Friday, January 25, 2013

The Long March back to the Election Commission

Now that Dr. Tahir-Ul-Qadri's long march to Islamabad is over, one can sit back and assess its possible impact on Pakistan's democratic system.

One of the concerns that has been present from the very beginning is Qadri's source of funding for the march. To be more specific, this concern centers on the possible existence of anti-democratic forces behind Qadri. Leaving aside the fact that none of these anti-democratic allegations against Qadri have been proven, one should take care to remember what the aim of the long march was.

 Electoral reform.

This, then, would have to be the first anti-democratic movement in history whose aim was to push for electoral reform and a stronger and more independent Election Commission.

There is also the fact that thousands upon thousands of protestors took part in the march. Whatever the source of Qadri's funding, he managed to tap into a legitimate democratic sentiment of reform in bringing out so many willing people. Is it not undemocratic to doubt the sentiments of such a large number of protestors?

None of this is an attempt to defend anti-democratic forces. The point, rather, is that it is misguided to focus solely on the power behind Qadri. If, at some point in the future, some irregularity is discovered, then Qadri should be held responsible. In the meantime, it is more worthwhile to focus on the fact of the long march itself and its possible future effects.

The primary issue that the protest brought forward was that of electoral reforms. When the march was over, Qadri stressed that the reforms that the government had agreed to implement would strengthen the Election Commission. From a political development perspective, this is a positive. Political systems work best when their institutions remain autonomous and free from interference. A truly independent Election Commission would go some way towards ensuring that Pakistan's elections remain free and fair and truly represent popular will.

It remains to be seen, however, what the exact nature of the electoral reforms will be.

A simple reconfiguring of existing election laws or the introduction of new laws would add little value. Pakistan does not suffer from a lack of laws. It suffers from institutions that are too weak to impartially enforce laws. These institutions simply don't have the manpower, funding, and professionalism that is required to enforce the whole range of laws they are authorized to enforce. Whatever little law enforcement there is, is primarily geared towards the protection of powerful elites at the expense of the vast majority of the population.

On the other hand, if the electoral reforms are aimed not at creating or modifying election laws but at enforcing these laws, then the march will have been worth the effort.

Another issue that was brought forward by the protest was the setup of the caretaker government. Qadri has stated that, as part of the agreement with the government, he will have a say in the appointment of the caretaker prime minister. Handing over such power to Qadri is dangerous because it is possibly unconstitutional. According to the 20th amendment to the Constitution, only members of the government, the opposition, and the Election Commission have the authority to select a caretaker prime-minister. Of course, one can hardly hope for electoral reform when the government and the opposition get to decide the caretaker government. But that is where the Election Commission and Supreme Court come in. They have the political legitimacy to disqualify unqualified candidates. Qadri does not.

In any case, a single caretaker prime minister cannot be expected to bring about the type of systemic change that Pakistan's electoral system requires. 

And so, for all its headline-grabbing ferocity, the Islamabad long march doesn't seem like it will be able to impact Pakistan's democratic system in any appreciable way. The only hope is that the legitimacy and authority of the Election Commission may increase due to the sudden focus on electoral reform.

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