Garbage in, garbage out - Babar Sattar - Saturday, November 06, 2010

Source :

The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.

Last week the head honcho of the PPP's goon brigade in Sindh tried to intimidate Sherry Rehman by unleashing louts on her family home and threatening physical violence. She apparently acted contrary to the informal desire of the PPP high command to boycott Geo TV. After such unpardonable sacrilege either Asif Zardari felt slighted or Zulfiqar Mirza thought that he might have felt slighted. Consequently it was deemed necessary not just to reprimand Sherry Rehman, but also to bully her in public in order to set her up as an example for others. This event doesn't become more despicable because it was carried out against a woman of distinction who is a former minister, a serving member of parliament and part of the ruling party's central executive committee. But the recognition and respect that Ms Rehman commands as a former journalist and an upright politician certainly makes it more shocking.

If someone like Sherry Rehman can be threatened with planned assault in full public view for exercising her constitutional right to speak freely, what chance does an ordinary Joe have of enjoying his fundamental rights? Ms Rehman had earlier quit her cabinet position on a matter of principle - an extremely rare feat in a land where responsibility, culpability or shame mean nothing in public life and every officeholder tries to hang on to power by all means fair and foul. Given that she had already returned the carrot, the stick became the natural fallback option for the PPP leadership that seems to have a zero tolerance-policy for thinking minds. Be it Aitzaz Ahsan, Raza Rabbani, Sherry Rehman, Enver Baig or die-hard loyalists such as Safdar Abbasi, there is little patience in this 'liberal' party for anyone refusing to become the master's voice.

But this is not just about the PPP and the loutish culture being nurtured under Mr Zardari's leadership. The attack on Sherry Rehman's home is an indictment of the state of representative politics in Pakistan, wherein autocratic party structures and a culture of 'honour' and violence create a vicious cycle that not only threatens to remove any meaningful distinction between democracy and dictatorship, but also reduces the possibility of reform through continuation of the political process. If the institutional structure of political parties remains autocratic with the top party leader treating the party as fief and its members as handmaidens, and the socio-political culture in which parties function encourages or justifies violence in the name of honour, tradition or discipline, we are purposefully preventing the introduction of new ideas, talent or people to the political space. And without new ideas, talent and competition how will continuity of process be reformative?

The PML-N introduced the 13th Constitutional Amendment that added Article 63-A to our constitution and took away the right of members to speak and act freely even within parliament. The leadership of all political parties, including the PPP, wholeheartedly supported the amendment. The Charter of Democracy (the grand agreement aimed at protecting the future of democracy in Pakistan) spoke of all kinds of reform, except the need to reform political parties that are vital socio-political institutions meant to function as the engines of democracy. And now through the 18th Constitutional Amendment all political parties have unanimously excluded the constitutional obligation to hold intra-party elections (ironically inserted into our fundamental law by our last dictator). Thus, if there is one issue over which there is complete agreement between heads of our political parties, it is to keep parties autocratic.

Holding intra-party elections alone will not be enough to reform and democratise political parties. What we need along with an introduction of a democratic process within political parties is the injection of democratic spirit that encourages party leaders to accommodate diversity and difference of opinion within parties. And such an exhibition of tolerance by party leaders will only be caused by a strong and vociferous demand by party members and citizens at large. And for that to happen we will need to collectively acknowledge that political parties are neither heirlooms nor private property. A political party is a public institution and the representative power that it possesses is a shared trust. Just the way Abdul Sattar Edhi cannot use for self-gain the donations he receives from people because of his personal credibility, party leaders cannot abuse public authority vested in them by the electorate.

Each citizen of Pakistan has a vested right to ensure that in terms of its structure and functioning each political party be democratic. After all political parties get to nominate a huge number of individuals to parliament on reserved seats from a list of candidates that their party leaders draw up. These individuals, who have no direct constituency, then go on to make legislative choices on behalf of the rest of us. This is not an argument against the system of proportional representation (PR). But that a PR system can only claim to be representative and legitimate if the parties sending individuals into parliament on the basis of such a system are internally democratic. It is because of the delegated authority that party heads enjoy and exercise on behalf of parties that the citizens of Pakistan have a direct stake in the internal functioning of these parties.

It is this fiducial nature of political parties and their role in shaping the character of democracy within a country that demands focus on the manner in which power is distributed and exercised within each political party. This is precisely why the argument that a member opposed to the actions and choices of the party leader must either shut his brain and tie his tongue or quit. Such demand or expectation amounts to our collective admission that a political party is no different from chattel that can be owned and possessed by an individual. This is why those demanding Aitzaz Ahsan's resignation from PPP-membership, back when the Zardari-led PPP was refusing to restore judges, were wrong. If there is no room within a political party to disagree with the party leader and there is no mechanism to change the party leader, isn't such a party worse than a military regiment?

To usher change we must first acknowledge the pivotal role of political parties in determining the health and future of democracy in Pakistan. We have a stake in ensuring that party leaders are amenable to the views of party members elected to parliament by us. A government of the people, for the people and by the people is a bottom-up model by design. How can political parties, structured the other way round, be good for the health of our democracy?

Secondly, our representatives need to indulge in some soul-searching. Why do grown men and women who are in parliament due to the support of their constituencies feel the need to act subserviently and rely on flattery to promote their careers? What disables them from siding with the right when things are black and white? And even if we take the ethical arguments away, do they not realise that just the way party heads have a shared interest in keeping members on a short leash, our parliamentarians have a shared interest in restraining the heavy-handedness of party heads? If it is Sherry Rehman today, it can be anyone of them tomorrow.

And finally, our party heads must understand that our patience for despotic behaviour is wearing thin. In today's Pakistan it might no longer be possible to control speech or the flow of information and ideas. Instead of trying to threaten and coerce people into living with the frustrations fanned by non-performing governments led by non-responsive parties, it would be more advisable to get in sync with public expectations.


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