No elections, with the marginal exception of 1970, have been free, fair, open or uncontroversial. Consequently, people in Pakistan have lost faith in one of the most fundamental democratic institutions
In democracies, elections are the most powerful tool for confirming the legitimacy of a ruling party or leader, or dislodging a government that has lost the trust and support of the people. In a more substantive way, elections are the only modern means of organising political power in a society, establishing a popular base and obtaining a mandate from the masses for the policies that a party or leader would like to pursue while in power.
The electoral process is also the best way to sink the root of democracy in societies that have experienced nothing but political oppression and tyranny. Even in procedural democracies, elections serve a great purpose in recognising the principle of popular sovereignty. It is a simple but revolutionary belief that citizens of a society have the power to make and change governments through elected representatives.
Having argued that elections are the only recognisable mode of transferring power in a peaceful manner from one political group to another, one important point needs to be clarified: democracies are not the only form of government that can hold elections. All authoritarian and totalitarian regimes during the past century and in our time and in our country have held elections. This should not be surprising because elections provide the moral, political and legal bases for acquiring and exercising power.
Therefore, in order to be democratic in character or with the aim of institutionalising democracy in any society, elections must satisfy at least two basic criteria. First, elections must be competitive not in the procedural but in the substantive sense. They must be open to all political factions, groups and parties without discrimination or favour. Elections would not be considered substantively competitive if they don’t provide enough social and political space for non-elite classes to enter the contest and be able to win. In other words, if the electoral processes are used to authenticate power of the traditional ruling classes and groups, they become merely symbolic with the capture and domination of political space by the powerful economic and social classes.
Second, elections, in order to be a credible and sincere exercise, have to be free and fair. They have to be conducted by a neutral body that all participants can trust; and the institutions that interpret and enforce rules relating to elections have to be autonomous of the executive that may have a political interest in the outcome of the elections.
Unfortunately, never have our rulers fulfilled any of the two conditions outlined above in order for any election to have social and political significance. No elections, with the marginal exception of 1970, have been free, fair, open or uncontroversial. Consequently, people in Pakistan have lost faith in one of the most fundamental democratic institutions because of the way it has been repeatedly manipulated to bring into power groups and individuals who would align with dictators. This loss of faith is evident in the declining voter turnout in successive elections during the past two decades.
The elections scheduled for next month are being conducted in the familiar Pakistani mode but in a very different national atmosphere where doubts are being raised about credibility and fairness. What will be the political worth of elections under a ruler who has bent every respected political norm, disfigured the Constitution and disbanded the superior judiciary? The motive of General (retd) Pervez Musharraf is glaringly clear: stay in power at any cost, not to promote democracy or even respect for a Constitution that he has suspended and amended against the will of the nation.
His dangerous path to power the imposition of martial law followed by steps to strengthen his hold on power in complete disregard to the people and the country has further contributed to his fear and insecurity. Musharraf had several opportunities to exit from power with dignity but failed to take them on the pretext that he alone can streamline the political, social and economic life of Pakistan.
Elections are a part of such political manipulation, and are arguably the most powerful device available to Musharraf for validating his acts on and after November 3. Elections are, to reassert again, a valid process to form governments. But how can one ignore the flipside of this process in light of the Pakistani experience and in view of the institutional setting that Musharraf has created to extract an outcome of his liking?
Participation in the elections by any party or group is an equally powerful signal of accepting the legitimacy and authenticity of the process. This is one of the rare occasions in Pakistan’s political history that democratic political forces can deny Musharraf what he desperately needs to earn respect and popular acceptance. It is sad that some mainstream political parties enthusiastically want to be part of this doubtful process. This will only boost the credibility of the process.
The reasons for their excitement are understandable: elections are their route to the assemblies and cabinets. Some of them will gain power because of behind-the-scenes power arrangements instead of political realities. This must reconfirm lingering suspicions and fears that the traditional ruling classes represented by all political parties with minor exceptions are not interested in genuine democracy or free and fair elections. Their individual and class interest is in power and they will take whatever route they must to achieve power.
Parallel to the drive for power among political parties and their inept leaders there is an emerging democratic movement in Pakistan. This movement involves diverse sectors of the society lawyers, former judges, students, women and media persons but has one common objective: to defeat the political purpose of General (retd) Pervez Musharraf and take the country back from him.
The elections in this sense are an issue from the perspective of the democratic movement in the country. Boycotting elections would deny Musharraf and traditional ruling elites the legitimacy to continue their hold on state and society, while participation may give them the same.
The real issue that Pakistan faces today in its quest for true democracy is the restoration of the 1973 Constitution, which must be regarded as sacred and sacrosanct because of the national consensus on it. Let us reflect on this honestly: how can an individual amend a Constitution and seek approval from the courts? Restoration of the pre-November 3 judiciary is no less important than restoration of the Constitution in its original form and spirit.
Without these conditions, elections would be a mere farce with the same faces applying the same corrupt means. Rule of law, constitutionalism and independence of the judiciary are the only safeguards against rapacious elites even if the citizenry is politically aware and has a culture of participation.
The author is a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.