It is one of the ironies of fate that Pakistan, which owes its creation to a peaceful democratic struggle, had to live half of its post-independence existence under military regimes. Because of these repeated direct or indirect authoritarian interventions, its democratic development has suffered a lot. After the abdication of the armed forces from active political governance, an overly active judiciary has encroached on parliamentary prerogatives.
While the people of Pakistan have expressed time and again their overwhelming preference for parliamentary democracy and federal structure of the state, there are three areas namely political structures, processes, and culture, which are posing challenges
A. Political Structures
Political structures refer to the institutions created, and the legal-regulatory framework formulated for their internal functioning, as well as their interactions with other institutions for the smooth running of the political system. Examples of these political structures are the constitution and the various enactments passed under it, the office of the president, two houses of parliament and its standing committees, the election commission, election tribunals, etc.
At the time of its independence in 1947, Pakistan inherited fairly well-functioning political structures like the offices of the governor-general, parliament, election commission, provincial legislatures, etc. Over time, they could have evolved into well-oiled political machinery, but due to the overall institutional decay Pakistan experienced, they started degenerating and fell into disrepute. Almost all of them have become so politicized and polarised that there is a serious crisis of confidence about their efficiency, effectiveness, and impartiality among people
B. Political Processes
Political processes refer to the activities carried out by the above-mentioned political structures to carry out their constitutionally mandated functions. These include for example., voter registration, constituency delimitations, holding of fair and free elections, policy formulation, implementation, etc.
As the institutions that perform these functions are losing their credibility, these processes are also becoming suspect. That is why we see outbursts of violence soon after holding elections, and governments are forced to hold early elections or are overthrown by non-democratic forces.
C. Political Culture
Lucian Pye defines political culture as the set of attitudes, beliefs, and sentiments, that give order and meaning to a political process and provide the underlying assumptions and rules that govern behaviour in the political system. Dahl refined this concept by including an element of pluralism when he defined it as an “elective polyarchy”.
Perhaps the biggest weakness of our political system is the weak political culture of society in general and of the political elite in particular. A mature political culture demands acceptance of dissent, tolerance of others’ views, acceptance of political results, etc. However, in Pakistan, this intolerance is evident at every level of our social and political interaction starting from family to schools to business and politics.
All the above shortcomings are taking a heavy toll in the form of political instability, violence, institutional overstepping, marginalization of minorities and other segments of society, bad governance, women’s status, etc.
How to improve the democratic structures, processes, and culture which could increase the participation of people in policy making and implementation at all levels of governance.
1. National Consensus on Fundamentals
The drive for reforming the political system should come from the political elite itself because they are the biggest stakeholders and the beneficiaries of an orderly, functioning political setup. Let there be a consensus about certain fundamentals, such as the recognition by all stakeholders of the supremacy of the prime institution in a country, namely its Parliament.
They must realize that although universal sovereignty belongs to Almighty God above, country-specific sovereignty vests in the people below, who exercise it through their elected representatives in the parliament. All major Pakistani political parties should pledge to the nation to uphold the supremacy of the parliament by discussing any issue on the floor of the house instead of resorting to agitational politics.
Some other issues needing consensus are the continuity of parliamentary democracy as the only mode of the electoral system, holding of free and fair elections based on adult franchise, orderly political succession, constitutionalism as the only way for political dispute resolution, independence of the judiciary, freedom of the press, etc.
2. Political Parties Reforms
If charity begins at home, then democracy starts with the political parties themselves. Democratic principles at all levels, starting with political parties, require all major Pakistani political parties to hold regular elections. Presently, intra-party elections are mandatory for the continuous registration of a political party with the Election Commission of Pakistan, but they are generally a sham exercise. Any party desirous of fielding its candidates in the general elections must hold an intra-party election six months before the general elections are due, and only those allowed to contest the general elections who have been elected as office holders (any office) within the party as a result of this intra-party election are allowed to contest the general elections; obviously, a person who cannot win an office within his party is not fit to contest the general election. Similarly, they should limit their candidates to contesting elections from their respective home constituencies and establish a transparent mechanism by which funding can be provided to those candidates who cannot afford the electioneering expenses.
3. Institutional Strengthening
The survival of any regime or even system is directly dependent on its satisfactory performance, which ensures operational efficiency, the effectiveness of service delivery, and equality of treatment. This, in turn, depends upon institutional strengthening and good governance, which start with the recognition by all stakeholders of the supremacy of the prime institution in a country, namely its Parliament. All major Pakistani political parties should pledge to the nation that they will uphold the supremacy of the parliament by discussing any issue on the floor of the house instead of resorting to agitational politics.
Once strengthened, the legislature could exercise effective oversight of other institutions most of which only need proper parliamentary oversight and appropriate finetuning more than any wholesale restructuring. Some of the institutions that matter the most are the armed forces, law and order agencies, judicial institutions, and nation-building departments like health, education, and general administration.
The Constitution has laid down a clear-cut role demarcation for every institution; it is implemented in letter and spirit. However, for this, the political elite will have to play a very proactive role, starting with the de-politicization of the institutions and their capacity building.
The professional competence of those manning vital institutions such as the judiciary, bureaucracy, and armed forces is the only guarantee for putting the country on the right trajectory of growth and creating a positive image in the world. It means the recruitment, appointment, transfer, posting and all other career matters should be decided on merit without involving political pressure or patronage.
4. Holding Free and Fair Elections Regularly
No one can deny the importance of fair and free elections held periodically to fill the seats at various tiers of parliamentary democracy. They are an institutional mechanism to elect the ruling elite in a country run by democracy. Elections enable voters to select leaders and hold them accountable for their performance in office. They serve as the filtering device for rejecting those who do not meet the expectations of the popular electorate for any reason. Regular and periodic, free, and fair elections solve the problem of peaceful succession in leadership and serve to legitimize the acts of those who wield power.
Elections are the constitutional means of giving legitimacy to the system itself and are the ultimate guarantor of the continuity of democracy in the country. Countries where elections are not held or conducted irregularly and, in the worst case, are rigged cannot be called a democracy, irrespective of whether their ruling elite professes it to be so. Being a highly competitive process, elections serve as forums for the discussion of public issues, which provide political education for citizens and ensure the responsiveness of democratic governments to the will of the people.
Elections are the greatest tool for people's empowerment, confirming the worth and dignity of individual citizens as human beings. The right to vote not only reinforces their self-esteem and self-respect but also allows people to have their say in choosing those who will decide their destiny. Even those who do not vote are asserting their right to reject the system and expressing their desire to change it for the better. However, to ensure that the elections are fair and free, there is a need for a comprehensive legal and regulatory framework as well as impartial conduct for which the following proposals are worth consideration:
5. Strengthen Local Bodies
Local governments play a crucial role in effective governance because they ensure public representation in decision-making at the local level. Besides efficient and effective service delivery, local governments can ensure greater Accountability and Transparency in public affairs However, there is a need to strengthen these institutions by providing them with a clear mandate and allowing them to work independently within their respective jurisdictions, following their mandate. No interference in their administrative matters by the provincial and central governments or agencies. At the same time, they are given adequate resources and allowed autonomy to raise revenue and spend them per their priorities
6. Electoral Reforms
No one can deny the importance of fair and free elections held periodically to fill the seats at various tiers of parliamentary democracy. However, to ensure that the elections are free and fair and contribute to better participation of the citizens in electoral practices, reduce corruption, and strengthen democracy, there is a need for a comprehensive legal and regulatory framework as well as impartial conduct. You can read detailed suggestions for electoral reforms in the article
However, here I am discussing them briefly·
- Independent and powerful Election Commission: To ensure free and fair elections in an open and competitive political environment, there is a need for setting up an authoritative and independent electoral commission composed of members drawn from a broad spectrum of society
- Code of Conduct: The Election Commission, in consultation with stakeholders, should formulate and implement a comprehensive code of conduct for the candidates and the political parties. Specifically, it should introduce reforms that regulate party financing and donations, require disclosure of funds, and provide equal playing conditions for all.
- Civil Society Oversight: Civil Society Organizations and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) can play an important role in ensuring transparency of the entire election process by creating awareness among the electorate of the way candidates and elected officials should properly behave.
- Competent Election Tribunals: The need for the establishment of independent, autonomous, and impartial election tribunals cannot be overemphasized for a transparent election process. Without jeopardizing the right of the contestants to a fair hearing, it should ensure that the decisions are announced within the stipulated time
- NOTA Option: To ensure that people of high moral and ethical values are chosen as people’s representatives, the voters should have the option of “None of the Above” (NOTA) on the ballot paper. It will allow the voters not to vote for any of the candidates while maintaining their right to secrecy.
- No Multiple Seat Contest: Allowing anyone to contest elections from multiple constituencies is a sheer waste of resources and time and shows a lack of confidence in the person. One of the electoral reforms should be the withdrawal of this option
- Executive to Conduct Elections: It is an administrative task and can be handled by those with knowledge and experience in handling such complex assignments.
- Voting Rights for Expatriates: Those who have left the country for any reason, settled abroad, and obtained foreign nationalities or even dual nationalities have no right to interfere in the elections.
- Elections Expenditure Limits: There should be no limit on the expenditure a candidate can incur for elections, but it must be declared; at least he will not tell lies and file bogus statements. Secondly, income tax people could tax him accordingly, and thirdly, it will bring out hidden wealth in the open, benefitting millions of poor people who provide services in the elections. Normally, rich people do not pay pie to the poor but are willing to spend lavishly on marriages and elections
- Compulsory Intra-Party Elections: Any party desirous of fielding its candidates in the general elections must hold a party election six months before the general elections are due and only those allowed to contest the general elections who have been elected as office holders (any office) within the party as a result of these intra-party elections are allowed to contest the general elections.
- Abolition of Reserved Seats: The time has come to abolish the seats reserved for women in phases. However, each party must nominate at least one-tenth of their candidates from women; seats reserved for women in different legislatures will be reduced to the extent of successful women.
According to Sartori, democracy has two sides-input side which is the procedure for electing the representatives, and the output side, which includes elements such as political stability, protection of minority rights, and the ability to achieve economic progress with a reasonable degree of social equity. These two must synchronize to have an effective model of democracy. Anything short on the output side will create crises of legitimacy for those elected with due process under electoral laws and regulations.
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