VIEW: Parliamentary legitimacy —Andleeb Abbas - Sunday, March 27, 2011

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VIEW: Parliamentary legitimacy —Andleeb Abbas

As the foundations of democracy get weakened by the strong arm tactics of the powerful, the difference between autocratic and democratic rule becomes blurred

Pakistan is a hotbed of breaking news. With so much to discuss and debate, many issues that are fundamental for the future of the country get run over by noisy headlines. One crucial issue that needs continuous attention is the sanctity of the election process that will greatly affect the fate of politics in Pakistan. Forget about fake degrees to qualify for the elections, the 2008 election itself has been declared by the Supreme Court (SC) as bogus. In a stunning admission of corruption, almost half the votes registered during the 2008 election were either duplicated, multiple or plain bogus. Of the 81 million voters registered, 37 million of those on electoral lists could not be tallied with the lists verified by the NADRA database. Of the 81.21 million, a total of 37.12 million voters were registered on the basis of computerised national identity cards (CNICs), 29.05 million were registered on the basis of manual identity cards (old identity cards), while another 15.02 million were registered without identity cards during the preparation of the electoral rolls in 2007. The manual and non ID card votes were included as the election commission was predictably late in getting computerised ID verification by the end of 2007, much to the convenience of the parties who wanted to manipulate results in their favour. This has been reported in the newspapers and discussed in a few talk shows but has not merited a debate in parliament as, of course, most of them are afraid that their positions may be endangered if too deep a probe is carried out on this sensitive topic.

When laws are dismissed arrogantly and violations of rules go unpunished, it becomes the biggest fertiliser for corruption, exploitation and terrorism. This condition was very aptly reflected by one of the chief ministers when questioned over the fake degree debate: “A degree is a degree whether fake or genuine.” This sums up the calibre of the people ruling our country. On every front, be it economic, political or social, the country has had ravaging setbacks in the last three years. The culprits causing these setbacks are very prominent, their deeds an open secret, their performance a plain untouched book. Despite such a proven record, if they are still retaining their positions of power, why should they bother about being accountable for performance? The classic example is the Raymond Davis case against which there is unanimous public revolt but, since the voting process is in their own hands, they can afford to ignore public interests. Thus this declaration by the SC that 45 percent votes were fake is the root that starts the rot on non-accountability.

Democracy is hailed around the world as a system by the people for the people, where the public gets to choose the party they think deserves to get the top seat, where they have the right to challenge anybody who had promised but not delivered once elected, where the power of a change in the mind of the voter is the biggest deterrent for parliament members from moving away from the path of public welfare. Unfortunately, not so in Pakistan. The first part — democracy is by the people — itself has become a hugely suspicious affair where strong contenders in the election process ensure that the voting process is rigged in their favour. As the foundations of democracy get weakened by the strong arm tactics of the powerful, the difference between autocratic and democratic rule becomes blurred and the confidence and belief of the people in the democratic system turns into uncertainty, where they think they are not ready for democracy. Thus the first and foremost prerequisite is that the foundations of democracy are strengthened by having an independent election commission that is not going to be tainted and swayed by members belonging to a certain influential party. This may seem like a tall order but it is actually more feasible now than at any other time in our history. We have an independent judiciary that has demonstrated time and again that it is not going to be pressurised by the ruling regime. Thus it is possible, if this matter is taken to them, that they will ensure that an independent election commission is constituted to fulfil the first pre-condition of having a genuine democracy.

Candidates elected through a thorough and genuine electoral process know that their lives and futures hang on public assent or dissent. Each move of theirs is going to be scrutinised through the eyes of a media that can create movements for or against them to provide pressure for their promotion or demotion on the political ladder. In genuine democracies, a public scandal against their character or performance is enough to either make those holding public office resign or be dismissed. The British MPs’ assessment of undue use of public money ranging from a few hundred pounds to a few thousand pounds resulted in mass resignations all around. Gordon Brown’s loss in the election was also due to his inability to come out clean on some issues that, by our standards, may have sounded minor but proved fatal for his re-election. In Pakistan, the media has played an effective role in highlighting these wrongdoings. In fact, in many cases they have gone overboard in latching onto every single word uttered by a particular political personality in question. However, their obsession with grabbing the next scandal and being the first to break news makes them good for creating hype or controversy but not consistent enough to get some action taken on it. Thus the question mark on the above board status of some media anchors who want to discuss the scandal and the ensuing viewer curiosity but not the resolution that may either take away their viewership or some financial lubrication they get for presenting a view that creates doubt on their own claims of wrongdoing.

The tragedy of indifference is that what would create an uproar in a more sensitive society is dismissed without batting an eyelid in this country. Every day the news is full of outrageous violations of principles and laws. Our general reaction is that we are aghast, then amused, and later cynical and wait for the next juicy scandal to hook us to the unending deterioration of systems and values. Our stamina to take massive corruption and blatant injustice has grown manifold. However, within the nation, unrest is poignant. Everybody is clamouring for change yet not ready to go the distance to bring that change. The day we decide that no loss of values, or lives or self-respect is a small matter, we abandon our talk show obsession and get into a walk the talk mode. Then we will definitely succeed in rescuing a nation struggling to bridge the divide between what they aspire for and what they actually obtain.

The writer is a consultant and can be reached at

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