The Nation: Democracy in peril

By: Adnan Falak | January 28, 2013 . 1

On 15 April 1814, in a letter to his friend, second President of the United States, John Adams wrote, “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” Looking at our own democratic experience, this statement seems prophetic. No one could have done more harm to the cause of democracy then the present government. It has performed spectacular feats of bad governance, corruption and incompetence, proving once again that our elected elite lacks integrity and ability to effectively govern this country. Recent protest in the heart of Islamabad has highlighted the challenges democracy is facing in Pakistan. If the next elected government exhibits same recklessness, it will strengthen the forces of despotism at the cost of modest yet significant progress we have made in the attainment of civic rights and liberties. 

To gain a better understanding of the problem, we need to probe some misconceptions about democracy. Lost in political idealism, we sometimes mistake means for an end. No one can ignore the virtues of democracy, but like all other political systems, its purpose is to create a prosperous and viable state. Just being democratic, does not guarantee the success of a political system. To thrive, political system must deliver. Even a populist system may not last long, if it fails to perform.  On the other hand, an effective autocratic system may gain acceptance if it delivers essentials to its people. Several states attest to this fact.

There is also a widespread misunderstanding that elections are enough to make a system democratic. The truth, however, is that democracy is a comprehensive concept transcending electoral process. In 2004, UN General Assembly adopted a resolution outlining seven “essential elements” of democracy including judicial independence, pluralism, rule of law, accountability, transparency and respect for human and political rights. Tested on these criteria, our current setup falters hopelessly.  Global Democratic Index 2011 declared Pakistan’s political system as hybrid of democracy and authoritarianism, placing it at 105th place among democratic nations of the world, barely ahead of Sierra Leone and Niger.

Our story of democratic tragedy is as old as this nation’s history which presents a sorry account of politicians, getting elected and indulging in excesses, offering a pretext to non-democratic forces for intervention. In this hall of shame, no regime has excelled like the government of Asif Ali Zardari. He assumed power in the backdrop of assassination of Benazir Bhutto, a tragic event used by him and his cohorts, as a slogan to support his government’s dwindling fortunes.

PPP has transformed the avenues of power into morass of corrupt practices, a fact highlighted by Transparency International’s rule of law index 2012 that declared Pakistan as seventh most corrupt nation in the world. The government patronized the most corrupt, filling its ranks with swindlers, elevating a discredited minister to lead the cabinet, and violating all the rules of political and civic morality.  The energy crisis witnessed during PPP’s tenure has devastated our industrial, agricultural and commercial base. Institutions such as PIA and Railways have fallen prey to political avarice and bad management. Situation of law and order is evident from Karachi, FATA and Balochistan, where the writ of state is non-existent. All of this has played havoc to country’s economy, pushing economic growth far below the average growth rate of South Asia.

Despite this, our elected officials are shamelessly fixed in their ways. When someone demands reforms or change, our politicians cry wolf, calling judiciary an activist, military an interventionist and whistleblowers opportunists, without accepting their responsibility for the current state of affairs. The calls for electoral reforms by Minhaj-ul-Quran’s chief deserve serious attention. Strict imposition of electoral procedure that sifts chaff from grain is vital for any effectual democratic change.

Pakistan People’s Party and its allies must accept the fact that there is a general dissatisfaction with their performance.  To paint it in different colours would be a disservice to the long-term cause of democracy. If democracy has to be strengthened, politicians must clean up their acts and deliver on their promises, otherwise they will imperil democracy. Unjust system, however palatable, will cease sooner or later, as Samuel Johnson said, “And then, sir, there is this consideration, that if the abuse be enormous, nature will rise up, and claiming her original rights, overturn a corrupt political system.”

The writer is a freelance columnist and has worked as a broadcast journalist. Email: