South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

CIVIL society is once again facing the awkward question as to whether it must always support an elected civilian government, regardless of its performance, to avoid the collapse of the democratic system.
The exertions of ambitious pretenders to the throne apart, the people are getting quite uneasy about the way the state is being managed. The large-scale lawlessness and threats to the life and liberty of citizens, poverty, and discrimination against the underprivileged are strong enough factors to breed disenchantment with any government.
Besides, the country is caught in a war situation, the writ of the state has weakened, religiosity is getting the better of reason and compassion, and the people feel their minimum expectations from the state are not being met.
These problems have been with us for ages. What is especially worrisome today is the government’s apparent lack of a clear vision, a chasm between its promise and performance, its reliance on force or the letter of the law rather than political give-and-take and justice, and a personalised style of governance. Yet democratic opinion has continued to shield the government, considering this necessary for protecting the democratic system or, more correctly, the promise of a transition to democracy.

The government need not be upset if civil society starts examining its conduct.

This save-the-system syndrome is the residue of the people’s repeated battles against authoritarianism, and is sustained by the perception that the worst democracy is preferable to the best dictatorship.
During the movement against the Ayub regime the democratic sections of society knew that the fruits of their struggle and sacrifices were going to be garnered by the same political parties whose fads and foibles had cleared the way to military dictatorship and who had surrendered to it without a whimper. Still, political parties were not criticised because that would have helped the regime.
The Yahya regime averted a movement for restoration of democracy first by creating an illusion of democratic revival and later on by dividing the nation through senseless fratricide. Yet the parties that joined the electoral contest of 1970 had to prove that they were different from the parties that had contributed to the national mess. The 1970 election manifestos of all political parties were therefore extremely rich in pro-people promises and ideas of basic reform.
The issues were simpler during the Zia regime whose subversion of democratic values was so great that the people joined the democratic movement without asking for a game plan for the realisation of their socio-economic aspirations.
Similarly, the people supported the political parties that challenged the Musharraf regime in 2008 although they were the same outfits whose squabbles and propensity to preferring the military to their political rivals had alienated the people from democracy.
Thus, traditionally, Pakistan’s consistently democratic elements have avoided blaming the civilian politicians for creating openings for intervention by extra-constitutional forces, and whenever democracy has been restored the political elite is believed to have learnt its lessons.
The year 2013 marked a watershed in the history of Pakistan’s politics: a civilian, elected government completed its normal term and handed over power to a successor elected democratically. These events should also mark the political parties’ accession to maturity and increased ability to govern democratically. It is, therefore, time that without diluting their commitment to defend the democratic system the people — civil society in particular — should start subjecting the government and all political parties to normal scrutiny.
This has also become necessary for two reasons. First, in the absence of accountability at public forums the ruling elite has tended to follow the ways of authoritarian regimes. Difficulties faced in any branch of administration are sought to be resolved through arbitrary decisions. Sometimes the people are told not to reject elected rulers’ policies if they had not challenged similar actions by unelected rulers. In the process the goal of democratic consolidation recedes further. Secondly, the powers that be have been emboldened enough to deny civil society its right to participate in the state’s democratic management, a right it had suspended in times of emergency.
One hopes it is not necessary to explain to the country’s rulers that the world has moved far beyond the notions of majoritarian democracy. Today democratic governance means a system in which those in opposition have a say in the management of affairs and the people at large have maximum opportunities for contributing to a national consensus. A mistake Pakistan’s rulers often make is that in situations of emergency — economic, political or strategic — they try to rely on harsh regulations that curtail citizens’ basic rights and freedoms, whereas in such situations there is greater need for the broadest possible consultation. No society can afford the consequences of believing that no wisdom is available outside the corridors of power.
The government need not be upset if civil society starts examining its conduct, for the purpose is the consolidation of democracy and contribution to good governance. What is being asked for is the proper utilisation of support and advice mechanisms that the government can call upon, such as parliament, party cadres, inter-party caucuses and civil society platforms. However, for this to happen the ruling elite will have show greater respect for parliament and stop looking at civil society organisations as unreliable foreign objects — or UFOs.
Tailpiece: When strong leader took over town/ All things became strong/ Onion went up and up, /And potato went along/ Bread and cheese took flight as well,/ And Gas, Diesel, Petrol/ Made a value-added leap,/ And rents went on a roll./ Bijli began its hide and seek,/ Displaying sweat-filled strength,/ The hoi polloi cried “hai hai hai,/ Bring back that weak government.”
These stanzas from a lament on the Modi government by an Indian poet, Badri Raina, show how close to one another the people of India and Pakistan are, not only by habit and temperament but also in their trials and tribulations.

The writer is a director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).