Democracy and federalism - Noreen Haider - Monday, April 18, 2011

The inequitable distribution of resources and disparity in development in the various regions of the country has left Pakistan in a messed up state in the last sixty years. The ideals of much trumpeted democracy have been elusive because we in Pakistan do not even come close its pre-requisites. The democratic institutions are weak and there are inherent flaws in the system that is the reasons of its non-deliverance.

Millions of people of Pakistan are uneducated and know little besides their local experiences. This is further true for the women who make more than fifty percent of the total population. Millions are without adequate food to meet minimum calorie count, potable water, education, health care, immunisation, security, commutable roads, and sanitation and waste water drainage systems. According to a UNDP report, 65.5 percent of Pakistan’s population earns less than two dollars per day. 88 percent of Baluchistan’s population, 51 percent of NWFP, 21 percent of Sindh and 25 percent of Punjab’s population is prey to poverty and deprivation. Rural poverty is 49 percent while the urban poverty ratio is 23 percent, in Punjab, the poverty ratio of rural areas is 30 percent while the urban areas’ poverty ratio is 26 percent.

With fifty percent of its population completely illiterate and fifty-seven percent living below the poverty line, the real question in this country is: what does democracy mean to these people in terms of their representation in the system. Most of the voters who are supposed to be architects of the parliamentary democratic system through the process of ‘representative democracy’ do not even know where Islamabad is; what a federal government means; what is the difference between a federal and provincial government; what is a federation; what does a successfully elected member do afterwards and how does the system work.

It is a fallacy that the people choose representatives in elections. Most voters, especially in the rural and remote areas of Pakistan have no choice in the matter of casting votes. They are living in abject poverty, land less and resource less. What possible say can they have in the matter of voting for the local feudal or industrialist who has the power to buy and bully the votes in his constituency?

Most existing political parties today are essentially autocratic and dictatorial in their structures. The parties have actually become demigods after the passing of eighteenth amendment and they virtually cannot be challenged or contradicted by any party member on any vital issue. The choice of the party ticket holder and candidate is made by party leaders and a few cronies in drawing rooms behind closed doors without consultation of the general party members. The only merit of the party candidate is his capability to win the seat. Consequently the system ensures the smug triumph of the rich and powerful everywhere.

Being a parliamentarian is as if they have membership of an ultimate elite club. Elections and the resulting governments are considered as trophies and hence to be enjoyed to the fullest within the shortest possible time before the next round.

In this situation it is illogical to assume that devolution of power would improve the governance structure. What it does is that it shifts the power form one centre to another. The provincial governments have become more autonomous but that does not make them more capacitated and efficient in their new roles and responsibilities.

Similarly with regards to federalism there is very little understanding about it as a system. There has been no effort made by any government to educate people about it and how it relates to them. There is also no stake of the ordinary people in the system especially after the present regime abolished the local governments at the district level.

There are engineered loopholes in the system that ensures that those who have lost in the elections or never even contested them become members of the parliament and ministers in the government which actually makes a mockery of the election. The honourable members of the committee who authored the eighteenth amendment and the parliament made sure that the system remained intact. There are clauses in the constitution which perpetuate discrimination and intolerance towards minorities and women which were not brought under question in the eighteenth amendment. There are laws which perpetuate violation of human rights which are never touched by the representative parliaments because of vested interest. Where does the ideology of democracy and equal rights stand in the face of these facts?

In order to move Pakistan towards becoming a strengthened federation and true democracy the basic minimum requirement is mass education, awareness and a literacy movement in the country. The people must be aware of how they form the basis for representative democracy. Areas and regions most vulnerable to poverty must be given top priority to develop them and bring them in par with more developed regions of the country.


The writer is a journalist and has experience of research and monitoring in disasters.


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