America’s defeat in Afghanistan, and the corresponding rise of Sino-Russian power is likely to have lasting consequences for the existing ‘rules-based international order’, and its corresponding systems within various countries. Despite 20 years of war, and more than $2 trillion dollars spent, America and her Western allies could not install a sustainable democratic enterprise in Afghanistan. Why? Because the system that Americans tried to impose upon Afghanistan had no real roots in the cultural and societal realities of the local people. It had been borrowed from English textbooks of the West—a unitary executive, similar to the American presidency; a legislative forum, borrowed from British Parliamentary tradition; a judiciary that followed Western norms of legal interpretation; and an executive machinery that tried emulating the colonial system of the Raj.
Afghanistan, thus, is a cautionary tale: that ‘systems’ that don’t have their roots in the domestic cultural, societal and religious realities, never work for long.
And so, other countries who have borrowed their ‘systems’ from the West (including Pakistan) must ask themselves: is our ‘system’ working, or do we need to rethink the fundamentals of our constitutional democracy?
To answer this question, let us start with a humble attempt to articulate the objective of a ‘constitutional democracy’. While legal philosophers and political thinkers, all through history, have differed in stipulating the mechanics of a constitutional framework, there has existed a broad consensus about what a constitutional democratic ‘system’ should do: ensure that the collective will of the people, concerning issues that relate to welfare of the populi, finds expression in the corridors of political, legal, and administrative power.
As a natural corollary to this objective, functional constitutional democracies must develop legal safeguards that compel elected representatives to focus on public welfare; require the appointed judiciary to punish the guilty and recompense the innocent; and mandate executive authority to deliver services in a non-discriminatory manner, without fear or favour.
Let us try and evaluate our democratic ‘system’, established under the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, 1973, on the touchstone of these overarching principles.
Starting with the legislature: let us honestly ask ourselves, divorced of all partisan biases, whether our ‘system’ elects people who truly represent the public will, and does it then compel these individuals to work (legislate) in public interest? To this end, does our electoral system provide a level playing field, designed to elect the most qualified and deserving candidate from each constituency? Or, instead, has it become a process through which the rich and powerful perpetuate their worldly fiefdoms? Why do the same individuals—despite an insurmountable corpus of corruption charges and decades of public mismanagement—continue to be elected from their respective constituencies, without any fresh leadership coming to the fro? Why are political constituencies, much like other material things, passed-on as a hereditary title amongst family members? Why does our ‘system’ not guard against such abuses, through institutional checks and balances?
The answer to all these questions is simple: success, in our electoral ‘system’, is a function of the candidate’s financial and physical muscle in the constituency. In our ‘system’, there is no way for Allah Ditta and his family to contest against the financial power (and armed cohorts) of the Waderas’ of Sindh, the Sardars of Balochistan, Chaudhrys of Punjab and the Maliks of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Not only can such (powerful) individuals browbeat any possible competitor in their respective constituencies, they can simply outspend them during the electoral process. And despite strict campaign finance restrictions, under Section 132 of the Elections Act, 2017 (which, for example, stipulate that no more than Rs1.5 million will be spent by a candidate in Senate Elections), our ‘system’ has never (really, never!) enforced any such legal requirement on candidates for elected office.
In terms of the executive, can anyone argue (with a straight face) that the service-delivery mechanism of our state machinery functions without fear or favour? Does the thaana, despite all provisions of the relevant police laws, treat Allah Ditta at par with the local political leader? Patwaar? Does the DHQ hospital? Or the District Commissioner? Is the public education ‘system’ really designed to help Allah Ditta’s kids compete with children from elite private schools in the dynamic modern world? Does the ‘system’ really do all it can for the street children? Or the homeless? Or the thousands of women and children who are sexually assaulted each year? Does our ‘system’ care about the 200 children in Thar, who died from lack of food and water last year? Does it provide efficacious institutional mechanisms to protect the Hazaras of Quetta, or the Christians of Lahore?
As hard as it may be to accept, the truth is that this ‘system’ is not working. We can make excuses for it. Perhaps our Constitution is not the problem. Maybe the fault rests with a particular political party, or the Army, or a few judges, or the culture, or the time, or the people. Maybe everyone is to be blamed. But, incontestably, the system is not working. It does not nurture deserving and fresh political leadership. It does not deliver basic state services to those who deserve them the most. And it does not punish the wicked or recompense the innocent.
We need a new system in Pakistan. Or, at the very least, we need to amend the existing one in a manner that brings about fundamental changes in our constitutional paradigm. We can choose to do so voluntarily. Or we can wait for Allah Ditta to force our hand. And human history bears witness to the fact that any time people have taken it upon themselves to change the ‘system’, such change has almost always been accompanied by heads on pitchforks, hung at the city gates.