More or less democracy?

More or less democracy?
September 15 was International Democracy Day. On that day, ironically enough, Imran Khan called on the Rangers, which means the army, to carry out accountability of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats in Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. His extraordinary statement was roundly condemned because it amounted to a vote of no confidence in the democratic political system that is, haltingly, recovering from prolonged bouts of unaccountable military rule that have bequeathed terrorism, sectarianism and fundamentalism to Pakistan.

To be sure, “democracy” is pretty moth eaten in Pakistan. But it is still better than political systems anchored in fascism, communism, monarchy or “Islamic” and military dictatorships. Given uninterrupted development, as in the West, it has the internal wherewithal to evolve into a relatively functional and accountable system. Indeed, in independent India, which is as young as, and no less corrupt than, Pakistan, it has delivered a 400 million educated middle class that has consolidated vibrant nationhood and economic growth in equal measure.

Imran Khan’s “frustration” with “democracy” and hankering for khaki order is echoed by segments of the elites and urban middle classes. But a recent poll shows once again that over 60 % of Pakistanis solidly favour democracy over other forms of government. This, despite the fact that the most popular man in the country is unquestionably General Raheel Sharif, Chief of Army Staff, who has earned universal laurels for turning the wave of terrorism back when it was threatening to engulf the whole country from Karachi to Khyber.

If the public sentiment is still wisely pro-democracy, this is despite the battering democracy continues to take from its most ardent preachers. The MQM in Karachi is desperately agitating against the PPP in Sindh and PMLN in Islamabad. The PPP is protesting against the MQM in Karachi and PMLN in Punjab. The PTI is abusing the MQM, PPP and PMLN. The smaller parties are flocking into the arms of no less than that great pillar of “unenlightened moderation”, General Pervez Musharraf, who is facing trail for treason and murder. That fourth estate of democracy, a free and independent media, is tripping over itself to censor criticism of the military even as it gleefully lays into parliamentarians.

The state of Pakistan’s parliamentary democracy cries out for urgent repair. The PTI resigned from parliament and returned to it only after its unholy tryst with a section of the military was exposed. Now the MQM has resigned from parliament after a clash with the military. The PPP is also smarting from the “establishment’s” censure. But it has decided to slug it out with the PMLN instead of the brass because it realizes that everyone would be a big loser if the popular man on horseback were to be provoked into direct action. Meanwhile, parliament is without a Speaker and the PMLN has no worthwhile candidate to offer in place of Ayaz Sadiq who awaits a winning by-election result in 70 days. If the PPP were to resign in protest against its mistreatment in Sindh, the PTI would throw in the towel and the demand for mid-term elections would be unstoppable, failing which the military would be under pressure to intervene to “save the system” from devouring itself!

The ruling PMLN has its back to the wall. Sindh is threatening to clutch at the constitution and refuse gas from Sui Southern pipelines to the Punjab.  The great development projects of the PMLN are under fire, as in the Nandipur power project in Punjab or the Munda Dam in Swat, for corruption, incompetence and red tape-ism. There is no end in sight to power shortages that have crippled small-scale industry. The public’s romance with metros and red lines and overhead bridges and underpasses is rapidly fading. Instead, farmers are crying out for better output prices and higher subsidies and traders are protesting against minimal taxes. The PMLN certainly doesn’t inspire confidence when Shahbaz Sharif, CM Punjab, is seen to publicly spar with the Water & Power Minister, Khawaja Asif or, Nisar Ali Khan, Interior Minister, makes no bones about his estrangement from PM Nawaz Sharif.

Local elections are scheduled in the near future in Punjab and Sindh. These are bound to kick up dust and raise temperatures between the MQM and PPP in Sindh and PMLN and PTI in Punjab. If the political environment sours as it did in KP some months ago, there is bound to be an anti-democracy backlash. The 2013 elections provoked the PTI’s Dharna in 2014 and led to calls for “third umpires”, judicial commissions, resignations of election commissioners and mid-term elections. The 2015 KP local elections discredited the provincial election commission and the ruling PTI and led to bloodshed. If there is action-replay again, the popular man on horseback might be tempted to charge into the crowd to drive all pests away. But that, as we know from experience, is not the answer. The solution is to persist with more democracy rather than opt for less of it behind the fig leaf of accountability and efficiency.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.