Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Longing for change?

Muhammad Shafique

The recent turbulence in the political landscape of Pakistan and the response of civil society is indicative of at least one fact: people of Pakistan by and large feel that our system has miserably failed to deliver. Instead, the system seems to be the problem. It also highlights the fact that people desperately feel the need for some revolutionary change in the system via a change in the governance system, though they want it through a peaceful and democratic process.

However, most of the knowledgeable people are aware of the dilemma that while democratic route to change is desirable, there is little to hope for a meaningful change even after general elections. This is because of the fact that our electoral system merely creates a façade of democracy; it is designed to preserve the entrenched vested interests and the conduct of the system.

If democracy is universally considered as the best available system of governance then there must be something fundamentally wrong with our system of democracy. A careful analysis of our political system suggests that neither our political parties are democratic nor our electoral system is representative. These problems are compounded by the provincial and tribal mindset which is indicated by the pervasiveness of geographic, linguistic, tribal, and sectarian affiliations as the dominant sources of identity and competition among groups.  Unless these fundamental problems are solved, any hope with democracy would be naïve at best.

A democratic system can be truly democratic and effective only if it is representative. Moreover, governance is a prerogative vested in groups and institutions rather than individuals, and therefore, political accountability is more efficient at the macro rather than micro level. Following this principle, democratic systems mostly function via political parties rather than political individuals. In such a dispensation, the electorate takes care of the accountability of political parties which in turn ensure the accountability of their members. Therefore, in democratic systems people ought to approve or reject ideas, work plans, and performance rather than individuals. This principle supposedly forces the political parties to bring in and put forth the best among their members who can conceive and implement the plans that can solve societal problems.

Our electoral system is not representative because it violates the fundamental principle of democracy, that is the equality of the voters and the votes. Even if the elections take place in an ideal manner and every eligible citizen voted--as echoed in the recent suggestions for compulsory voting--our assemblies would not necessarily represent the majority of voters. In fact, the result could be the opposite. This is because of the fact that political constituencies represented in assemblies substantially vary in terms of demographic size. Even worse, it is quite frequent occurrence that the winning candidate of a constituency represents only a small fraction of the total votes of the constituency because the large majority of votes were split among the losing contestants. At the aggregate level, the sum total of the voters of all losing contestants and the disillusioned voters who do not participate in the process seems to far outweigh the voters actually represented in the parliament. This indicates the fact that constituency as the building block of our electoral system inherently distorts the representativeness of the elected assemblies.

The constituency-based electoral system also undermines representativeness in at least one another way. It is well known that every constituency has only a few influential and ‘electable’ politicians who often belong to the same clan or family, or otherwise, competing clans and families. These political parties have to give party tickets to these ‘electables’. The fact that these political elite maintain their influence in their constituencies by using numerous undesirable, if not unlawful, tactics is yet another issue. In any case, these political individuals hold the political parties hostage by means of their clout and electability. It is due to this very reason that politics has historically remained the business of a few clans and families in this country. Consequently, we often find that a significant portion of assemblies resulting from any election is populated by the same vested interests, if not the same persons, regardless of which party is ruling. Due to these reasons, the principle of political constituencies as the building blocks of our electoral system is one of the major sources of our malfunctioning democratic system.

If the majority of the votors are not represented in the assemblies, it is reasonable and fair to expect that they must also have a representation. But how is it possible?

Perhaps these problems can be resolved via the proportional representation system (PRS). One way of implementing PRS is to conduct the general elections without any regard to the political constituencies whereby voters choose among the parties rather than individuals and the membership of assemblies is given to the parties proportional to their respective share in total votes. The political parties nominate through an internal election process which individuals would represent them in the assemblies. Indeed, it is given that parties would then contest elections on the basis of concrete manifestos and work plans—the fundamental ingredient which our political parties have cleverly evaded so far and hence escaped political accountability by the electorate.

This system would empower the political parties but this certainly requires that political parties be more democratic, responsible and accountable both within and without. It is an open secret that our political parties conduct sham intra-party elections merely to fulfill their constitutional obligation while remaining a ‘family business’. If the democracy has to be claimed and sustained—as our political parties pledged recently in response to the perceived ‘threat to democracy’—it is a precondition that the political parties must be democratic and elect competent representatives among themselves. In order to make the intra-party elections more inclusive and democratic, the system of caucuses and primaries used in the USA might serve as an initial working model.

Admittedly, there are some constitutional, political, and social hurdles in implementing such a system. However, this is perhaps one of the very few ways that can rescue the nation from the exploitative democracy that we have experienced so far. Democracy is not meant to elect a few privileged to enhance their vested interests but to do some real work for the well-being of society. Given that the nation has been following a downward spiral on almost all important fronts, there is an urgent need to do something about the governance before it is too late. It is in the interest of the political parties, the politicians, and the nation to make amends for the general disillusionment with the democracy. All it requires is resolution not the revolution but if we do not embrace the former, we are destined to face the latter.