much for representative democracy, our system does not even purely qualify as majoritarian!

The numbers also illustrate appalling consequences of the first past the post system with multiple parties in a federation. It is not just about the battleground that is Punjab, but people are aware that the vote for the runner-up simply is not accounted for in this system which mandates winner takes all! First past the post system, that too with more than two parties does not protect the sanctity of all votes cast. It leads to a narrow and unrepresentative form of politics. It has disenfranchised the majority from the political process in Pakistan and keeps on piling up ‘outside agitators’ who are at times conveniently ignored by the government if their demands don’t align with the discourse engineered by a few. The recent Pashtun sit-in is a good example of this phenomenon.

Democracy as system of government must aim to achieve peoples’ representation, not just majority representation. The additional member system, as a proportional representation method, has worked well in Germany and can be looked at as a viable alternative in Pakistan. The system with appropriate modifications can help account all votes cast in a proportionate manner and allow political parties to inform the political culture of the country. People could vote for the candidates and the parties on their manifestos, with an arrangement for returning candidates, in both the provinces and the centre. A greater spotlight on the parties’ manifestos, apart from plurality voting, would also enable greater voter turn-out.

What about the Senate? It only caters to a loose notion of giving equal representation to all the federating units with nine seats in aggregate for women, technocrats/ulema and minorities in all provinces. This is not sufficiently integrative of all identities. A Senate ought to be a more representative body reflecting aspirations of all sub-national groups, ethnicities, cultures and regions. It must draw on all denominations, different occupational and linguistic groups, tribes and classes of the society. Both the method of electing senators and composition of senate needs to be reviewed. For unless a society is ready to embrace pluralism and celebrate diversity, it can never enforce all-pervasive narrowly sketched identity based on religion or regimented patriotism.

In his Letter from Birmingham Jail Martin Luther argued: “It is a strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively.” No political system is perfect. But it can certainly inform political culture in the society and increase the level of society’s political participation. We certainly need a new and more inclusive model of the social contract, which is not just majoritarian but more representative of the peoples will. Remember — time alone, whether it’s linear or not, will not fix our problems!

The writer attended Berkeley and is a Barrister of Lincoln’s Inn

Published in Daily Times, March 6th 2018.