[Backlog post — Article received on 6 November 2013]
Nadeem M Qureshi
Whenever there are elections the people who get elected and sit in Pakistan’s assemblies do not deserve to be there. They tend to be, in the rural areas, feudal landlords or the descendants of long deceased holy men called ‘peers’. And in the cities they are usually neighbourhood thugs. In both cases they just do not have the education, competence, honesty and experience be be legislators and ministers. At some level all of Pakistan’s problems today can be attributed to this single causative factor.
Does this mean that democracy has failed in Pakistan? In seeking an answer one has to first understand that democracy comes in many shapes and forms. A dictionary definition says ‘democracy is a form of government in which people choose leaders by voting’. This is sufficiently broad to leave room for variety. And indeed the established democratic countries of the world have forms of democracy suited to their own needs or reflecting their historical, geographical or cultural make up. It follows that democracy is not a consumer product with a single specification which countries pick from a shelf. The requirement is only that ‘people choose their leaders by voting’. All other aspects and details are open to design and modification.
The answer then is not that democracy has failed in Pakistan but that the particular version we have implemented is alien to our needs and context. We lifted parliamentary democracy from the British body politic and transposed it, as is, to Pakistan. British democracy evolved over several centuries to serve the specific needs and context of its habitat. It is a creature of its environment. On our part it was a fundamental error of judgement to believe that this creature would flourish if transferred to a radically different habitat. And the appalling consequences of this error are now crashing down upon us.
So we need to build a new democratic system that suits our needs. But before attempting to design the system we need to decide what objectives we want it to achieve. There are several such ‘design objectives’ but two are of special importance. The first is to ensure that executive authority – the power to run the country and its institutions – always remains in the hands of people who have the sincerity, competence and experience to bear this responsibility. The second is to provide a disincentive to traditional crooked politicians from seeking entry to the legislature.
We also need to understand the nature of the average Pakistani voter. Pakistan has 85 million registered voters. Some 70 percent of these are illiterate. And most live in areas dominated by rural landlords. It is not reasonable to expect that they are always able to make free and informed decisions.
The broad outlines of a system that would comply with these ‘design parameters’ are as follows: It will be a presidential system with a single legislative chamber. The president will be directly elected by an electoral college. He or she will have full executive power and will appoint a cabinet of professionals to run the agencies of the government – much as happens in the US system. The electoral college for the president will consist of educated professionals, doctors, teachers engineers and the likes who will seek direct election at the local level with a commitment to vote for a specific presidential candidate. Members of the legislature – parliament – will be directly elected by voters. But, critically, they will have no executive or administrative power as is now the case.
How will this system achieve the objectives set out for it? Since the electoral college for the president will consist of educated people they will be able to make informed decisions unfettered by feudal intimidation. The assumption is that they will vote in a qualified candidate to the office of president. The president then has a free hand to choose the best people in the country for the cabinet. This achieves the first objective – a competent and sincere executive.
We know that the present set of politicians seek election to the legislature not out of any desire to serve but rather to pick the spoils that come with executive power – they become ministers, and if not ministers, they still wield administrative influence in their constituencies and are allotted money for development works – much of which finds its way into their own pockets. In the new system, they will not have any executive or administrative influence and, significantly, will not be given any development funds. Once these very substantial incentives are taken away only those people will become candidates who have a genuine desire and ability to serve the country. This achieves the second objective.
A final and vital question remains: How to put this system in place? The only legal way to do it is for a political party or group of parties to agree on this agenda, put it to the people, and seek to get a two thirds majority in the existing assembly. The two thirds majority is the threshold needed to amend the present constitution and would be necessary to make the very substantial amendments that are needed to give life to a new democracy and a future for Pakistan.
Nadeem M Qureshi is Chairman of Mustaqbil Pakistan