Flawed democratic process

Democracy, we believe, has to mean something beyond the ballot box. After all, when this remains the sole focus — it becomes all too easy to overlook a flawed electoral system. We have seen this when it comes to the popular vote for parliamentarians that bars minorities from directly electing their own representatives. Not to mention the role of money in contesting and winning the elections. And with less than six months to go before the citizenry votes for a new National Assembly, this hardly looks likely to change this time around.

The reports of horse-trading that continue to plague last Saturday’s process represent a dark stain on Pakistan’s democratic record. This is to say nothing of corruption rankings. Media reports suggest that the phenomenon of votes-for-cash has been widespread, which, of course, is an alarming development. It will only dwindle the public trust in democratic institutions and lend credence to the long-held view of the establishment that all politicians and, more importantly, ‘politics’ are corrupt.

Prior to the elections, the Supreme Court declared all the candidates of PMLN ‘independents’ and the Election Commission obliged by creating this open field. The political elites followed suit by taking advantage of the charged environment.

The biggest obstacle to the country’s fledgling democracy is that there appears no mechanism for self-correction. Instead, what we have is much moralising from far too many low-riding horses. This has led us to farcical scenarios. Such as the MQM-P’s intended moves to challenge the Senate elections before the courts and the Election Commission, even though Dr Farooq Sattar admitted that he backed the PMLN’s Mushahid Hussain Sayed. And then there is the not un-small matter of between 17-20 PTI lawmakers having sold their votes at a reported Rs40 million a pop. Party chief Imran Khan was right to make this public. Though he must now get to the bottom of who pocketed the cash given that he says the identity of the bribe master is known to him. Nevertheless, he has remained shtum on how the PTI’s Chaudhry Sarwar secured the Punjab.

Imran Khan did not vote himself. As the head of second largest party this was a shocking move. And what is he going to do about his party legislators who were allegedly ‘bought’ for Senate votes? Since he considers the PMLN and PPP to be beyond redemption, he should set an example by cleansing his own party of the corrupt. Whether he will do that a few months before the elections is highly unlikely. So much for self-righteousness.

The PPP must also be questioned for its ‘wins’ in Balochistan and KP. For we all know how the Senate elections have been conducted. A few PMLN legislators in the Punjab reportedly voted for the PTI candidate. It seems that the political elites are brazen about their misconduct and this lack of accountability is one of the many reasons why democracy has been turned into a sham by all concerned.

The way to get around this votes-for-cash is, of course, to introduce proportional representation. Many countries across the globe practice this system that ensures a measure of transparency and minimises fraudulent practices. This is also a fair mechanism where the standing of political parties in the Lower House can be well-reflected in the Upper House. Yet even this is not enough. For political turncoat-ting is simply horse-trading on the cheap. Thus we recommend the introduction of time-bound limitations to curb our politicians’ crossing over to the other side. In practical terms, this could mean saying everyone either stay put or go else go independent in the 12-24-month period before elections. This will be far fairer than political bigwigs changing ship at the last minute; only to be awarded a ticket regardless of the fact that they may not even know their constituents or their prevailing concerns.

Conscientious politicians within different political parties should come forward and force their leaders to agree on vital changes in the democratic system. As history tells us, such failings enable unelected institutions to play the reformist role. Hopefully, that is a story of the past. *

Published in Daily Times, March 6th 2018.