Democracy needs checks and balances

Since 1977 the struggle between democracy and martial law has stunted our national political debate to a binary: democracy or martial law. Proponents of democracy talk of not criticizing democracy for fear of another martial law. Those who support military intervention think of the military coming in to clean out the system which, is seen to be taking care of past corruption and then restarting the system with a fresh election to allow the same people in again.

The incumbent government too tames the opposition within the parliament and outside by scaring them with the possibility of return to military rule. Their cry is “leave our misrule alone or the army may take over and return you to dictatorship.”

Proponents further argue that if the system is allowed to run for a long time repeated elections will act as a filter to produce good governance. They have a hard time explaining the 6 election since Zia which have brought back PPP and PMLN despite their many failures. The system seems to be ‘rigged’ to prevent new entrants. Claims of electoral fraud too abound. 

Yet barely a year into an elected government, the executive begins to show a disregard for democracy by shunning parliament, concentrating power in the chief executive and making a mockery of all official process. Poor quality appointments are made questionable policies and projects are hastily initiated without thought or process. Key issues such as power shortages, the losses of the PSEs, the continual decline of the education system, the need for a local government, sensible economic management are barely addressed. Bad management and policymaking seems to become obvious in a very short time and yet 3-4 years to an election remain making all wish this time could be shortened.

Repeated elections seem to empower scions of powerful families and members of their retinue. An office after an election is seen as an opportunity to amass wealth. Those who get elected seldom have work experience or a serious education. Many of them have no resume to show that they ever developed a work habit. Yet they get elected because they have ensured that administration works at their behest and there is no rule of law. People have to turn to them for their rights and ordinary dealings with the state.

So should the army stay out and let this system continue? Will this democratic setup converge to a true democratic solution? Will it give us our rights, good governance, systems of justice, accountability and good policy? I think not. Let me tell u why.

Elections alone are not enough to provide a system of governance for individual freedom and the welfare of the people. Fascism was instituted through elections while the world has seen many episodes of the tyranny of the majority (such as suppression of minorities). Repeated elections were not required in such cases nor allowed. In such cases it was outside intervention, such as international law and charters and sometimes even violence that came to the rescue. 

Our elected leaders will not even allow a redistricting of their constituencies through either a census or some other means for fairer representation. They have resisted any change in electoral laws, the election commission or any other aspect of the system. We continue to have the most outmoded system of “first past the post” election where people get elected on votes of a small segment of the electorate. The winning party often rules with about a third of the voters in a low turnout.

All amendments to the constitution have been self serving. The 14th amendment prohibits voting outside party lines on any major legislation. With parliament thus emasculated, the executive need not worry. They don’t want term limits. They don’t want to debate or legislate. They don’t watch the budget. All they want is a piece of the government pie through development projects or positioning their own people in government for maximizing their power or rent. 

Politicians have also agreed to share the spoils by keeping the broken governance system broken. There is no serious effort at legislation or policy. Instead, they have sold the idea to the people that their job is to do big high visibility projects without worrying about future obligations arising from them.

Is there any hope from this system moving to a better state even if we have many elections? Remember each election is 5 years apart. So how many elections do we need? Ten. So we have 50 years to waste on these politicians’ shenanigans?

Look at it another way. Dynamic systems that are not properly configured may not lead to stable solutions no matter how long they are allowed to run. However, a well designed system (a car, a space shuttle etc.) will remain stable and arrive at a desired destination.

A constitution is the framework that defines the dynamic of democracy. If not properly designed, repeated elections might also not lead to desired democratic governance. This is why most countries have increased their efforts to design better constitutions.

Constitutions define the checks on the elected and the domains in which they operate. Montesquieu taught us the importance of checks and balances. The executive power must be curtailed and the 3 estates of governance--executive, judiciary and legislature—must all be independent of each other. Nowhere do the elected have absolute power as in Pakistan.

The modern state vests a lot of policy and monitoring in independent government agencies, regulatory agencies, universities, think tanks and monitoring agencies that are professionally staffed and beyond the power of the elected or the executive controlled by them. Here not even a university or a hospital is independent of the executive.

Our constitution was made by politicians for themselves without adequate consultation with the people. It has been distorted to further power of the executive. It will never give us a system of governance that is inclusive and works for the people unless we amend it as well as support it by further legislation to introduce checks and balances. Don’t hold your breath for these politicians to do it or elections to yield this.

So should the army step in?

Elections should be a contest for determining the future vision and policy of a society. Here contestability is for rents not policy and people’s welfare. Politicians are now openly colluding against the welfare of the people.

The only form of contestation that these colluding politicians face is the army. So what is wrong if the army knocks them off their perch? This is not to say the army will reform the system (although there are examples of generals who have conducted major reform that have served the country well e.g., Chile and Turkey). Most likely our generals will not. Sadly, we lack enlightenment and generals are no exception.

However, repeated army intervention may push all to learn that the constitution needs amendment for more checks and balances, a better electoral system, shorter tenures, term limits, staggered elections, local government, and independent agencies beyond the pale of the PM and politicians.

A better constitution will give a better democracy which in turn will prevent military takeovers in future.

Let us speed up the process by not continually discussing the binary--army or democracy. Instead develop and discuss reform for dispersal of power and checks and balances. Let the army and the politicians fight for power, while we spell out reform.  

Remember, in the end, ideas win.

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