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Introducing democracy

20 October, 2014

By Asif Ezdi


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Parliament is now expected to extend the committee's life by a few more months. But the problem is not lack of time. It is the absence of political will to make those fundamental changes that are essential to fix our broken electoral system. The members of the committee are themselves the product of a perverted system and most of them would not get elected if it was reformed in any meaningful way. It is, therefore, no wonder that they have little interest in changing it.

As is well-known, our legislatures are packed with tax cheats, loan defaulters, money launderers and other species of parasites who do not qualify for election under Articles 62 and 63 of the constitution. But the parliamentary committee religiously avoided taking up the question of implementing these articles.

Nor was there any discussion on the two principal flaws of our electoral system: (a) the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system for national and provincial assemblies; and (b) indirect election to the Senate and to reserved seats for women. The committee completely ignored the orders given by the Supreme Court in June 2012 in the Workers Party case for a replacement of the FPTP system by one who is truly representative of the wishes of the electorate.

In addition to addressing these issues, a comprehensive reform of the electoral system must also include the introduction of democracy and accountability in our political parties. The strength and vitality of a democracy depend crucially on the vibrancy and vigour of the parties and there can be no true democracy if the parties themselves are not run democratically and transparently and if their leaders are not accountable to the members.

In some long-established democracies, where the parties have gone through a long evolutionary process, they have themselves developed structures and procedures that ensure a high degree of intra-party democracy. But in many others, such as Germany and Turkey, there are also constitutional provisions and laws to ensure that political parties observe democracy in their internal processes.

Pakistan also has some provisions in its constitution (Articles 17 and 63A) and a law (Political Parties Order, 2002) on the formation of political parties and their functioning. Both the constitutional provisions and the law on political parties have been repeatedly amended by military as well as civilian rulers. The Political Parties Order, which was promulgated by Musharraf, replaced the Political Parties Act of 1962 adopted during the Ayub dictatorship and amended through more than half a dozen acts and ordinances passed by ZA Bhutto's government and under Zia's military rule.

The only discernible pattern in this maze of legislation is that during periods of military dictatorship the effort generally has been to strengthen the regulatory framework within which the parties function, mainly with an eye to neutralising those considered hostile to the military's political role, while under civilian rule the principal aim has been to enhance the powers of the dynastic party heads at the expense of the ordinary members and to loosen oversight by the state.

Partly despite these laws, and partly because of them, our political parties operate neither democratically nor transparently, and the party leaders, far from being accountable to the members, concentrate all power and patronage in their own hands. Most of the large political parties are built around a leading political dynasty. Leadership passes within the family from generation to generation. Their elections, if held, are a sham. Mostly they rubber-stamp selections made by the party chief. Real authority is exercised by the party leader and a handful of his cronies and close associates, many of whom are often members of his extended family.

The same class structure and feudal and sycophantic culture that plagues the society at large also permeates the parties. There is an impenetrable dividing line between the party 'leaders' and 'workers'. The 'leaders' come from the small privileged upper crust of society. They are the ones who contest elections and sit in the legislatures. They are also the paymasters of the 'workers' and provide transport and food for the rented crowds at 'political' rallies. The importance of a 'leader' is roughly proportional to the number and muscle power of 'workers' in his pay.

The main job of the 'workers' is to provide the audience at party rallies, hold demonstrations, wave party flags and raise slogans. They are the ones who face the police batons, tear gas and sometimes bullets. They clap and dance 'spontaneously' on such happy occasions as the appearance of their leader to address them, or when he wins an election. It is also their job to burn tyres and smash some windows when the occasion demands a show of popular anger.

The Political Parties Order contains several articles on the internal organisation and working of parties, supposedly to ensure democracy and transparency. Among these are the requirements that the party leader and other office-bearers should be elected through secret ballot and that candidates for election to legislatures should be chosen by the party through a transparent and democratic procedure. But these seemingly well-intentioned provisions are openly flouted by our political parties because there is no sanction in the law to ensure compliance. It is as if our penal code were to list the crimes but not provide for any punishment.

All these ills are well-known. Yet, no genuine effort has been made to correct them. Our political leaders of course have no interest in fixing a system that works so well for them. In fact they never miss an opportunity to suppress intra-party democracy and they do it shamelessly, as illustrated by the 14th and 18th Amendments to the constitution.

The avowed purpose of the 14th Amendment, which introduced the anti-defection clause (Article 63A) in 1997, was to contribute to political stability by discouraging floor-crossing and horse-trading. But this article was made applicable not only to the election of the prime minister but also whenever a member of the party “votes contrary to any direction issued by the parliamentary party to which he belongs”. In other words, it could be used to disqualify a member for even the most minor infraction of the orders of the party leader. The purpose evidently was to suppress dissent in the party and debate in parliament.

The 18th Amendment went further. It did three things to strengthen the hold of dynastic party heads.

First, Article 17 was amended to dispense with the requirement that the party leader and other office-holders in political parties should be elected.

Second, the 18th Amendment made the anti-defection clause applicable also in votes on constitutional amendments, in effect empowering a handful of party heads to mould and twist the constitution at will.

Third, the 18th Amendment empowered the party chief, who is often its unelected dynastic head, in place of the head of the parliamentary party as before, to declare a member of parliament to have defected and thus disqualified himself from continuing to sit in the house.

All these measures have helped strengthen the hold of dynastic party heads over the political system and hampered the development of a democratic culture in the parties as well as the country at large. This is a major reason for the fragility of democratic institutions in Pakistan.

Any reform in the electoral system will fall short of its goals unless it is accompanied by the adoption of effective measures to promote democracy within the parties. Not only must the law lay down clear and mandatory democratic norms for the internal structure and processes within the parties, it must also provide for appropriate penalties against parties that do not observe those standards and designate an agency such as the Election Commission to ensure oversight and implementation.


The writer is a former member of the Pakistan Foreign Service.
Email: asifezdi@yahoo.com

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