The Quick Fix
This term, the Supreme Court of the United States will decide Evenwel v. Abott. The issue raised is whether redistricting in Texas should be on the basis of total population, or, the population of registered voters. An issue that will have dramatic consequences for the ‘one person, one vote’ doctrine that grew from Baker v. Carr and matured in Reynolds v. Sims. Even after all this time American democracy is still grappling with how best to structure the democratic process. This should not alarm us; it should enlighten us. An appreciation should dawn on us of how democracy evolves and, much like all forms of evolution, does so incrementally.
This appreciation is in direct conflict with a mindset that has seeped into many in Pakistan. For some reason, entrenched within the minds of the people of Pakistan, is a need for massive overhauls whenever things tend to get a bit problematic. The fact that we are currently working within the confines of our third constitution says something about this tendency. A notable proponent of this idea is none other than our former Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. I like to describe his term in the Supreme Court as the era of the ‘quick fix’.
In a recently penned open letter to the people of Pakistan, the former Chief Justice talked about the problems that the country has faced since the death of the Quaid. He then meanders to reach the conclusion that we should abandon parliamentary democracy altogether and switch to a presidential form of government. The implication seems to be that this is supposed to help solve our problems. He asks us to let him know what we think of this ingenious ‘quick fix’.
The letter gives no indication of why a presidential system is going to give outcomes different from the ones we already have. Perhaps the underlying thought process is, as Mr. Feisal Naqvi pointed out in a column on this topic, a fixation with ‘hero figures’. If this is true, it is absurd that we have such a parochial view of our problems that we believe that the solution lies in the coming of a messiah figure. That is not how a nation should understand its problems, and it will take more than a hero to free us of corruption, intolerance and everything else mixed in the potion of disaster brewing in Pakistan.
The problem is not just that the letter’s proposed solution is childish in scanning the horizon for a superhero figure to save us all, it is also shallow in its understanding of the problems that the letter itself points out. For example, the letter talks about a mindset of extremism and intolerance towards minorities, but these problems do not magically vanish through a transition from parliamentary democracy to a presidential system. As I wrote last month, Pakistan’s struggle with religious intolerance is to a large extent a war of ideas. The disgusting display of religious bigotry against Ahmadis in Hafiz Centre did not depend on what form of democracy we had. It depended upon hatred bred unchecked.
As the letter points out, Pakistan lacks representative diversity in Parliament, but instead of asking for a ‘quick fix’ the letter should be talking about improving the current system. A system that has never been able to evolve properly thanks to a string of dictatorships and judicial excursions into the domain of the legislature (the author of the letter being the biggest example of the latter). A democracy needs to surmount a number of challenges to be truly representative. Things like partisan gerrymandering, proper cohesive redistricting, the regulation of campaign finance and access to the ballot all play a role in this scheme. Such issues have never gotten the attention they deserve in Pakistan, and unsurprisingly, get no attention at all in the polemic against parliamentary democracy penned by the former Chief Justice.
It is to such issues that we must focus on for our democracy to be a model for others, but we go back to square one if we do away with a system just because we are afraid to confront the problems that will come with it. A presidential system raises the aforementioned problems and more, and if one looks at the problems pointed out in the letter, those probably won’t be addressed by this change anyway.
A proper functioning democracy also requires a respect for the separation of powers. Something that the letter’s author failed to appreciate during his tenure in the Supreme Court by using the ‘suo motu’ to discard all semblance of respect for the principle to replace it with ‘quick fixes’. A proper democracy also requires ‘free speech’ that includes the power to criticize the judiciary without being afraid of being summoned for contempt. Most of all, a democracy needs time. Time to mature and evolve, something that democracy in Pakistan has not gotten enough of. It is absurd to be so childishly irritable as to declare it unworkable and believe that we need to start all over again. Liberty doesn’t work that way. It is a layered problem which requires each layer to be identified, analyzed, and tweaked to succeed. We as a nation can accept this to be a long term process and roll up our sleeves, or we can run off in search of the ‘quick fix’ that will transform us into Shangri-La.
No doubt, this open letter has been penned to satisfy a need to stay relevant by the former Chief Justice, and I’m afraid that is all that it can be said to be. It says nothing about how the proposed solution is supposed to solve our problems neither does it appreciate the true causes of the problems that this country faces. This obsession for ‘quick fixes’ needs to be cast aside. We need to move on from the failure of the Iftikhar Chaudhry years with a greater appreciation that there are no ‘quick fixes’ for a country like Pakistan. We are in this for the long haul, and every step must be measured, every layer examined.
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.