Mar 4, 2009

The majesty of democracy

Farahnaz Ispahani
Pakistanis are debating vehemently once again what it means to be a democracy in the aftermath of the unfortunate disqualification by the courts of PML-N leaders Mian Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif. It would be useful at this juncture to pause and reflect on how other, more mature, democracies have dealt with similar situations. The greatest strength of the democratic system is its ability to enable gradual change without violence. If the Democratic Party in the United States can live with, and over time overcome, the consequences of the Supreme Court judgement that deprived Al Gore of the presidency despite his winning a majority of the popular votes, our Supreme Court's judgement too need not lead to violence and instability. The images of several hundred political activists rioting in the streets of Punjab to protest the Supreme Court judgement contrast sharply with the image of American members of the Democratic Party shaking their heads in 2000 and moving on with the Bush presidency until 2008. Even in Pakistan, Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto dealt with her disqualification in 1998 under a system set up by the PML-N and run by a Senator from the ruling party by appealing the judicial decision and continuing to work within the political framework. The Democratic Party and Shaheed Mohtarma went to the people and did not riot in the streets. It may have taken time but the outcome for the country in each case was much better than inviting chaos through violence in the streets. I was fortunate enough to participate in the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama on Jan 20, to see President Obama take his oath of office and address his fellow Americans, and the world. Notwithstanding the challenges, Obama's message of gradual change created a national mood of optimism. The defiance and confrontation currently being shown by some of our opposition leaders, on the other hand, only create fear and foreboding. Every presidential inauguration in America is a celebration of the remarkable system and society that the Americans have been able to create. This inauguration was special for many reasons. For the first time in their history Americans were entrusting the destiny of their nation to a 47-year-old African- American, son of a Muslim man from Kenya and a white Christian woman from the United States brought up by an Indonesian stepfather and middle-American grandparents. Of course, the credit for his success goes in large part to Obama himself. Yet the oak into which this seedling grew owes much to the land on which it was fortunate enough to fall. There is a tremendous capacity within the democratic system for self-analysis, introspection and self-correction. For example, the US motivation is not to do well for the rest of the world. No country, no matter how blessed, can afford such an altruistic outlook. The motivation is to keep America great. After that prolonged and sometimes tedious process of introspection the US system has again found what it believes will be the key to keeping America great. The Americans have handed the reins of their country to an untested African- American for four, and possibly for eight, years. As the results of the election became clear became clear, Obama spoke to his supporters, one hundred thousand of whom had congregated in a park in Chicago: "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer." An equally strong affirmation of the soundness of the democratic system came almost in parallel in the speech of the losing candidate John McCain: "Let there be no reason for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in the greatest nation on Earth…Whatever our differences, we (McCain and Obama) are fellow Americans, and please believe me when I say, no association has ever meant more to me than that." Pakistanis and Pakistan have suffered from America's inadequacies, mistakes and sometimes plain exploitation. Yet it also helps to learn from the accomplishments of others. What America did on Nov 4, 2008, and consecrated on Jan 20, 2009, should prompt us Pakistanis to look inside ourselves and ask if Pakistan would be better or worse off with a system like America – a system where the answer to every question and crisis is yet more power to the people but not to the mob. Can we continue to make more investment in our institutions and put more faith in and persevere with democracy even when the outcome of constitutional processes is not completely to our liking? What America has been able to do 43 times without once faltering, from the time when monarchies vastly outnumbered democracies to this day when democracy is taken to be a self-evident truth, we Pakistanis have managed only once – on Feb 18, 2008. We must cherish this achievement. We must give the system time to work and must have faith that it will sort out its kinks. The US system is not perfect but every peaceful and regular election cycle rids it of some of its imperfections. So will our system progress and become more purified only if we Pakistanis let it work. The writer is a PPP member of the National Assembly

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