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An Exercise In Democracy

Communities all over Pakistan start to renew their exercise of right of self-rule today, Aug 18, 2005.  While the present Local Bodies system has a number of flaws, the very fact that it exists gives hope for the future, that the citizens will be able to use their vote to seat their favoured candidate in office for local governance is a matter of satisfaction. This is despite the fact that “pre-polls rigging” has taken place to such an extent that it will be a miracle to see those opposed to the present government get voted into any office.  Looking for silver linings, since there are those who support the respective Provincial governments, at least a percentage of voters will see their rights exercised. There is a Hobson’s choice between having this “part” exercise in democracy and having no democracy at all. Something is better than nothing, we must keep struggling, someday we can better our situation than what we have presently.

Political parties are a must for any democracy, they are the melting pot where race, religion, sect, etc come together and form a strong bulwark against hate and prejudice on narrow parochial bigoted reasons. An experiment of non-party democracy was tried by having party-less Parliamentary elections during late Gen Ziaul Haq’s regime, it fractured society along racial and sectarian fault lines and brought Pakistan to grief with respect to peace and tranquility. People of different races and religions of like-minded belief can only come together to contest for electoral seats under the aegis of political parties. Party-less Local Bodies election forcing people to oppose each other on the basis of race, religion and sect, etc. could have been avoided, Gen Pervez Musharraf did not repeat late Zia’s mistake  during  the  October 2002  Parliamentary  elections. Why we are now conducting Local Bodies as a party-less exercise in democracy is beyond me! People must mix with each other cutting across their relationships of race and/or religion for their own perception of one society, unifying together than as one nation, instead of creating ghettos, poor or rich at the level of the community. And  then  look  at  the  farce, “groups” are nothing but another name for the political parties under another garb. Everyone and his uncle knows this subterfuge, if the Chief Election Commissioner doesn’t, than respectfully he is living on another planet. Maybe he has pragmatically decided to let this camouflage remain for the good of the nation! Party-less elections are simply a mechanism to keep PPP and PML (N) out of power, one can only ignore the fact that both are national parties at the cost of national unity?

We have learnt no lessons from the 1977 General Elections. Despite the grouping of all the opposition parties under the flag of the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA), Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s PPP would have easily won if not gaining a two-thirds majority. There is no evidence of wide-scale electoral rigging being ordered by the late Prime Minister though he certainly did want a two-thirds majority in Parliament. There is evidence however that he did want to win “unopposed” in his traditional seat of Larkana and for that the Federal and Provincial machinery went overboard to arrange. If it had stopped at that, Bhutto (and the PPP) would have got away with it. When some of the more “loyal-than-the-king” Chief Ministers, Federal Ministers, Provincial Ministers, etc decided that they also wanted to show their “unopposed” popularity a la Bhutto, it got out of hand. Those who did not “manage” this “result” then used the administrative machinery to rig the elections wherever it could be done. The lop-sided win for the PPP, evoked a backlash with the launch of a country-wide protest by the PNA, the people coming out en masse in the streets. PPP’s success turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory, the clock on (not of)  democracy  had  stated  ticking,  July 5,  1977  was  bound  to happen. Today 28 years later, “pre-polls rigging” is still the name of the game. Rigging may not happen everywhere, but then some do want to see themselves and their favourites in place, irrespective of the popular vote. An immediate protest may not happen, somewhere along a mass reaction may well set in. Someone has sent up a trial balloon for having the President elected by an Electoral College of Local Bodies Nazims/Naib Nazims. Musharraf is popular among the “great silent majority”, instead of cashing in on his wide base of support, why depend upon such an indirect method with no democratic credibility?

In some cities like Karachi (at least 3 districts out of 5), Hyderabad, Sukkur, Nawabshah and Mirpurkhas, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) will have lop-sided victories because of their concentrated mass voter strength some intelligent seat adjustment will give them additional seats in non-traditional areas. MQM will not only have control of these five cities, for the first time they will have as large a bloc of seats, if not larger, than PPP in Sindh. While this MQM urban – PPP rural divide is not really conducive, the parties will have to enter into a coalition in the later Parliamentary elections, the best form of “check and balance” in a democracy. In the interim, control of the major city of Karachi will bring with it the responsibility of governance. The previous Nazim Jamaat-I-Islami’s Niamatullah is basing his campaign on the strength of his incorruptibility and performance, being supported by other opposition parties. Given the circumstances of MQM electoral strength, this challenge will not succeed. A lot of people had predicted bloodshed leading upto the elections, while this was not in the cards, a breakdown of law and order could take place in the future. The maturity with which MQM dons the onus of governance will be the acid test of how responsibly it administers Pakistan’s largest metropolitan city, if it resorts to heavy-handedness then we Karachi-ites may return to another cycle of bloodshed.

Democracy provides accountability, accountability is another name for justice, regretfully a totalitarian regimes are not accountable to everyone, they usually put themselves beyond the pale of judicial cynosure. What is required is not selective but unadulterated accountability that not only provides equal justice for all but holds all citizens of the state equally answerable to the rule of law. Democracy is of no use to the individual unless the various freedoms are available at his (or her) doorstep and he (or she) has a say without any hindrance in the governance of his (or her) immediate community. Local Bodies provides the “grass roots” democracy that is extremely important for the welfare and well-being of a unified society.

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