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.

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