The Punjab Law and Local Government minister, Rana Sanaullah, has said that party-based elections for the lowest tier of government will damage political parties. It is hard to imagine a political theory that could justify his assertion but then, for anyone following Pakistan’s democracy circus, such glaring contradictions are not surprising. Those running the show have developed a knack for telling us that black is actually white.

Obviously, the minister was only interested in advancing the party line. His PML-N wanted to hold party-less elections in Punjab but was ordered by the Lahore High Court to make them party-based as per the requirements of the constitution. And though the minister promised no further delay in elections that were supposed to be held five years ago, his statement indicates that the Punjab government is not done with dragging its feet on this count.

The PPP Sindh government is no better and it has similarly dodged this important constitutional requirement. Even the PTI, that severely criticised the two major parties for not holding local elections in their previous tenures and that heads the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government now, seems to be reluctant in going ahead with what was an important plank of its election campaign. Mind you, this is despite the Supreme Court’s prodding.

So why are the flag-bearers of our democracy so reluctant in bringing it closer to the people? It is hardly a mystery. One just has to look at the way our political leaders run the higher tiers of provincial and federal governments and their political parties to understand their notions about democracy. Hand-picked coteries rather than any democratic structures formulate policies and take decisions. Things are easier to manage that way. For them, democracy seems to be more about centralising decision making rather than wider participation.

Granted that the PTI moved things in the right direction by holding intra-party elections, but the impact of the elected party structure thrown up by the massive exercise is yet to reflect in the party policies in any meaningful way. Besides, though the PTI elections shook up the democracy chessboard somewhat, the commendable initiative was not enough to push the established political parties with their well-entrenched leaders and their hand-picked favourites in a similar direction.

The result is that though our political parties swear by democracy, participate in elections to form governments that are meant to be democratic, and would like to monopolise authority on the basis of this democratic legitimacy, their functioning has very little to do with democratic principles and, consequently, with the people whose interests they are supposed to represent.

Elections in this scheme of things have very little to do with ascertaining the will of the people who have no real say in who should represent them. The choice of candidates is dictated by the party high-command that bases its nominations on fossilised calculations of support and influence in their constituencies rather than their ability and character. Even the PTI with its resolve to bring fresh candidates with a clean record succumbed to this traditional status quoesque notion of electables.

These well-entrenched candidates might not have much to show for their earlier tenures in positions of power but are invariably well-versed in winning elections by hook or crook. They owe much of their success to undemocratic networks of patronage that go right down to the community level. In an electoral process that depends so much on money, their financial worth is a winning factor. Candidates of ruling parties benefit from official patronage in terms of announcement of development schemes and posting of election staff of their choice. And if they are still in doubt about their victory, the options of poll-day rigging and violence are always there.

Such candidates might not add up to deliver democratic governance to the people but they are very useful indeed for reaching the magic numbers needed to form governments. With little premium on any principles and no political vision, independents join parties for personal rewards. Coalitions are formed for positions in the cabinet. Happy with what power brings them personally, they are least concerned about government policies being made by the leader of the gang and his hand-picked coterie, or the effect those policies would have on the lives of the people.

It is the disconnect between those running our democracy and those they are meant to be running it for that should nudge us to seriously rethink our democratic system. Goals like regular elections and smooth transfer of power are all very well, but they are meaningless unless progress is made in terms of the fairness of the electoral process and democratisation within political parties and governments.

The democratic credentials of governments are being questioned even in developed democracies with a long history of regular elections and smooth transfer of power. In fact, despite the fact that political parties in these countries have democracy within them, the hold of powerful moneyed lobbies on formulation of government policies is a cause of concern for democratic minded groups and individuals.

There is a realisation in western democracies, especially the United States, that representatives elected by the people are more interested in increasing the profit of big business rather than the well-being of citizens. The more than cosy relationship between big business and governments in the citadels of democracy is being questioned. Citizens being told to tighten their belts and forget about social security and public education and health find it strange that their governments who do not have money for them can dig up hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out big banks and finance never-ending wars. There is a vigorous debate on democracy and how to keep it tied to the public interest.

Rather than finding comfort in the superficial progress made by democracy in Pakistan, it is important to keep questioning its credentials with a view to bringing it closer to the principles on which it stands. It is important to keep pushing it closer to the public and its interests. It is important because if it stops serving the people, they will stop caring about its survival.

The writer is a freelance columnist.