Thinking About the Elections in Pakistan

By Anjum Altaf

Elections are due in a few months and one of the questions being asked is whether they would be an exercise in futility. I think not even though nothing much is likely to change in the short term – for that, one can look across the border where six decades of uninterrupted democratic governance has not made a major difference in the lives of the marginalized. It is the long-term implications that ought to be the focus of our attention.

For better or for worse, and I feel it is for the better, we inherited representative government from the departing rulers. Better, because the precursor to representative governance, monarchy, no matter how benevolent at times, offered no mechanism for holding the aristocracy accountable or of institutionalizing orderly transfers of power. Those were huge negatives irrespective of how one looks at them.

With representative governance, sovereignty, at least in principle, rests with the people and the potential of the exercise of this sovereignty, whenever it is realized in actuality, is profound. The transition from a subject to a citizen, so far quite incomplete, is pregnant with possibilities.

This transition is not going to be easy by any means – note that citizens continue to act as supplicants and representatives who can bequeath office to next of kin as dispensers of largesse. The attitudinal hangover from the monarchical past is huge and telling. There is still next to no accountability and transfer of power remains fraught with intrigue and uncertainty.

The reason, if one thinks of it, should be obvious. In regions where rule by representation was born, it was preceded by a prolonged process of socioeconomic change that provided its underpinnings. In 17th Century Europe religious conflicts discredited divine authority as the fount of sovereignty, the emergence of capitalism made peaceful coexistence attractive, and urbanization replaced the power of communities with an individualistic ethos. Not surprisingly, it was a period of immense intellectual activity in which alternatives to rule by divine right and religious precepts were furiously debated and the notion of a social contract between rulers and ruled came to the fore. It was postulated that the ruled might cede power to a sovereign in return for the recognition of some rights as citizens.

These ideas nurtured the movements for liberty, equality and fraternity that swept away feudal power, realized social equality, made access to rights independent of patronage, thereby creating the foundation on which governance based on one-man-one-vote and the politics of ideas could be erected. Even then, it was over a period of three centuries that all the rights of citizenship, civil, political, and social, were fully secured – recall how long it took women to get the vote.

This process of change and social leveling preceding the emergence of representative rule in Europe has been stood on its head in South Asia. Representative governance with full suffrage exists but patrons and clients remain in place; political rights are available but civil and social rights are virtually non-existent. The hangover of the past is so pronounced that our representative system is really disguised monarchy in democratic garb – witness the prevalence of dynastic rule in South Asia.

There were individuals in South Asia aware of this reality and its immense challenge. As early as 1948, Dr. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution, made the following observations:

“Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realize that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic” and “In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value… How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril.”

This implies that South Asia has to achieve through the political process what socioeconomic change and social revolution accomplished in Europe. It is this aspect that deserves attention. This is also why it is less relevant to ask who to vote for in the next elections than what one ought to be doing to ensure that representative government begins to deliver for the people.

Democracy is not a thing as some talk of its coming and going might suggest. Rather it is a set of institutions comprised of rules moored in a particular socioeconomic context and modulated by a particular power structure. Our intellectual focus should be on understanding the context and examining the rules to see how they might be altered to make the institutions more accountable to the people. To take just two examples: why do we have a first-past-the-post system to elect representatives and why don’t we have a citizen’s referendum to recall representatives who fail to respect their mandates?

This will be a slow evolution but there is no acceptable alternative. Another look across the border would make us realize that despite the perception of minimal change, erstwhile subjects are continuing to claim the rights of citizenship – the rights to information and timely delivery of services being just the latest of gains.

There is no example in history where rights have been conferred on the ruled as favors. They had to be fought for by means that were appropriate at particular moments in time. In South Asia today, understanding and crafting the institutions of democracy are feasible choices available to the people. It will take more than casting a vote once every five years and hoping for a savior to achieve the outcomes that we desire.

Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on April 1, 2013 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.


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8 Responses to “Thinking About the Elections in Pakistan”

  1. KD Says:

    “It will take more than casting a vote once every five years and hoping for a savior to achieve the outcomes that we desire.”

    So, sir, how do you propose we do this?

    “This is also why it is less relevant to ask who to vote for in the next elections than what one ought to be doing to ensure that representative government begins to deliver for the people.”

    Similarly, what can one do to ensure this?

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      KD: Clearly, any one person can do very little but all change is driven by ideas and ideas do not emerge by themselves. In my view, the first task is to understand the various systems of governance, the institutions that comprise them, the details of their structures, and their compatibility with socioeconomic relaities. Only then we can discuss what changes might help improve the existing state of affairs. We should be debating these issues and trying to enlarge the set of citizens who are engaged in the study of society. If the ideas have merit, they should be able to suggest an alternative path to progress. As long as we are at the stage where the best we think we can do is to give someone untried a chance, we will be disappointed. Intellectual laziness will extract a huge cost from society.

  2. WG Says:

    “These ideas nurtured the movements for liberty, equality and fraternity that swept away feudal power, realized social equality, made access to rights independent of patronage, thereby creating the foundation on which governance based on one-man-one-vote and the politics of ideas could be erected.”

    As per my understanding, I do not think the movements lead to social equality per say. Rather, they led to legal equality. In the eyes of law, each citizens have same sets of rights. But of course their excercise and enjoyment of these rights are still dictated by their preferential access to resources. What we have then, in democracy, is a veil of legal equality donned upon a rigged social inequality. Democracy thus is not, and never will be, revolutionary.

    Without a comprehensive socialist ideology embedded in it, democracy will only serves to prolong societal inequality and its legal equality will only further alienate the root causes of the inequality from their actual sources. Democracy will only reinforce this dichotomy between legal equality and social inequality. Just democracy alone is not enough and in our society may in fact even worsen the situation of those already deprived. We should remember this while answering the question regarding whom we should vote for.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      WG: There are some points in your comment that need to be fleshed out. First, social equality is different from income equality. The following illustration might help think through the difference – while there are great income inequalities in the West, there are no twice-born and untouchables in those societies. Second, social equality did not emerge as an outcome of democracy; rather, social equality was achieved through social revolutions (like the French revolution) that swept away the hierarchies of lords and serfs that characterized feudal societies. The social equality that resulted from the revolutions became the basis for legal equality and then political equality (one-person-one-vote) which culminated in democracy as the form of governance compatible with those equalities.

      You are right that legal equality is compromised by income inequality in some dimensions of life – as in being able to afford very different quality of legal advice. But social equality has endured till very recently although there are now concerns that even this may be falling victim to the vagaries of unregulated capitalism – the Occupy Wall Street movement can be seen in this regard.

      However, any attempt to guarantee income equality has floundered in the real world for a host of reasons. What remains a legitimate goal is to ensure equality of opportunities not equality of outcomes. When the capitalist system comes under sufficient stress, as it is in parts of Europe today, it will make the necessary concessions to preserve itself. That, at least, has been the experience of the past.

      When Tocqueville described life in America in 1830 he was struck by “the general equality of condition among the people.” He elaborated that “though there are rich men, the class of rich men does not exist.” This was a profound observation. The concern of many is that after 200 years an oligarchy has indeed emerged in America and that this will have significant implications for the nature and practice of democracy. A good article that expands on this is by Benjamin Friedman, Professor of Political Economy at Harvard University:

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      WG: This video should help mark the difference between social, economic and legal equality: “People affected by caste prejudice in UK speak out.”

  3. Sabiha Ashraf Says:

    Small steps may not be big enough- but even a small step matters when so many are needed..

  4. Anil Kala Says:

    I think Indian Democracy is reaching some kind of maturity. The emergence of demographic/social pressure groups, a vibrant media and therefore opportunity for any talented individual to race down to center stage, public becoming more demanding and pressuring the government to act with speed (recent law enacted for crime against women case in point) and voter showing preference for efficient government. This is how a mature democracy works. Eventually Pakistan will also have similar government all they need is habit of going to polls every five years.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Anil: At the very least Pakistan should have governance similar to that of India and if polls are held regularly that state should be achieved. The real question is whether for those at the bottom of the social and economic hierarchy that state is good enough? As most people recognize, India’s mature democracy is yielding gains to those at the bottom very, very slowly and there are some groups, as in the Red Belt, who are actually being deprived of their assets. It is possible be optimistic, as you are, or worried, as many others. The media is very much a mouthpiece for big capital which has politics in its grip as many of the mega scams illustrate. Politics itself is captured either by privileged families or criminals – it is truly rare for any talented individual to race down to center stage especially if he or she is from a marginalized background. And democratic governments have to be forced into change demanded by people through anti-democratic measures like fasts-unto-death and dharnas. This suggests systemic weaknesses and failures of democracy. The only difficulty is that there is no alternative and it it would be interesting to see if the majority would have the patience for the slow trickle-down or whether the system would explode at some point.

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