Jan 7, 2010

Defending democracy the right way

Shafqat Mahmood

Why can't we get it right? Our cricketers fight hard to get into a position to win and then squander away the advantage like errant sons running through a vast inheritance.

Our politicians, or at least a sizeable number of them, fight hard for democracy and then start undermining it by not caring a fig for governance, placing nieces, nephews and long-lost friends in every job imaginable, make money hand over fist, and then challenging the courts.

For cricketers the only whistleblower is the frustrated and deeply embittered public, because the doddering old man who heads the board – another case of blatant nepotism – has no clue how to run cricket. Surrounded by leeches who gather around every chairman, he is a metaphorical Nero on a grand tourism jaunt while Pakistan cricket burns.

For the politicians it is the courts that intrude into their dream world and try to hold them to account. This becomes a red rag to the raging bull of democracy because, obviously, asking any politician where he or she got his palaces and million-dollar accounts amounts to inviting dictatorship.

All kinds of cards are fished out to scare the courts and the people. The best defence for loot and plunder is not laundering black money into white or claiming legitimate means of income. It is wrapping the noble flag of democracy around yourself and claim to be a symbol of the faded dreams of the poor.

There is a brazenness to this that is quite astounding. People whose only turn on in life is how much to make, and how quickly, claim to be champions of those who never had, or ever will have, anything. And this is not all. They have also now emerged as carriers of ethnic dreams. Touch them and entire ethnicities, they claim, will be up in arms.

Arrayed with them in these battle lines of morality are those whose claims are to a higher calling, who remind us all the time of our failings towards other human beings. How they square in their minds the obvious and visible manifestations of plunder and their insistence on narrow principles of legality is difficult to understand.

The lesson drawn by those waiting in line for their opportunity to rob this nation is simple. Make as much money as you want but make sure that this creaky, unwieldy, corrupt and imperfect judicial system does not convict you. If you can ensure this, every lover of democracy and human rights – people who have never made a crooked penny in their life or said boo to a goose in anger – will stand and fight with you.

The looters, when alone, would be beside themselves with amusement. The best minds and the most sensitive souls in the land, who cry copious tears when a stray dog is shouted at, are standing with them upholding esoteric principles of legality and democracy!

How great this democracy is, they must be telling themselves. It not only allows the likes of us to come to the top for more opportunities of plunder, it also gathers all manner of do-gooders to defend us. Bleeding-heart liberals for whom a principle is more important than the worst crime, incorrigible leftists waiting for the red dawn, defenders of human and animal rights who travel the world saving Maoris' in New Zealand and whales in the Arctic, upright columnists and independent journalists who would rather go to the gallows than give in to a dictator -- all these great and the good help us to consume our loot and get away with plunder. We love democracy.

While many of us are sticklers for the letter of the law, isn't it strange that we define democracy only to mean the rights of the elected? Is democracy only confined to an election, and does that give a licence to the representatives of the people to do what they like? Isn't the Supreme Court, or indeed judiciary at every level, also an essential pillar of democracy?

No one would like democracy to be destabilised. The nation as a whole has fought long and hard for it. But is it only a court decision against a particular individual that undermines it? What about those who are threatening to resist the courts, or saying that they will not resign and take the whole system down if a decision comes against them? Are they also not destabilising democracy?

The wrap of prudence has to be worn by everyone. The courts have to remain within the confines of law and the Constitution. This is almost a tautology, because by definition courts are interpreters and defenders of the rule of law. They become irrelevant if this is undermined.

At the same time, those anointed by the will of the people to constitute a government and hold high offices in the land also have a responsibility towards democracy. Whether a decision goes against them or in their favour, they have to accept it, abide by it and implement it. That is the only way to build democracy. Going in any other direction means destroying it.

Politicising court verdicts may be clever tactics. President Zardari has done a great job turning the focus away from his alleged wrongdoings towards the survival of democracy. Some of his supporters have also raised the spectre of dangers to the federation.

It is also a political masterstroke to get the provincial assemblies of three provinces to give him a vote of confidence. Nawaz Sharif has also declared his everlasting love for Mr Zardari, going so far as to say that even if his party deserts him, he will stand by him. These are astute political moves and, if there was a danger of direct military intervention, possibly very effective.

But the situation we face today is not a looming danger of another martial law unless there is a constitutional deadlock and a complete breakdown of the democratic system of governance. If that happens then the army, whether it likes it or not, will have to intervene. All the political moves will come to naught in that case.

The real danger then is a clash of institutions and that has to be avoided at all cost. It can be done by not attacking the Supreme Court or politicising its decisions. Every issue that comes before it must be fought, but by legal arguments and within the confines of the court. That is the definition of democratic behaviour. Any other way, is a recipe for trouble.

The next few months will be a challenge. For the government, for the courts, and for everyone else taking positions one way or the other. The only way forward is strict adherence to law and the Constitution.

And someone please sack this cricket board. Its failures are a pain too much.

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