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Let us let the system work

A greater contrast can hardly be seen between two neighbouring countries. Despite sharing a common set of traditions, ancestry and language, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) are poles apart. The recent removal of South Korean president Park Geun-hye on corruption charges by the Korean parliament and the constitutional court acting in tandem – the due process of law – draws the two Koreas, which until the outbreak of the Second World War were one nation, further apart.

The prosecution and internment of Lee Jae-yong, the chief of Samsung, South Korea’s biggest conglomerate and one of the best known consumer electronics brands in the world, in the same corruption scandal also confirms that no one is above the law in the country.

On the other hand, any one in North Korea would risk their life, and that of their family, if they ventured to even mildly criticising the country’s supreme leader. Scores of people have been put to death on the slightest suspicion of being ‘disloyal’ to Kim Jong-un.

The ouster of Park Geun-hye embodies lessons not only for totalitarian states like North Korea but for countries like Pakistan, where democracy is struggling to take root, as well.

One of the most perennial political problems is the relationship between freedom and authority. While the members of a political society must be free, their freedom can’t be unlimited. There should be some authority which regulates the exercise of individual liberties. The biggest challenge then in a polity is to reconcile individual freedom with central authority. This calls for putting in place an arrangement where individuals can be free while at the same they are subject to political control. Only a constitutional or democratic arrangement guarantees such reconciliation.

According to Aristotle, generally regarded as the world’s first political scientist, a constitutional or democratic arrangement has three essential characteristics: One, political power is exercised in the interest of the whole polity rather than a particular class or faction. Two, it’s the law, rather than the will of the ruler, that reigns supreme. Three, the government is based on the consent of the governed. Subsequent political scientists have by and large seen eye to eye with Aristotle’s characterisation of democracy.

It follows that rule of law is a necessary condition in a democracy. It’s rule of law that ensures political equality, fundamental rights, responsible government, and institutional building – the four ingredients of a mature democracy.

The capital misconception prevalent in sham or immature democracies, like Pakistan, is that putting in place a democratic facade is an end in itself and that once a civilian government is elected by the people the political system has reached its zenith. Hence, the often repeated statement that the worst form of democracy is better than the best form of despotism. It’s another thing that those who are wont to making such statements on their part do not hesitate to strike a deal with despotic forces whenever they found it to be to their advantage.

The merits of democracy aside, like any other system, far from being an end in itself, it is a means towards some end. Though a democratically elected government is a legitimate government and political legitimacy is a strong credential of a regime, the ultimate test of a government is pragmatic: how effectively it promotes public good, which consists in freedom and good governance. The major problem for a democratic government then anywhere anytime is to combine freedom with good governance. Without the former, democracy relapses into despotism; and without the latter, democracy degenerates into mobocracy.

At the time of Pakistan’s birth, the common people saw in it a land for the fulfilment of their dreams. They believed that the new state would, by safeguarding and promoting their political and economic rights, transform their lot. However, that was not to be. Instead, from day one, the feudals got ascendancy in the Pakistani government and the state machinery became subservient to them. Changes in government, which were frequent, wouldn’t tone down the enormous powers of the feudals as by and large leadership on either side of the political divide came from that class.

Then in 1958 General Ayub Khan staged a coup. The coup had a two-fold significance. One, it marked the emergence of the armed forces as the top player in the game of politics, a position they have maintained to date. The other notable development was the rise of merchant capitalists as a counterpoise to the power of the traditional feudal elite. Over the years, the power of the capitalist class has increased. The feudal-capitalist combination has caused substantial damage to the polity.

Members of this class occupy most of the important places everywhere: in politics and business, industry and agriculture, civil and military bureaucracy, media and civil society. Even so-called intellectuals that we boast of are predominantly drawn from this elite class. It wants change but only that which is calculated to advancing its members’ interests. They pay only lip service to improving public health and education because they have access to top-of-the-line hospitals and academic institutions. They seldom raise their voice against unlawful appointments in the government because they are not dependent on the public sector for jobs. Corruption is hardly an issue for them as they themselves are its beneficiary.

The legislatures and the government, being creatures of the elite, shy away from undertaking drastic, pro-people reforms, and changes they make are confined to shifting the locus of power from one set of elites to another: abolishing and resurrecting the office of the deputy commissioner; or transferring powers from the president to the prime minister, from the federal government to the provinces, or at the most replacing the monopolistic powers of the ruling party with the duopoly of the government and the opposition. Staging elections in the current system is like moving in a circle since the same elite – Nawabs and Sardars, Khans and Maliks, Pirs and Makhdooms – make it to the top.

A political system consists of two components: structure and culture. The political structure is the set of roles created by the constitution and by law that are formalised into offices and institutions. The political culture consists of attitudes, beliefs and values prevalent in the polity.

A given political system may have all the ingredients of a democratic dispensation. But the real test of a political system is to have the corresponding culture. The fate of a political system is all but sealed when the political structure is not supported by the political culture, when the written provisions of the constitution are not backed by healthy constitutional conventions, when parliament passes laws but lacks the will to enforce them, when the institutions fail to draw respect from those who are supposed to uphold them, when politics become no more than a corporate affair, when governance becomes the instrument of rewarding cronies and penalising opponents, when leaders are revered as saints beyond criticism and beyond error, when demagogues are regarded as saviours, and when there is law but not rule of law.

To be sure, we are not going to have a revolutionary leader who will, at one go, set things right and make the country corruption free. We need to let the system, with all its shortcomings and flaws, work. Hopefully, as democracy takes root, institutions mature and the economy marches ahead on the road to development, things will get better.

Zaidi, Hussain. Let us let the system work. The News, March 15, 2017.

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