In theory, democracy contains within the promise of more inclusive and participatory politics. In practice, however, this is rarely the case. The ostensibly pluralistic nature of democratic politics, institutionalized through elections and parliaments, often masks the persistence of structural sources of exclusion and inequality that constrain the ability of many citizens to become a part of the political process.

Part of the problem lies in how democracy is conceptualized. One of the principles that lies at the heart of much thinking about democracy is that pluralism gives rise to consensus-based, representative politics. The basic idea here is that, freed from constraints on expression and organization, different groups in society can make use of democratic institutions to advance their interests, engage in negotiations with each other, and arrive at compromise solutions to complex, common problems. At a basic level, this is the principle by which parliaments, comprised of elected representatives from different constituencies and political parties, are expected to ultimately implement laws and policies that are, to a large extent, the outcome of processes through which different points of view have been exhaustively argued and considered.

Following from this conception of how pluralistic debate can give rise to representative outcomes, it is often assumed that the best way to guarantee participation is by eliminating the various formal barriers to entry that prevent different groups from becoming part of the political process. More often than not, this is done through a process of legal reform which ensures that fundamental rights, like the right to freedom of expression, belief, and association, are guaranteed. Additionally, considerable attention is paid to the institutional form of democracy itself; representation is carefully divided between regions and groups, and legal safeguards are usually put in place to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority. Thus, when elections are held, the fact that citizens are free to contest themselves or vote for a candidate, party, or ideology of their choice, is taken as being self-evident proof of the pluralistic nature of the process. In this context, the non-participation of individuals and groups is taken to be a preference, rather than being symptomatic of broader constraints.

What this entire discourse obscures, however, is the way in which concrete material realities impede participation despite the presence of formal institutional mechanisms geared towards generating a pluralistic political process. As the democratic process in Pakistan continues to mature, with the elections of May 2013 representing an important milestone in the transition away from authoritarian rule, it is necessary to consider the question of whether or not the trappings of democracy, as they currently exist in Pakistan, constitute the basis for more substantive democratization. Here, a couple of things become immediately clear. For one, given the particularistic and exclusionary nature of Pakistan’s official nationalist narrative, focusing as it does on the propagation of an identity rooted in an orthodox variant of Sunni Islam, religious minorities continue to face forms of discrimination institutionalized in law, sanctioned by the state, and perpetuated by society. The same is also broadly true for ethnic minorities confronting a state that is self-consciously Punjabi, and women faced with a society that is intrinsically patriarchal. Where legal protections do exist to protect these groups, they are more honoured in the breach than the observance. In all of these cases, the continued marginalization of communities whose interests and identities do not align with those of the state illustrates the extent to which deep inequalities continue to characterize Pakistan, as well as the inability of democratic institutions to provide adequate means through which to address these issues.

The exclusion of people on the basis of their ethnic, religious and gender identities often intersects with questions of class. At a purely procedural level, for example, the simple act of contesting an election, at any level of government, is one that requires tremendous amounts of economic and social capital. Politics in Pakistan remains a field that is almost entirely dominated by elite interests and it is therefore unsurprising to find that the policy orientations of the state remain singularly unconcerned with questions concerning the poor.

The problem is compounded by the nature of state power in Pakistan. The informal barriers of gender, ethnicity, religion, and class that constrain democratic participation are exacerbated by the persistence of patronage-based local politics throughout the country. Rather than being a universalistic entity efficiently providing services to all of its citizens, the state in Pakistan has historically been subject to capture by elites at the local level, who make use of their official position, as well as their links within networks of privilege and power, to become the primary conduits through which constituents can access public goods. This, in turn, forms the basis for the corruption, rent-seeking, and nepotism that is endemic to Pakistan’s governance, and is fundamental to the process through which entrenched elites reinforce their authority. More importantly, for the purposes of understanding the limits to Pakistan’s democracy, it illustrates how elections and voting do not automatically translate into representative and responsive state institutions. Who you know ultimately remains far more important than whether or not you voted.

The issues described above are not unique to Pakistan. Indeed, the argument could be made that many of the most advanced liberal democracies similarly fail to adequately address the deep-rooted sources of social and economic inequality that impede substantive participation in the democratic process. Similarly, it would be extremely problematic to take democracy’s shortcomings as a pretext to advocate a return to authoritarian rule;  formal political equality and freedom can form the basis for meaningful change, and it would be ludicrous to suggest that military governments in Pakistan have played a more progressive or positive role than their democratic counterparts.

Instead, what is required is an understanding of how formal democratization needs to be accompanied by radical reform aimed at addressing social, political, and economic disparities. The discourse around pluralism often invokes the metaphor of a playing field in which all participants are on an equal footing, competing against each other and triumphing through their hard work, skill, and the strength of their ideas. A similar argument is often made by the rich when contrasting their success with that of the less fortunate. The reality, however, is completely different; the metaphor of a playing field would only work if it were one in which a small group of people, fortunate enough to be born into wealth and the right ethnic and religious group, was able to set the rules of the game and compete against opponents hamstrung by the less fortuitous conditions of their birth and circumstances. Eliminating legal sources of discrimination and barriers to participation is an important and necessary part of the democratic process, but it is far from all that is required. Until concrete steps are taken to proactively empower the disadvantaged through systemic change focused around the provision of economic and social justice, democracy will only serve to legitimize the power of an elite minority.

    The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.