A democrat’s quandary – Shahzad Chaudhry

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China has upturned the democratic scales in no uncertain way. Democratic politics was associated with free-market capitalism and helped all of Europe and the West make remarkable strides in generating wealth; though there are reasons other than democratic traditions which have helped achieve unmatched prosperity. It is recorded that the last 30 years have helped realise prosperity and economic progress multiples of times more than the entire accumulated economic gains of the world before this period. One factor is improved connectivity, both virtual and physical, enabling a greater exchange of people, goods and services.

Democracy was Europe’s way to break free of the shackles of Papacy. People rather than the Pope or the Church became the arbiters of power. Yet, a study of how free-market capitalism has made its journey since its inception is a real-time exhibit played out in different nations of the world at different levels. Some of the most progressed nations — ideationally and in material terms — are now in their post-growth, hyper-developed stages. Scandinavian nations sit at the top of the list enabling the most contented living. Bhutan does too but that is more a matter of the mind than material comfort.

The Scandinavian model has entered into what can best be described as evolutionary balance in capitalism’s most optimal form. At such a point of saturation in an economy, the GDP grows only infinitesimally but the base size of the economy is large enough to realise significant individual wealth. High tax regimes then return a significant part of such individual wealth to be recycled for the common good of the citizenry and society. Social democracies thus ensue and give value to what otherwise may solely be a numbers game in wealth, income and jobs. Humanisation of capital is best expressed in such societies.

As the world ponders on the future of free-market capitalism in the face of unmatched inequality and skewed wealth distribution, it amazes to learn that the top 20% in the world own 83% of the world’s wealth, while the bottom 20% only own one per cent of it. Or to hear that the world’s top 26 billionaires now own as much as the poorest 3.8 billion people. Scandinavia qualifies the figures with returns to the bottom halves of their populations by enabling common resource adding value to their quality of life. Democracy cannot claim better credentials than these.

But China, Singapore, Hong Kong and Dubai pose another quandary. That is an unfair grouping for the sheer inequality of proportion but there’s something common in there that worries a democrat to no end. South Korea, another East Asian miracle, can add to the confusion. Each has seen tremendous progress as an economy and in individual wealth over the last five decades; China over the last four, yet the fastest to grow at unmatched rates. These are all Asian nations which were mostly colonised and attuned to submitting before authority even if foreign. Each had autocratic leadership for prolonged periods even if those were elected. China remains an exception. And each adopted free-market capitalism as its economic model. Most, other than China and South Korea, were small-sized and in most cases, city-states with Mayoral control enabling a central administrative and governance model.

For a single-minded focus to develop economically, such political order suited their needs. Long tenures meant a stable political environment and predictability which became the sine qua non for sustainable economic growth. Pakistan’s own experience of the 1960s testifies to such a conclusion. In politically advanced societies, rule of law replaced the finality of authority to enable predictability and stability. Gradually such economic progress rubbed some of its sheens on societal behaviours which acquired greater finesse and sensitivity to rights and responsibilities of citizens in a democratic dispensation. Accountability is an essential accompaniment to such rule of law. It is only recently that most of these nations have reached that level of societal refinement to institute and accept accountability of the powerful as an equal prerequisite.

But nothing can compare with China’s hybrid option of a socialist-communist political order and a capitalist economy to go along in upsetting democracy’s applecart. It mimics authoritarianism with its single-party rule yet retains the industriousness of its labour force and regimented approach to skill development, helping China achieve historical progress. Approximately 750 million people have been lifted out of poverty in the last four decades. China continues to prosper under this imposed arrangement where both politics and the economy are controlled. The freedoms associated with real democracies may still be a far cry as the people gradually settle with greater financial empowerment and individual choice in their lives. Will such incremental freedom overturn an imposed order or will exemplary economic progress give further credence to the politics is yet to play out to its fullest.

As the US and parts of Europe grapple with socio-economic challenges from within, it has brought into question the efficacy and future of democracy as a concept. Its inability to provide widely for its people and touch its weakest in society only means that both democracy and capitalism seem to be failing. Income inequality and skewed wealth distribution have rendered the dominating political and economic order in the world to serious speculation. The inability of these nations to correctly discern and rectify what ails the world order institutes global instability. We may thus be on the anvil of a serious revision of both orders.

Pakistan behind in this journey of realising a stable society as well as a progressive economy is by default being pushed into an institutional congruence and complementarity not seen before. This has given rise to doubts about the fidelity of the system which some call hybrid democracy. Going by easy adaptability of the Asian genius to a centrally directed order, it may well be what the system is slowly spiralling into. Authority and power still appeal to the people and till it can be spread along a wider spectrum of share-holders it shall remain confined to only one or two offices. A polarised polity makes it more probable to depend for authority and power on proxies outside the political system. This will need to be repaired the soonest if democracy is to have a future in the country.

If indeed politics is broadly agreed on the basic fundaments of society, economy and accountability, it shall be the basis of keeping the present structures of democracy in place. If not, a more sustaining, predictive and stable political format of governance will find its way by default. The current debate on the tenuousness of the political system is not entirely out of place. What suits this nation’s psyche best will eventually find its way unless democracy steps up to the plate and suits itself to people’s genius. Can Maulana’s dharna be that tipping point which will force a review of the political purpose among its players?