Democracy under threat

President Zardari has said that democracy in Pakistan is strong enough to protect itself. How Mr Zardari has come to this conclusion is not quite clear. He also said that the PPP government “has been formed by the people, who are ready to foil any conspiracy against the democratic government”. The president’s overconfidence in his party and government shows that either Mr Zardari is oblivious of the ground realities or he is pretending that all is rosy in his Garden of Eden. Perhaps the president needs a reality check.

There is no question that democracy is better than dictatorship. A democratic system gives representative government to the people, in recognition of their status as sovereign. It negates hereditary chieftainship, monarchy and autocracy and places the people centre-stage. Democracy is the only form of governance that represents the people’s will and opens the doors to accompanying benefits like freedom of expression, etc. When a party gets a mandate from the people, its government is expected to work for the welfare of the people but if it fails to deliver, it is voted out in the next elections. Democracy in itself and by itself is not an answer to all our problems; the underlying assumption, however, is that with each successive exercise of the people’s right to choose, leadership gets better and maturer. Albeit in power more as exception than the rule, democratic governments nevertheless have not done justice by the system. This government came to power after a long and hard struggle for democracy, but is increasingly a disappointment even to its supporters. The performance of the PPP-led government may end up giving a bad name to democracy and there are fears that if it continues in its merry ways, democracy as a system will be the eventual loser.

Mr Zardari has recently been bandying about terms such as ‘political actors’ and ‘political orphans’. The political ‘actors’ in this case are the agenda-driven right-wing forces, including some notable parts of the media, while the ‘orphans’ are partly at least an allusion to Musharraf’s former supporters and partly those who are waiting for the ‘angels’ to oust this government but have not found much support for the moment. Whether they succeed or not, the narrow focus of the president is ignoring a grim reality, i.e. there is also a considerable portion of the populace that is disillusioned with the incumbent democratic dispensation and wants a change in its conditions of life. This dissatisfaction with the government is partly owed to Musharraf’s legacy and partly the mismanagement and absence of delivery of the current government. Musharraf did leave behind a plethora of problems but the government has been unable in two and a half years to make things better or at least give some indication that it is on the way to making things better.

The impatience of the electorate also reflects the mindset of the people because of numerous military dictatorships and the subsequent political vacuum created in the absence of democracy. Most Pakistanis do not give enough importance to democracy. This government’s lack of delivery has further alienated large sections of the people from the otherwise desirable idea of democracy. The reasons for this inability to satisfy its supporters, constituents, and the broader public are rooted in cronyism and corruption – and the two often go hand in hand. The danger now is that this could lead to the downfall of not just this government but democracy as a whole. Instead of being complacent, Mr Zardari and the government need to wake up to the imminent threat that is looming like a dark cloud over our heads for quite some time now. The so-called ‘democrats’ may themselves end up being seen as a danger to the institution of democracy. If autocratic rule does make a comeback, we run the risk of isolation worldwide. It will be the biggest tragedy for Pakistan if democracy is lost because of the inadequacies of our democratic leaders.

(my editorial in Daily Times)

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