This article of mine was originally published in Express Tribune with a different title. However in the light of some comments on tribune and face book, I think this is a better title. I am amazed how condescending these yuppies are towards common man’s right to vote. Frankly I am no Zardari Lover, but I will defend to death his right to stay as President as long as he has the votes.
By Raza Habib Raja
Right now the news of possible regime change are dominating the mainstream media and active enthusiasm for that by some quarters shows that euphoria after the elections of18th February 2008 has fully subsided and has been replaced by plain disgust. If the demographics of the wary public are to be taken into consideration, it is again some sections (yuppies to be precise) of the affluent middleclass which are pressing for the regime change and are ready to support even unconstitutional means. However, this time the buck does not seem to stop at regime change as a sizeable number either wants democracy to be completely purged or at least temporarily suspended, to give way to an interim government composed of technocrats who would “cleanse” the system and pave the way to eventual and “real “democracy”.
Now honestly speaking the government has been incompetent. Despite having an ideological leaning towards PPP, there is no way I can defend it with respect to governance and competence though I would also add that media has selectively lynched PPP. Moreover media has not given PPP government the due credit with respect of an improved NFC award and 18th amendment also.
However, incompetence does not mean that public mandate should be thrown out of the window and an elected government should be sent home. These kinds of interventions seriously undermine the democratic system and do not allow the voting pattern to mature and become rational. Moreover, it does not actually punish incompetence as the voters develop sympathies due to unfair and before time ouster of the government.
But then a substantial chunk of the media watching urban middleclass (yuppies to be precise) is deeply sceptical of the democracy itself. Right now what really worries me that it is just not the government alone but the entire democratic system which is under attack. Since the word democracy has politically correct connotations attached to it, therefore sometimes the opposition is subtle but you can still sense that it is there.
Generally the case against democracy is that Pakistan due to illiteracy is not ready for the democracy. They claim that illiterate people cannot make a rational and informed choice. Moreover, politicians are “corrupt” and use the public mandate as a justification for their excesses. According to the skeptics politicians are obliging and consequently good governance is compromised.
How legitimate are these concerns?
To begin with it is true that Politicians are obliging but this phenomenon is culturally deep rooted. Pakistan is after all still an agricultural society with a social structure which thrives on contact building and obliging those contacts. This culture is apparently more prominent during democratic rule as People who have voted expect to be obliged in return. These expectations which are chiefly cultural do adversely affect the governance quality and have given rise to merit violations in job allocations and awarding of contracts etc.
Since politicians are actually under pressure from voters to oblige, the army and even an unelected on the contrary appears to be well insulated from such pressures. This apparent ‘non political” disciplined look creates the impression of more honesty and impartiality.
However a deeper look would blatantly expose this fallacy. Yes political class may have been obliging but so have been the military governments. They may have had shown some impartiality in the beginning but soon they were indulging in even more blatant nepotism and compared to civil governments that was not even coming to light due to media censorship.
What people simply overlook is that political government always has some stake in maintaining a politically appealing image and in the medium to longer term this stake ensures that it is responsive to allegations of corruption. However provided we give it a chance to last more than two years!
Military governments do not feel the political heat and their excesses are simply not reported and even when these are reported by media, the reporters face the wrath. Even a quasi political government which has a powerful army chief often oversteps its authority to indulge in excesses. The extraordinary control over coercive power of the state ensures that media is not able to freely disclose those excesses and thus creates this impression that perhaps such governments are not corrupt. Even if the media is allowed to report, as some say that during Musharraf’s regime it was, it does not have the same sort of access which it has during political governments.
Eventually a political government feels the heat and tries to rectify the issues. Right now I am aware that a lot of fuss is being made by some anchors about political government not “honouring” Supreme Court’s decisions. Yes the government is showing reluctance but gradually is ceding and trying to at least partially oblige. Let me remind them that Musharraf regime by contrast simply dismissed the courts and put the judges under house arrest! And during Zia’s time, courts under pressure convicted Bhutto on flimsy evidence. Political governments no matter how “corrupt” they are cannot just overrule courts the way military governments do.
A standard objection on democracy is that voters in Pakistan are not informed and mature to keep a check on the government. Wide spread low literacy is a fact in Pakistan and this fact is often used as a justification for claims that masses cannot be trusted with something as “sacred” and important as vote. More importantly it is argued by some that “sophisticated” issues like foreign policy, fiscal policy etc need high degree of education on the part of the voter.
Here I have several objections, in addition to the fact that this opinion smacks of condescending attitude towards the marginalized.
Firstly in no system in the world voters alone keep a check on the government. Voters mainly appraise a government’s overall performance. The check is kept by media, civil society and other institutions. Fortunately these institutions have developed considerably in recent times in Pakistan.
The poor and illiterate have to be given the right to vote to make them a stakeholder in the political system. Without their stake and participation, they will be marginalized. It is their enormous stake, which only democracy through universal suffrage ensures, that forces the government to be responsive to them. Yes you can argue that they are not in a position to vote on complicated policy issues, but votes are seldom cast by anyone on policies. Votes are eventually on the actual performance of the Government in terms of improving the overall standard of living. Poor and illiterate are as qualified as anyone else to judge that.
Punishing them by taking away their voting right will simply discourage the governments in giving due attention on their livelihoods. It is democracy which through participation ensures that their problems are brought into notice. No technocratic government can be a responsive government without democratic process.
I will supplement it with a historic example. Ayub regime emphasized on high growth rates but completely ignored the poor. The decade of development ended up as a decade of marginalization. Development and Industrial growth took place but without substantial improvement in the livelihoods of the poor. Since Ayub regime was not democratic it was never concerned whether the fruits of that high growth were equitably distributed. Ultimately the Ayub regime left a polarized Pakistan and poor responded by participating in a popular movement against him. Democracy has this distribution effect which ensures that development is widespread. However it needs time which unfortunately we are not ready to give. I am surprised that often 2 years of democracy are compared to 10 years of Ayub or Musharraf’s tenors and then statistics which in any case are not comparable are thrown in.
And yes those “sophisticated” issues which are so dear to middleclass mindset and which may not “interest” masses are heavily dominant in the media. Those concerns are aired and even at times addressed. Blaming voting rights of masses for some failure to resolve those issues is frankly unfair. You cannot take away the right of voting from people on these premises.
But lastly and perhaps most important defense of democracy and continuation of normal democratic process is the ethnic fabric of our country. A modern ethnically diverse state needs democracy. Democracy is not merely a system of governance, it is a proper forum where dialogue can take place between various ethnicities and terms can be negotiated and renegotiated. No dictatorship or for that matter unelected technocratic government can tap those voices for a national level discourse. Ethnic diversity would need uninterrupted democracy. Sabotaging the process would merely increase the ethnic rift when President of the country hails from a small province. Let’s not forget that Ayun Khan’s tenor instilled hatred in Bengalis while Muharraf’s tenor angered the Baluchs.
Let’s not be carried away due to the rhetoric of the anchor persons here. What media is forgetting is that by undermining democracy they are actually paving the way for the curtailment of their own freedom of expression as well. A modern state needs democracy. Yes, media should criticize government but should not indulge in destabilizing it. Let the democratic process continue. For God sake show some maturity.