Regime survives, democracy in trouble - Cyril Almeida - Friday, February 04, 2011

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LET`S tempt fate a little here. The government is likely to complete its term in office and the army is unlikely to launch a coup. So what now? Well, we are left with a debate.

It`s an age-old debate. An orderly transition of power from one civilian government to another is supposed to be a big step towards the Holy Grail: internalising democratic norms in Pakistan.

The theory is simple enough. Regular elections and orderly transitions of power, the habit of democracy, as it were, would through some hard-to-pinpoint reasons lead to everyone believing the democratic path is the only path.

Everyone essentially means the key players: the army, which would be too scared/respectful to launch a coup; the politicians, who would avoid playing footsie with the army; the public, which would rightly tire of politicians, but in favour of another group of politicians, not the army; and the media, which would learn that holding the politicians` feet to the fire is necessary, immolating them is not.

Institutions would learn to get along and all of that. Democracy, the worst form of government, as Churchill told us, save all the other forms tried periodically before.

Milk and honey would flow, the poor would get richer, security would improve, Pakistan would stop being a global headache.

Except there`s a problem: this government.

Or more precisely, Zardari`s terrible, appalling disaster of a government that seems to be terribly, appalling and disastrously uninterested in governance.

This, then, is the debate: if a government completing its term and presiding over an orderly transition of power is supposed to be democracy-strengthening, does it mean that any government which completes its term and presides over an orderly transition of power would strengthen the democratic project?

To put it more straightforwardly: would the Zardari government completing its term further the democratic project, or would the wretchedness of this government have left the democratic project exactly where it was at the start of this government`s term, at square one?

Some people think they already know the answer. And the answer is, five years of Zardari and co would be an unmitigated disaster, a blight on the very idea of democracy.

The evidence for this, Zardari`s detractors believe, is substantial. The economy is in tatters. The popularity of the government is in the gutter. Corruption is at epic levels. Blackwater is running around the country shooting up the place and killing Pakistanis.

Parliament has been reduced to the personal fiefdom of party leaders post-18th Amendment. A bloated cabinet is feeding at the trough, indifferent to governance issues. The streets of Karachi have become killing fields once again. Oh, and inflation is about to hit the fan, combining with a soaring deficit to possibly trigger economic collapse.

Who cares about democracy when the country itself is in danger, the critics are baying. Another couple of years of these clowns in charge and there`ll be nothing left to save.

The doom-and-gloom set may have a point. But then, the road to democracy is neither as straightforward nor as black and white as the critics seem to believe.

Consider just this. The brutal effects of an economic slowdown the past few years have not been borne equally by all parts of society. It`s not the old rich-versus-poor thing at work, but a rural-versus-urban phenomenon.

Thanks to a government policy of jacking up agricultural support prices, the rural economy is flush with cash. Ask your local car dealer about all the Corollas and Civics and the like making their way to rural Pakistan at harvesting season.

Sure, the middlemen and big landlords get to the state patronage first — the government commits to buying a chunk of each crop at a specified price, so those with access and influence jump to the front of the selling queue — but because agricultural income is barely taxed, the sector is doing OK.

The deepest problems are in the urban areas — which is also where your media happens to be. A big problem drummed up by another problem — the media — is the perfect recipe for apocalyptic predictions.

But there are several reasons to believe — hope? — this government completing its terms could eventually be democracy-strengthening.

Elections are cathartic. The electoral legitimacy of a government is often disregarded by sceptics, as is the voter who actually bothers to vote.

But results-oriented critics often miss the point: democracy doesn`t guarantee solutions to problems, it just enhances the space for potentials solutions to be offered to the voter, and a way for the voter to pass judgment at the next election on the solutions preferred at the last election.

Let the voter feel and experience the promise of renewal, and some of the pall cast by the present government will lift.

If that sounds woolly and naïve, consider this. Only regular elections will widen the political space available.

One of the strongest arguments against democracy in Pakistan is that the electorally legitimate have no capacity or ability to govern, while those with real governance skills and abilities have no electoral prospects.

Regular elections could change that. A sure-fire way of blocking change, though, would be to disrupt the election cycle. You can`t expect new political options if you don`t give outsiders the chance to figure out how to break into the system.The list of reasons this government completing its term would be democracy-strengthening could go on. The Churchillian dilemma: what`s the alternative? The logic of a connection between voter and representative eventually being a force for positive change. Etcetera, etcetera.

The problem in Pakistan of course is the debate about democracy must be seen in the context of an army which follows a logic of its own.

What may make sense to you or me or 10 million voters counts for naught if an adventurist general decides it is his time.

So perhaps the only metric that matters when deciding if this government completing its term would be democracy-strengthening is: who`s feeling more comfortable right now, the army or the politicians?

You figure that one out.

The writer is a member of staff.

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