Democracy Under Threat in Pakistan

Murrawat Hussain

“D emocracies may die at the hands not of generals but of elected leaders-presidents or prime ministers who subvert the very process that brought them to power,” wrote Steven Levitsky in his book “How Democracies Die.” At the first glance, the statement seems to be untenable, let alone inexplicable, as to why people who are themselves products of a system could undermine the very system. However, having seen the corrosive political culture currently in vogue in Pakistan, wherein civilian leaders are at one another’s throat, denying to acknowledge political rivals as a legitimate force, seeking and trying hard to see the back of them from the game, not to mention the so-called allegations of being traitor or anti-state, one could not but take the statement as given. But one asks, and rightly so, how it can scuttle democracy. After all, there is a democratic setup in place and as such no insinuations are coming from the powers that be that they are waiting in wings to take the reins directly into their hands. That said, how can the future of democracy be bright in a country where bitterness among the political class has risen to a level as high as that the country’s former chief executive had not deigned to meet and shake hands with the former opposition leader on the pretext of his alleged corruption. Mutual tolerance among the political class is fundamental to a democracy. Democracy thrives when political actors are gracious enough to maintain an easygoing atmosphere. It means that it is good to be sore on election night when the other side wins, but the losing side does not consider the development an apocalyptic one. Political parties being ‘gatekeepers’ of democracy disapprove of those elements who take the political discourse to the no-hold-barred point. But to our chagrin, successive regime’s penchant for tilting the field against political opponents has replaced mutual tolerance with a perception of a mutual threat, whereby every political party wants to secure electoral victory either by hook or crook, even at the cost of democracy. The prevalent toxicity in the political environment of the country is an outcome of it. Democratic norms have eroded and, as a result, opposition, be it current or previous one, pulled all the stops to send the government packing. The non-cooperation between treasury and opposition benches on even some critical pieces of legislation is a manifestation of the very threat perception. There is a need to look into factors as to why our political environment has ended up being so poisonous. The primary factor which has led us to this pass is the policy of political parties to give a driving seat to elements who pour more scorn on opponents. The more one berates political opponents, the more he gets closer to party leadership. Such people do not even desist from hitting below the belt by dragging families of political opponents into dirty politics. What is more, instead of giving a slap on the wrist, party leadership gives a pat to such elements on their back. Such a poisonous political environment served as an incubator for politics of extreme partisanship. The notion of extreme partisanship so spawned has not remained confined to the political elite; in fact, it crept into society as well. People have sorted themselves into different political camps and, sadly, they hold views that are not only different but mutually exclusive. How our youth nowadays post filthy remarks on social media that, more often than not, cross the limits of mannerism and decency while commenting on a certain political development is a testimonial to this fact. A wide majority of Pakistanis who use social media enthusiastically partake in tailoring some disgusting and farcical trends, aimed at belittling any specific religious, political, or social group. There are also frequent instances where journalists are dogged for holding different arguments on a certain issue. Social media brigades make things warm for those who dare not toe the line. Things being what they are, it is no surprise then that the most cherished democratic norms have dissipated. The unwritten democratic and political norms not only serve as guardrails to democracy by keeping anti-system elements at bay but also reinforce the constitution. However, these norms are rapidly vanishing under the current political culture. Today, political discourse has sunk so low as politicians always seem to be in search of an opportunity to demonise their opponents. The political landscape so shaped has accentuated an immature political lot that views political opponents as a nemesis to be eliminated rather than competed with. Here lies the rub. This intractable discord among political classes allows anti-system quarters to poke their nose into civil matters. Follies of the political elite give space to the establishment in the political landscape. No wonder then that establishment emerges as a strong power broker, and the same political lot is found queuing up in front of GHQ to beg for military crutches. The future of democracy seems doomed in such a scenario. If we want to preserve democracy, there is a dire need to do away with the perception of mutual threat and restore political tolerance. For this to happen, extremists in political parties should be sidelined and saner voices should be encouraged. The respective party leadership should shake those elements off from party ranks who vitiate the atmosphere by spewing venom against rivals even if such a move comes at a steep political cost because political parties are gatekeepers of democracy and, as such, these are supposed not to desist from any sacrifice in protecting it. Political leadership should take a leaf out of the example set by Swedish Conservative Party (AVF) back in the 1930s. The party expelled its youth organization which started supporting Hitler vociferously and criticising parliamentary democracy. Though the party had to face backlash in the 1934 municipal elections, the strategy scaled down the role of anti-democratic forces. The ball is in the court of the political class. This is the only way ahead if we want to be a truly democratic country.

(Courtesy Daily Times, Pakistan)