We have all the trappings of democracy but does it work fairly, properly, effectively?

We have elections, more or less rigged in various ways. There is pre-poll rigging and post-poll rigging as well. Bhutto with all his democratic claims too, could not resist the temptation of indulging in messing up the election results.

We have political parties which are manifestly undemocratic. They do not hold even internal elections. Most are controlled and led by dynasties whose scions are blatantly given high offices to keep the leadership in safe hands.

We have elected houses characterized by frequent lack of quorum, absenteeism, noisy rhetoric and fractional legislation. Many  members instead of participating in the debates on legislation and national issues use the occasion as an opportunity to secure favours from ministers and the prime ministers. Often the questions-in-writing asked by the members are not answered because of the related department’s inefficiency or minister’s absence from the house. The return for the expenditure incurred in holding the sessions, generally remains, quite poor. Moreover every member of the house is given millions of rupees for local development—a patronage hardly to be found elsewhere.

We have the largest cabinets in the world. In one province 98% of the members are either ministers or hold parliamentary offices.  We have puppet prime ministers with huge discretionary funds. We have a President with enormous staff (who as a constitutional president is the symbol of national unity and is expected to be neutral) who runs his party affairs in the presidency, frequently makes political/partisan statements and unhesitatingly, unconstitutionally calls all the shots.

With such dubious credentials, how does this democratic political system work? What indeed has been its performance?

In at least two of the four provinces, there is practically a break-down of administration. The case of Balochistan takes the cake. Corruption, lawlessness and incompetence are the orders of the day. Random killings, sudden disappearances and kidnappings for ransom, are routine happenings. The chief executive is frequently absent from the province. Pilferage and waste of public resources everywhere. A veritable separation movement is gaining pace. Development in most of the province is at a standstill. No wonder the Supreme Court, after a lot of hearings, came to the conclusion that the government had totally lost justification and the authority,  to rule. When this verdict came, the democratic defences parked up. Members met and passed a vote of confidence in the government and the chief minister. Quite a legitimate move. A democratic act! So despite all the misdoings and failures as well as  the verdict of the highest court of the country, the inept democratic executive continues to hold office and wield authority.

In Sindh, the country’s commercial capital, hub of the business activities and the main seaport, has been in the grip of murderous violence, extortion and loot. Hundreds are being killed every month like flies. There is lawlessness in many other parts of the province. Thousands of the flood refugees are still eking out a pitiable living. Corruption is rampant. Court’s orders for controlling the situation in Karachi have remained unheeded. Karachi burns and bleeds while the Neros  keep fiddling.

The irony of it is that all the three parties which jointly rule the province keep accusing each other of the mayhem going on. The same parties are also in a coalition government at the centre. Meetings are held. Schemes are announced. Nothing works.

The other day the Federal interior Minister, in a huff, in the National Assembly made the unexpected and bewildering statement that “Parliament has failed”.  So, let us look at the Federal democratic government.

It had the effrontery to defy the Supreme Court judgment when the NRO was pronounced as null and void ab initio. Despite repeated directives, spread over years, it kept on dilly-dallying. It did’nt hesitate to let its prime minister commit the offence of contempt of the court on this account and lose his job.

Imagine a government which lets one of its economic lifelines-the Railways, self-destruct itself and let the only large steel mill of the country run into near-ruin. In whose time the national airlines which in the past enjoyed highly international prestige has become almost a bankrupt and inefficient enterprise. A government which has severely retarded industrial progress by letting electricity shortages and outages continue for all the 4 ½ years it has been at the helm, failing to add to the grid, doing little to tap the hydraulic resources and instead resorting to inefficient small rental plants to make hay for itself.

Here is a democratic government which has achieved the distinction of more than doubling the debt of the country and which has been  printing billions of  currency notes cavalierly and is oblivious of the back-breaking burden it is thus thrusting on the generations to come.

An indication of the mindset of this democratic government may be manifestly seen when one poses the question as to why for such a long time the post of the Wafaqi Mohtsib (federal ombudsman) has been kept vacant. The answer obviously is: to stop citizens from resorting to a an easy remedy of their grievances against the administration.

The crucial question does arise as to whether parliamentary democracy which yields such horrid results is the right political system for us. With the social structure and pervasive feudal mindset can we afford a political system which ends in defeating the spirit and character of a democratic order.

Can we continue with a dispensation where the executive fails to perform and the judiciary has to step in to stem the rot, to some extent (and for doing so, face criticism)

A system which through elections permits the traditional as well as new corrupt elite, return to power to continue its nefarious activities. Is presidential system the answer? But what is the guarantee against a bad candidate grabbing helm or even a good one failing to address provincial pulls and pushes, jeopardizing the very integrity of the state.

One has also to remember that we have today a radical religious right which is asserting itself in various ways and which questions the very basis of the parliamentary system. Hamid Gul for instance advocates this line.

With little happening to alter the social structure, the political culture and the continuing military remote-hold for quite sometimes, we may have to contend with a moth-eaten democracy.

One possibility for the beginning of change is Imran Khan and his PTI. Can he as, he claims, make the difference?!

The writer is an ex-federal secretary & ambassador, and a freelance political and international relations analyst.

Email: pacade@brain.net.pk