Feb 23, 2009

Democracy in danger

Dr.Owais Farooqui
Exercising power and decision-making for a group of people is called governance. It happens everywhere – from urban centers to rural villages. The well-being of a community depends on the choices made by people. Because of the diversity of organizational structures around the world, people such as land lords, heads of associations, cooperatives, NGOs, religious leaders, political parties and of course, government are all share-holders in the power to govern. “Good governance” is a relatively new term that is often used to describe the desired objective of a nation-state’s political development. The principles of good governance, however, are not new. Good governance is, in short, anti-corruption whereas authority and its institutions are accountable, effective and efficient, participatory, transparent, responsive, consensus-oriented, and equitable. These are the major characteristics of good governance as outlined by the United Nations. The World Leaders at the 2005 World Summit concluded that good governance is integral to economic growth, the eradication of poverty and hunger, and sustainable development. The views of all oppressed groups, including women, youth and the poor, must be heard and considered by governing bodies because they will be the ones most negatively affected if good governance is not achieved. For good governance to exist in both theory and practice, citizens must be empowered to participate in meaningful ways in decision-making processes. They have a right to information and to access. Although widespread accessibility remains a barrier for many countries, one of those ways is through Information and Communication Technology (ICT) applications such as the Internet. E-governance has emerged as a viable means to address development issues and challenges because citizens find empowerment through access to information. After the kind of year that no country ever wants, with its government in crisis, repression replacing even the most remote notion of good government, political assassination, and terror standing in the wings, Pakistan elected a new parliament in February. Led initially by a coalition of three parties, its cabinet of familiar political faces quickly agreed in principle, and at least in public, on a compelling and daunting political agenda. It reversed some emergency rulings, negotiated a hasty truce with insurgents living in the contentious tribal agency of Waziristan—and then broke down on divisive issues left to them by Musharraf. Domestic politics and foreign policy alike are now fair game for ambitious politicians long removed from power. This isn’t the first time that civilians have inherited the detritus of a military-led state, and past success has been elusive at best. The prevalent state of affairs is an outcome of the accumulation of decades of mangled constitutions, mixed civil-military law, weakened state institutions and fragmented political parties. Today’s refreshing, if cautious good will nonetheless reflects a political order that was fragile and complex before Musharraf’s 1999 coup d’etat and remains so now.The recent blur of pronouncements, plans and policies reflects this history as it touches on Pakistan’s perennially sensitive topics: jumbled electoral rules, imbalances between provincial powers and central government authority, political corruptions long deemed acceptable, and a testy relationship between parliament and the president. In addition to it, daily life in Pakistan is increasingly punctuated by targeted, violent incidents and a prevailing insecurity. Certainly the effects of Pakistan’s engagements in Afghanistan’s thirty years of war and the spillovers of global terror are searing reminders that neither past antagonisms nor allegiances disappear when new governments are born. But it is Pakistan’s governance that requires fixing first. The imbalances and inequities built into the country’s current governance are not only problems themselves, but affect every effort to stop violence at its source, and rationalize foreign policy. Counterintuitive? Perhaps! But this coalition came into office at a time of immense opportunity: so much that is wrong has become so obvious to so many that the deeply seated problems of the state are now part of common political parlance. That fact alone represents a challenge to the stability and efficacy of civilian government. After all, coalitions are rarely as sturdy as they need to be. If the government can ultimately rise above the fissures that have been exposed already to seek stability more than separate political gain, the Pakistani state may have a chance to set a course that it can, finally, navigate. It has been left to the new parliament to tackle hard problems: how to restore judges; protect the often notional independence of the judiciary and repair the constitution; ensure rather than compromise (or undercut) citizen rights; repair immediate resource shortfalls and resolve long-term differences of economic ideology; revisit the over-arching structure of the federal compact; and, of course, decide what to do about a plethora of other problems. These issues literally forced the winter’s election, and cry out for prompt resolution. The peculiar demands of the coalition’s internal compromises both illuminate and slow progress in all these areas. The Muslim League (PML) campaigned zealously to restore the judges, for example, and its stalwart commitment (and perhaps savvy political allegiance) to this restoration was too much for the People’s Party (PPP). The PPP was slow to embrace this matter; its tense histories with judges tend to color passions on this subject, and the late Benazir Bhutto’s reluctance to challenge Musharraf continues to shadow the party’s negotiations on fundamental problems of judicial autonomy. Each party has followed different economic policies during their previous tenures in office. The first order of business, of course, was to ensure that this unanticipated coalition could make government really work, but in the wake of its first major disputes, the coalition challenged its own fate. Old time politicians beholden to families and feuds lead parliament, the cabinet and the provincial assemblies, but it is the party leaders who announce policy and personnel decisions, host diplomats and negotiate intra-coalition agreements. After many years in the wilderness, the parties are flexing their muscles, but their relationships to state institutions are uneasy. The first blush of electoral success, however, led almost inexorably to policy differences. But serious rethinking about the quality of governance is already overdue. In this sense, history is repeating itself, but as a cautionary tale. In its sixty years of independence, Pakistan’s politics has almost always been in conflict with major state institutions. The military and the bureaucracy have taken a dim view of politicians, who in turn have treated these institutions as impediments to their programs and prerogatives. No state institution has escaped the high-handedness of party rule; no party has survived the reflexive wrath of military and bureaucratic control, and too many politicians have died, sometimes at the hand of the state. The simple concepts of representation, political participation and honest constitutionalism are so eroded that Pakistan’s history is usually narrated as a contest between those who seek power and those who wield authority. The space between them—under both civilian and military governments, with rare independent adjudication from a frequently pliant judiciary—has nurtured corruptions of many sizes and shapes. The luxury of bad governance is no longer an option. Pakistan’s population is growing at a rapid rate, and health care, literacy, education and jobs are too scarce. The economy has grown but the poor have not benefited, economic opportunity is uneven, and tensions between the rural and urban sectors cannot help but increase over time. Street riots over power shortages and looming shortfalls in the food supply are bound to shatter the confidence of the masses in democracy. It is the time for the political elite of the country to revisit themselves, so that this hard- earned democracy may not once again be sacrificed on the alter of the bad governance. The people have once again voiced their dissatisfaction over the performance of the power brokers and higher echelons in the Islamabad. If they are not heard then they cannot be halted from holding a march in the approaching March.

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