Democracy: Fact Or Fiction

Democracy: Fact Or Fiction

So we are back to “saving democracy”. You may once have thought that accountability was a significant component of democracy, but apparently you were wrong, it is actually an “attack on democracy”, or so some would have you believe.

Masses may once again be asked to “fight for democracy” and aid a few in their “struggle for democracy”. If history is to repeat its self, the masses may fall prey and render the “m” silent yet again. It is like guarding an egg in order to protect a chicken, only what you think is an egg is actually a stone and is never going to hatch.

Phrases like ‘let democracy evolve’ are considered apt excuses for our failure to bring democracy home. While under military rule we strive and fight to bring democracy back, once the dictator is ousted we suddenly realize how bringing back democracy is a “long and strenuous process” and until  this process is completed, if ever, people would only see ineffective, non-productive glimpses of democracy and never any real form of it.

We the masses have almost always bought these flawed, false and demented narratives. While a leader stands and asks us to help him fight his way west, we have often empowered him while we watch him rolling east. All this in the name of democracy and constitution; the noblest of ideals and, might I add, the most exploited ones.

What is the difference between a real democracy and the one we often find ourselves fighting for or protecting?

One is a product of principles like equality before law, rule of law, supremacy of the constitution, accountability, empowerment of the masses, fundamental rights and electing chosen representatives to legislate laws and formulate policies.

The other is apparently an unbridled right to plunder and the power to evade accountability.

Supremacy of the constitution is quite evident.

A mandatory provision of the constitution, enforcing one of the most significant components of a real democracy, has been ignored at will, despite its backing by the Supreme Court. Article 140-A of the Constitution, obligating the state to establish local governments, has been put on hold for years, for lack of political will. It seems that by the end of this year, after a gap of six years, the country may finally have local governments, partially fulfilling the obligation contained in 140-A. As far as devolving  financial, administrative and political autonomy to these local governments is concerned, it seems highly improbable under the current laws.

Another mandatory provision of the ConstitutionArticle 251, whereby Urdu was to be used as the official language in Pakistan within fifteen years from 1973, has only recently been enforced, again by way of an intervention by the Supreme Court. Unfortunately what was to be done by 1988 has still not been done and no arrangements have been made in said regard. Thus even after a verdict from the Supreme Court, uncertainty and impracticalities surround the enforcement of Article 251.

Fundamental rights as enshrined in the Constitution depend on a citizen’s financial and social stature. A poor man may be arrested for any crime that he did not commit, a powerful influential citizen may not be arrested for crimes that he did commit.

Notions like Rule of law and equality before law have acquired the status of utopian concepts.

Elected and chosen representatives do not represent their people in Parliament, instead seek dictation from individuals who lead their party.

Nevertheless, all of these failures still do not warrant a coup like military intervention, and I don’t believe there is one on the cards. It’s the judiciary that can and should intervene to strengthen democracy in the country. However if accountability needs a push, it doesn’t really matter where the push comes from.

Parliament should aid the judiciary in this exercise, but as long as Parliament is controlled by individual leaders and not masses, any cooperation is improbable. Military or any other institution is only allowed space to intervene when a vacuum results from Parliamentary and judicial inaction.

First and foremost, our country needs electoral reforms. Then again, across the board accountability should take precedence over any other agenda. Judiciary and Parliament need to be on the same page when it comes to accountability, and that page needs to be in the interest of Pakistan and not a handful of politicians or judges.

Our electoral system has massive room for improvement. Irregularities and mismanagement are only some of the aspects that need to be addressed. For a true democracy, we may need to overhaul our entire electoral system.

To elaborate, let’s take the example of General Elections 2013:

The ruling party bagged over 14 million votes, 14,874,104 votes to be precise. This is 32.77% of the total votes polled and 17.66% of registered voters. Evidently 67.33 % of the people who voted in the elections, did not vote for the party that now rules, in fact they voted against it. If we add those who abstained from voting or could not vote for other reasons, we have a mammoth 82.34% of registered voters who did not vote for the party that now runs their country. This is not will of the majority by any stretch of imagination, it’s will of the maximum possible.

Pakistan does not have a two party system, in fact we are probably farthest from it. There a total of 162 political parties in Pakistan. Article 17(2) of our Constitution arms every citizen with the right to form, or be member of a political party. Couple this with our diverse inclinations and you have a plethora of political parties. Two party system is an impossibility in the current constitution of our society which is not divided into just liberals and conservatives. Everything is political when it comes to this region. We have liberals, conservatives, quasi-liberals, quasi-conservatives, religious fundamentalists, religious liberals, socialists, communists, provincial rights activists, sectarian rights activists, gender rights activists etc. and every one has been guaranteed the right to form their own political party and participate in elections. The logical conclusion? A party that bags less than 1/5th of the total registered votes, sits at the helm of country’s affairs.

Next is the strengthening of our institutions. Powers should vest in institutions and not individuals. We have this tendency to idolize people, which in effect strips their institution of powers and more often than not results in the misuse of power by that very individual.

Lastly if the country needs an actual democracy, it has to ensure stringent standards of democracy within political parties. At the moment all of Pakistan’s major political parties are autocratic when it comes to party’s internal affairs. Representation of People’s Act, 1976 and relevant laws are in place, but enjoy the same fate as several other laws and provisions of the Constitution; ineffective and impotent. Again, if Parliament fails to implement its own laws, the judiciary should intervene and ensure implementation.

If Parliament and judiciary consistently fail at moving the country towards a real democracy and progress, they have in effect failed at fulfilling their constitutional obligations. The vacuum thus created will invite other actors.

Democracy is the only way forward, but only a democracy in its real sense and not a demented, self-serving distortion of it.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any organization with which he might be associated.

Zafar Zulqarnain Sahi

Author: Zafar Zulqarnain Sahi

The writer is a lawyer by profession. He is a Gold Medalist in LLB from Punjab University and has a LLM degree from University of Warwick, UK. He is also a former Member Provincial Assembly of Punjab (2008-2013).