Jan 6, 2010

Democracy beyond voting

Growing awareness among the people has instilled in them the courage to hold elected representatives accountable

By Dr Noman Ahmed

After the Supreme Court's verdict that declared the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) void ab initio, various runners up of the previous elections have become hopeful again. Predictions abound that the nation will be dragged into mid-term elections as those affected by this verdict may not be able to hold the ground. In other words, playing elections appears to be the best pastime of a powerful group of influential, especially those who have earlier lost. They enthusiastically prepare for a fresh bout in any format or form. The local bodies elections, if conducted as per announcement of the Prime Minister, shall make another worth-participating tournament.

The polity in Pakistan appears to show great keenness in electoral process whenever it is unfolded for public participation. Whether it is the national elections or the franchise episode of a small-scale trade union, the participation of different cadres of stakeholders sometimes crosses limits of normalcy.

In important national events, such as national and provincial elections, bands of supporters of competing candidates resort to hooliganism, violence and quasi-terror tactics. Political leaders and other harbingers of democracy consider these happenings as usual norms of democratic culture. But a stronger set of counter arguments set forth the actual agenda to further this debate.

Does voting process represent the entire spread of democracy? If no, why avid participation and consequent enthusiasm of ordinary people does not move beyond rudimentary attributes of electioneering? And how the essential ingredients of democracy can be revived and linked up with the polity? These points can become the baseline for any regime that is genuinely interested in engaging the masses in promoting democracy in its true spirit. A test case thus emanates for the present regime in power.

The voting process and the entire sphere of electioneering is part of democracy, and not the whole democracy itself. The frenzy of the common folks around the elections process is often misconstrued by many stakeholders. The party wizards think that by instigating electioneering frenzy, they can get their clandestine designs executed. On the other hand, the 'establishment' seems to believe that the masses can be tricked into participating in any kind of voting process by trumping up voting games as democracy. These bluffs often fall apart.

The fa├žade of holding referendum by General Ziaul Haq and Musharraf became reasons of embarrassment for both the regimes. It is abundantly clear that the collective wisdom practised by the silent majority is wholesome in nature. They elect representatives with an expectation that their problems will be resolved through legislative input, political intervention, deliberation, and lobbying. Growing awareness among the people has instilled in them the courage to hold elected representatives accountable. For example, women in Talhar area in Badin district recently held demonstration to obtain gas connections in their taluka. The legislators had to agree to cooperate with them.

The understanding and fusion of democratic norms in various institutional frameworks and organisations is another benefit of a democratic culture. Statutory professional bodies, such as Pakistan Engineering Council, Pakistan Medical and Dental Council, and Bar Associations are a few examples. When elections are properly conducted and candidates contest on the basis of carefully prepared programmes of action, the performance and conduct of these bodies improves.

Worker unions and trade bodies are found shackled under the influence of main political parties. Due to this handicap, the agenda of real progress and policies of welfare are seldom pursued. Collective Bargaining Agents (CBA) elections in utilities and national organisations such as the airline and railways are overwhelmed by political interest groups. The dubious performance of these bodies constitutes a moot point for deliberation and research.

From working perspective, certain key parameters can be used to measure the existence and performance of a true democratic mechanism in a specified context. The existence of an up-to-date legal framework, institutionalised decision making process, operational transparency, financial accountability and open reporting are some cardinal variables. Unfortunately, our national and provincial administrations fall short on key counts. For instance, no major party -- with very few exceptions -- has a credible process of party elections. At best, these parties are family fiefdoms which do not promote open-ended leadership development.

Decision-making in these parties is entirely whimsical and controlled by party chiefs. No research organisations or think-tanks inform the leadership about policy options and strategic measures. Not much change has been experienced on other counts of national performance. Barring a few outfits, the NGOs and other bodies are tightly controlled by individuals or groups.

Elections to the governing body of arts council in Karachi is a case in point where the second generation of groups traditionally contest against each other. In respect to transparency and accountability, the less said the better. A milestone will be achieved when at least the audited accounts of all political parties, institutions with publicly elected representatives or public organisations are made accessible

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