Future of Democracy

14th September, 2018

The Pakistan At Hundred initiative hosted a panel discussion on ‘The Future of Democracy in Pakistan’ on September 14, 2018. The session was moderated by Dr. Hassan Javid, Assistant Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS. The panel comprised of Dr. Saad Gulzar, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Stanford University, Dr. Sameen Mohsin Ali, Assistant Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS.

The talk was organized around the role of local government and its critical connection to democracy. Local government is a system which penetrates down to village levels, allowing a new class of leadership to rise, eventually resulting in more MPAs and MNAs. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provides a greater level of authority to local government, allowing 30% of the local budget on paper. In reality, the 30% promise is not fully delivered due to institutional barriers put up by the MNAs and MPAs, who want the funds for their own development schemes. Punjab on the other hand, follows a centralized structure where provincial government and bureaucracy control all the decisions, and only lip service is paid to the value of local government. Owing to a lack of proper penetration at village level, there are provincial controls through district chairperson in Punjab, who then creates his own ideal panel for contesting elections. This was seen in Hafizabad, where Saira Afzal Tara was MNA while her father was the district chairperson.

Women are also missing from most of the conversations in democracy. A positive step was seen when election results were considered void without at least a 10% women turnout. Nevertheless, women still lack proper access to power, where even elected women on reserved and general seats refer to their husbands to speak for them in public meetings and to take their decisions. The few women that are ambitious and outspoken, get hamstrung by the ‘zilla chairperson’ who is mostly always a male is limiting their access to funds. The consensus was that interventions should be made which deal with women councilors and the way they perceived their jobs and their role in the local government.

Local government is a significant factor in expanding the pool of candidates and bringing in fresh blood. Currently, huge barriers to entry exist where connections to party leadership, to vote blocs, baradaris groupings, bureaucracy and police matter. In the system of patronage politics, the figure of electable holds many connections and has a steady voting bloc. Maintenance of such voting blocs is essential to victory in elections, where powerful influential people have entrenched themselves over time, and use their influence to provide some sort of patronage and service delivery. Voting blocs support a candidate not for the promise of doing the right thing, but for some personal benefit, which ultimately drives candidate selection too, negatively affecting parties and democracies in the long run. If the candidate chosen is rich, influential and an elite then they maintain power through patronage spending, resulting in a continued reliance preventing emergence of alternate candidates.

When it comes down to the decision of choosing a candidate, the party has more incentive to choose someone who can guarantee a victory and a voting bloc, than a fresh candidate. This dilemma faced by political parties is a tremendous barrier to overcome, where parties get trapped in a race to the bottom between trying to cultivate linkages with electable politicians at expense of fresher faces that can bring in new ideas. Interestingly, about the 2015 local government elections in Punjab, about 40% of the winning candidates belonged to Muslim League, whereas 38% came from independent seats. These independent candidates were eventually later absorbed within the Muslim League. This shows an increasingly centralized power in the hands of the government, where the use of legislation and democratic mechanisms allowed civilian governments to entrench themselves by monopolizing access to patronage. The incentive for a candidate is then skewed in producing elite patronage; do you go for a party you are sure will win, or one that has greater ideas.

There is also considerable pre-polling rigging, where elections are now won by controlling media coverage, putting the right bureaucrat in the right place in a polling area. Increasingly, since end of 1990s, now elections are rigged by engineering defections of candidates from one party to another. Considerable reason to worry was observed about the direction in which Pakistan’s democracy is headed, in terms of the nature of parties, the candidates they choose, and the nature of balance of power in terms of their actions and the broader narratives regarding freedoms of expression and belief.

Crucial to improving democracy is introducing competition where local government can provide a fruitful avenue. Another institutional imbalance was seen where law-making and enforcement is no longer the preserve of the legislature and executive, but rather of one unelected man who is in charge of supreme court. There needs to be checks and balances to prevent one person from wielding absolute authority. There is an increasing criminalization and policing of dissent in Pakistan, where people talking about missing persons, objecting about dams and freedom to religious ideals is being increasingly oppressed at the hands of authoritarian state apparatus. This increased use of authoritarian apparatus and utilizing tools to police dissent and propagate particular narratives through media is seen as impeding on a vibrant and democratic civil society.