Thursday, September 4, 2014

A Corrupt Opposition

The current opposition does not believe in democracy.

Despite sitting in parliament, it has by its actions over the past few weeks demonstrated how far it is willing to go to hold back the development of democracy.

Democracy is about accountability. For a party in opposition, this means holding the ruling government accountable. Normally, the opposition grasps any chance it has to do this. Yet, the majority of the opposition - led by the PPP - has refrained from holding the PML-N government to account for the state oppression that it has inflicted on the protestors in Islamabad. Some opposition politicians have made vague references to the brutality of the police. But the tone of the opposition has predominantly been one of unconditional support to the government.

This support is all the more surprising when one considers that the PML-N has a majority government. In such a scenario, the ruling party has the opportunity to violate any number of rights. It attempted to do so when it signed the Protection of Pakistan Bill into law. The law allows security forces to detain suspects for a maximum of 60 days without revealing their location or the allegations against them. It is a law which has been totally rejected by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan but which is now planning to be used against the Islamabad protestors.

Democracy isn't just about accountability of the government - it also means being accountable to the public.

When the public, however small the amount, protests for an extended period of time it is an indication that the issue they're protesting about is worth examining. Even if the protestors themselves don't believe in parliamentary means, their concerns regarding economic hardships, corruption and the provision of law and order should be considered legitimate. The opposition, as a counterweight to the government, should be particularly sensitive to protestors who are claiming that these issues occurred during the present government's time.

The primary issue that the PAT has raised is the lodging of an FIR over the Model Town incident. The main concern of PTI is the electoral rigging which occurred during the 2013 elections. The former is an example of state brutality which democracy is supposed to prevent. The latter is an electoral issue. However, the opposition has wasted no time in painting the protestors - especially the PAT - as terrorists bent on destroying property and overtaking Islamabad. Even the PTI protestors have not been spared despite belonging to a party which has National Assembly representation and is also currently running the province of KP. Valid democratic concerns have been cast aside by this democratic opposition.

Opposition members such as Khursheed Shah, Aitzaz Ahsan, and Mahmood Khan Achakzai claim that by supporting the PML-N government they are supporting democracy itself. What they are actually supporting is the completion of Nawaz Sharif's 5-year term and nothing else. They are equating the uninterrupted presence of a parliament complete with joint sessions, law-making, resolutions, and parliamentary committees with democracy.

But this is nothing less than a facade.

No amount of parliamentary activity matters when a corrupt opposition fails to hold the government accountable, and doesn't believe the public should hold it to account.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Azadi March

Come August 14th, the Azadi March has the potential to bring major reforms to Pakistan's democracy.

This is because the primary demand of this movement is the push for free and fair elections.

There are many ingredients to a democracy. A variety of political parties are required. So is a free and open press. But the one ingredient whose absence makes the entire Pakistani democratic experiment useless are transparent elections.

Elections keep open the possibility of political reform. They give the public a sense that no matter how bad things get there is always a possibility to hold their rulers accountable. Suppose there are only 2 corrupt parties to choose between. But all the other ingredients necessary for democracy are present. The public would at least have the chance to punish whichever party was in power by voting for the other one. The net result would be that both parties are under constant pressure to reform themselves and better serve the public.

Something like this could have happened in the 1990's with the PPP and PML-N. However, most - if not all - of the elections during this time were rigged. In particular, the ones in 1990 and 1997 that brought the PML-N into power have been well documented as being particularly fraudulent. The entire decade of the 90's, then, is the best indication that electoral reform is the most important issue facing Pakistani democracy today. No amount of democratic political parties will result in true democracy when there is an absence of free and fair elections.

Critics of the Azadi March say that the agitation will lead to chaos and disorder. Yes, the possibility of disorder is always present. But this doesn't mean one should pull back from protests. By that reasoning, any protest or agitation has the potential to bring about disorder and should therefore be stopped. For a genuine democracy to take hold, protests are absolutely essential. Far from trying to prevent such agitation, the PML-N should be going out of its way to facilitate them.

In fact, if the PML-N is as supportive of democracy as it claims to be, what better way to demonstrate this than allow protests to happen on their watch? Given Nawaz Sharif's history and his own political beginnings with General Zia, it would do his democratic credentials a world of good. However, the recent news that has been coming out about the local Punjab administration has made it clear that the PML-N's vision - for Punjab, at least - is a one party state where all protests are put down.

Finally, there is the argument that electoral reforms should be attempted through the parliament. For this purpose, a committee has been setup. The head of the committee will be Ishaq Dar, the right hand man of Nawaz Sharif. So, the same parties which have been accused of rigging the elections are supposed to reform the elections? One could expect something from a committee of judicial officials. Or, perhaps, bureaucrats with no political links.

But the present electoral reforms committee is the best argument yet in favour of the Azadi March.