Pakistan’s democracy: a sham and a farce | Marvi Sirmed

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The three factors — the cult, the political dynasties and the despotism under the garb of party discipline — are making a mockery of democratic principles

Islamabad — March 9th: The recent violent squabble between two parliamentarians belonging to the ruling PMLN and the party in opposition PTI, highlights a grave problem of democracy in Pakistan. The problem that damages the credibility of the entire democratic system is personality-centered culture of almost all the political parties save Jamaat-e-Islami, whose founder leader withered away without giving a political heir from his own family or from among his ‘trusted comrades’ within the party.

In fact, the entire South Asian region is infested with this problem. Whether it is Gandhi bloodline in Indian National Congress, the Mujeeb bloodline in Bangladesh Awami League, the Zia bloodline in Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Bhutto bloodline in Pakistan People’s Party, the Sharifs in Pakistan Muslim League-N, even a non-bloodline Khan of PTI, the Bandaranaikes of Sri Lanka Freedom party, the Koiralas of Nepal, the Kims of North Korea, the personality cults within democracies are the norm.

What the two quarreling MPs explained on national TV about their brawl was quite telling. Both accused each other of hurling slurs on ‘my leader’. Just few days before this incidence, a fellow panelist in a TV show, who was a supporter of PTI, told me how he could go to any extent in defending ‘my leader’ even if he had to lie to his teeth. This ‘my leader’ mania is quite common across the political spectrum in Pakistan — and not just Pakistan. On alternate media — commonly referred to as social media — the supporters of these parties stoop to any level to disparage anyone criticizing this ‘my leader’.

The way this debate about the despotic culture of political parties in Pakistan has been framed, however is rhetorical and mostly revolves around the ‘dynastic politics’. Dynasties within political parties are a problem Pakistan and many other countries are facing but this doesn’t cover the spectrum of despotism that political parties demonstrate in general. Imran Khan for example, doesn’t come from a political bloodline. Nor does he appear to have any intention of starting a dynastic line.

Khan, nevertheless, is the strongest cult in contemporary politics. Cutting down — almost — even the impact of whatever remains of the Bhutto cult, which has survived decades of oppression at the hands of military dictators and political poodles of those dictators. But a youngster, who was born in 1990s or later, does not recognize the resistance of the cult Bhutto more than s/he appreciates what they love to call the ‘struggle’ of the cult Khan. While lamenting the ‘dynastic politics’ in other parties (mainly in PMLN and PPP), these young ‘revolutionaries’ seem to be cult worshippers themselves.

The third vice that the contemporary democracy has evolved especially in the countries with history of political absolutism, is autocratic decision making masked as ‘party discipline’. While the tussle between democratic freedom of parliamentarians versus the party discipline has been the center of debate in many democracies especially Canada, USA etc. for many years, it has not come on the radar of political scientists in our part of the world as much as one would have wished.

The dictators here have ruled through buying parties in or creating their own parties by luring in the stalwarts of existing parties. Starting from 1958 to 2000s, these surrogate parties have used their charm to allure big names from every party they have toppled from the government — the very factor that made the cults of these parties paranoid about ‘loyalty’ and ‘trustworthiness’. Next you saw these leaders surrounded by the loyal kitchen cabinets who would either make all decisions by themselves rather than instituting democratic mechanisms of decision making within their parties; or these cabinets have been loyally serving the cult leader by making his (has not been a her quite often) decision appear ‘collective’ by rubber stamping.

A political system evolved through decades of such cronyism could only produce a parliament that gives robotic authorization to the decisions made by a coterie. No wonder, most of the ordinary members don’t even bother to read the Bill they are saying ‘aye’ to. Once sitting in the gallery of Punjab Assembly, I witnessed one such moment. On a motion presented by the then Law Minister, all the members blindly said ‘aye’ when the Speaker had to remind them they had to say no to it. Poor members didn’t even know the significance of a ‘no’ on a ministry-sponsored motion. They were never consulted perhaps. Their ‘aye’ and ‘no’ was taken as a given privilege of the party head.

Last year, a senior Senator from Pakistan Peoples Party — now Chairman of the Senate — almost broke into tears while voting for the 21st Constitutional Amendment that allowed military courts to try civilians. He had to vote for it despite his visible disagreement because that’s what his party’s discipline demanded. The cost of voting with a no would have been his disqualification from the Senate membership.

The irony in this case is unmistakable. The same Senator Raza Rabbani had in 2010 chaired a constitutional reforms committee that led to the enactment of historic 18th Constitutional Amendment. This Amendment gave the party heads the power to notify a member’s defection from the party, which would lead to member’s disqualification (Article 63A of the Constitution), irrespective of the fact whether or not the party leader is an elected member.

This power, however is limited to three situations viz., election of the Prime Minister / Chief Minister, vote of confidence / no-confidence and money bill or constitutional amendment. But the practice extends as an unwritten rule to anything that happens in the parliament — any motion, resolution or even a legislative proposal. Few months ago the National Assembly and subsequently the Senate passed cyber crimes bill despite repeated assurances by the opposition parties to the civil society activists that they won’t support this draconian law. I asked one member from an opposition party why she voted for it while disagreeing to the contents of the bill. “It was party decision”, was her brief answer.

The party — read the party leader or/and his kitchen cabinet — thus overrides members’ opinions and points of view however important they may be. This way hundreds of thousands of voters, this means, are undermined by few gentlemen enjoying top positions in these parties. The ‘dynastic parties’ are unfortunately not alone in this. This practice has also been observed in the working of PTI that promises to get rid of dynastic politics. Well, the dynastic politics alone that is. There’s no worrying about the cult politics here.

Undoubtedly, the main reason for such practices has been the peculiar nature of civil-military relations in our beloved land of the pure. The establishment has too long been employing the tactics of horse trading and breaking the parties through forward blocs. Article 63 of the Constitution in its original form gave the same power of notifying defections, which was misused by not only the military dictators but also by the ‘hidden hands’ who kept a non-interventionist façade while pricking the democratic balloon from every possible vantage point. But replacing parliamentary leader with party leader has hardly proven useful.

The three factors — the cult, the political dynasties and the despotism under the garb of party discipline — are making a sham of democracy. If the establishment had to deal with one person sitting in parliament at the head of one party’s members, it now has to deal with the top men of parties. If they are truly worried about hijacking of their parties by the establishment, the solution lies in more democracy. Not a controlled and rubber stamp democracy.

The writer is an Islamabad based analyst and writes on issues related to human rights, democratic governance and counter-terrorism