Making Democracy Work

By Anjum Altaf

If we wish democracy to work we need to open the democracy-box and tinker with the innards.

Let me illustrate what I mean with reference to an article that appeared recently. The gist of the article is as follows:

The people in Pakistan are angry and frustrated with their President and wish to see the last of him. But the President, no matter how unpopular, was appointed constitutionally and can only be removed constitutionally. The supporting logic is as follows: “If we accept that we want democracy, we cannot cherry-pick from the package. In the 2008 elections, I held my nose and voted for the PPP. There is not one party for which a sensible person would vote happily. Should we then invite the generals to take over?”

This leads to the conclusion that ‘democracy is the best revenge’: “And therein lies the solution, though banal and unsexy. Democracy, good or bad, is about the inevitability of gradualness. Throw them out when the time comes and punish them thus. That may beget another bunch of jokers but the very fact that elections constitute an accepted succession principle and there is an appointed day when the people can extract their pound of flesh, indicates progress. It makes leaders less arrogant and over time, instills in them a sense of what should be done and what avoided.”

I feel we need to go beyond the confines of this logic and this defense of democracy. Let me first reiterate a few observations that can be inferred from the article and then argue why we need to extend the argument further. The first aspect that strikes one is the characterization of the existing system: “There is not one party for which a sensible person would vote happily.” The second is the recommendation: Let each ‘bunch of jokers’ complete their term to beget another ‘bunch of jokers.’ The third is the logic supporting the recommendation: “elections constitute an accepted succession principle and there is an appointed day when the people can extract their pound of flesh.” The fourth is the outcome expected from the process: “it makes leaders less arrogant and over time, instills in them a sense of what should be done and what avoided.”  The fifth is the characterization of the process and hoped-for outcome as ‘progress.’ And the fifth is the alternative to this hold-my-nose merry-go-round of joker-swapping: inviting the generals to take over.

The first thing I would propose would be to put this theory to the test of experience? Two so-called bunches of jokers have had two turns each on the throne and the one having its third stint is the one people are allegedly fed up with. Where is the diminished arrogance and the sense of what should be done and what avoided that ought to have resulted from these rounds?  What do people have to show for the pounds of flesh they have extracted in each round? How many people in provinces/states with small populations can vouch for the progress that has resulted from the process? I would ask following question: If the jokers know that all they have to do is to sit out a term, should they really consider the pound of flesh a heavy price for the opportunity to abuse the trust assigned to them through the working of the prevailing form of democracy?

The second thing I would propose would be to extend the logic of the process into the future. How long does this swapping of jokers have to go on before there would be something to show for it? At the rate that resources are being siphoned off and the country run into the ground, would there be anything left to fight over by the time this form of democracy matures? What is the empirical basis for the hope in the ‘progress’ that is expected to follow from the process? If we simply give the system time would it surely sprout forth a miracle?

The third thing I would propose would be to question the logic of the defense of the existing democratic dispensation. Why should a dysfunctional system be tolerated in which there is no one party a sensible person can vote for and that only offers the prospect of swapping jokers according to a well-prescribed schedule? Must it be tolerated because the only alternative is a take-over by the dreaded generals? Why should we box ourselves into a scenario in which the only alternative to a dysfunctional democracy is a take-over by the generals?

I would argue that a sick democracy and authoritarian rule are not the only alternatives. I would also argue that ‘an accepted succession principle’ and ‘an appointed day’ when people can extract their ‘pound of flesh’ are not enough to justify the acceptance of a sick democracy.  Principles and appointed days and extractions are fine but it is results that should count in the end. Even in India, with over sixty years of uninterrupted and a relatively more healthy democracy, the progress has been meager for the majority. One third of the districts have lost faith in the democratic process, the states on the extremities are restive, and the rising middle class is developing a softness for more efficient alternatives. Even Indian democracy is squeezed from both ends and does not have forever to demonstrate that it can deliver the general progress that is expected of it.

I would propose that instead of shielding a dysfunctional democracy by posing the specter of dictatorship we should examine its modalities to ensure that it begins to actually empower the citizens. Any number of dimensions can be explored. For example, why should we have a first-past-the-post system? Why should we have Westminster-style democracy? Why should the democracy only offer the voters a choice between ‘jokers’? Why can’t there be a provision for write-in candidates? Why can’t there be a provision for a recall vote? Why can’t ministers be required to be vetted for appropriate qualifications by a neutral commission? Why can’t there be a provision for citizen-initiated ballots that would have the force of law? And, so on.

We cannot treat democracy as a black-box that is a take-it-or-leave-it alternative to dictatorship. ‘Democracy’ is an umbrella term for a system that rests on dozens of norms and procedural rules. These rules have to be examined and adapted and stretched for the conditions of each society that opts for a representative system of governance. The rules that are chosen should be the ones that put into the hands of citizens real choices and the means of exerting real accountability, not the dubious pleasure of swapping jokers according to an accepted principle on an appointed day. The configuration of democracy need not be the same in poor, semi-literate and heterogeneous societies as in affluent, fully literate and homogeneous ones. The rules left to us by the British are not sacrosanct – they can and must be revisited in the light of our own needs and experiences.

There is no alternative to democratic governance. But treating democracy as just the antithesis of dictatorship, being content with whatever we inherited, and hoping that a precisely timed succession of jokers according to an accepted principle would deliver a miracle would be shortchanging ourselves. We can do much better.

 

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