Democracy is Always a Work in Progress August 19, 2017

 By: Shahzadi Sofia Baig

I chuckled when I saw the picture in Chitralnews with neatly arrayed food boxes and the heading “Democracy well defined”. I am not sure whether these food containers are for party workers or meant to sustain partisans at political gatherings but the impression given is that they are meant to influence voters.

It reminded me of a family trip I took to Washington DC over a decade ago. We took a tour of nearby Mount Vernon, the palatial home of America’s first President, George Washington, which is now maintained as a national museum. The grounds include his carefully refurbished mansion, smaller buildings where day to day needs such as the laundry or meat preparation took place, ornate gardens spread over acres of lush landscape, a grazing area for livestock, a farm, the slave memorial, a mill  and a whiskey distillery. It is the last site that I found most intriguing, particularly since I had no knowledge that America’s founding father operated the largest distillery in the United States in his day. While we often look towards the United States and the West in general for inspiration on democratic values and institutions, we forget that they have gone through and continue to go through challenges in the implementation of their social contract with democracy. Issues of corruption, graft, bribery or “treating” where voters are given enticements, have long been fixtures of Western democracy. In the case of George Washington, I was surprised to learn that he engaged in election practices that we would now question.  An interesting story was brought up blaming Washington’s loss in his first legislative elections on not buying enough alcohol to please voters!  His subsequent successful win at the Colonial legislature of Virginia is credited to his generous provision of beer and whiskey to voters. Drinking around election booths on election days has long since been banned in the United States.

Newspapers in the UK and the United record the history of treating voters by plying food and drink to influence the ballot. In the broader perspective, the practice of clientelism has remained a fixture of Western democracy for centuries. In short it is a social interaction that depends on relations of political patronage.  Period US movies like Gangs of New York often show the excesses of Tamany Hall, an association of the Irish American community which served as the kingmaker in New York politics for over a century.  By affiliation to a particular political party, a man and his family were assured of any number of favors, including jobs, housing, health care, even safety. Securing votes with specific agendas targeting particular audiences or lobbies continues to this day. This is especially true before elections. Bringing a particular narrative or agenda is also a clever way in which voters are influenced.  Even one of the greatest luminaries of American politics exercised this manipulation. The same Lincoln who crafted some of the most eloquent letters in the English language, and the US President credited for ending the scourge of slavery, manipulated the media in his day. He bought an ethnic American Newspaper, the Illinois Staats-Anzeiger and kept the publisher on the payroll with the understanding that he would only print favorable news items to his and the party’s benefit.

In more modern times, John F. Kennedy’s father, Joe Kennedy was known to throw money about in vote buying which cast the election of the first Catholic American President in doubt.  There are widespread reports of Joe Kennedy paying publishers to print favorable articles, offering free bottles of scotch and liquor to newsmen, sending jewelry to female reporters and paying off priests and pastors before delivering sermons in churches. The joke attributed to his son is that the father would say, “Don’t buy a single vote more than necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.” The general expectation is that greater economic prosperity and education will give rise to more informed voters who will be immune to treating or singular issues and instead gauge greater concerns but this dream has yet to be fully realised even in developed nations. A number of startling revelations have come out relating to fraudulent practices in the last US elections by a governmental official which gave rise to the title of the book, “ Five Dollars and a Pork Chop Sandwich: Vote Buying and the Corruption of Democracy”. Of course laws, regulations and checks are constantly being introduced and amended to prevent abuse but the point being made is that even developed societies struggle with democracy.

Returning to Pakistan, it is clear to all that democracy certainly has its challenges but we need to appreciate that it will always remain a work in progress. The only way forward would be to work within the democratic system and allow voters to make the final judgement on Election Day. I think that it is healthy to debate the relative benefits of different democratic systems such as the British Parliamentary model and the American Presidential model as has been a recurring theme on this news site. What we should not forget is that Pakistan was envisioned by its founders as a modern Muslim democratic state. Pakistan has the unusual distinction of being one of the few Muslim states that has a functioning democracy and civil institutions but how many election cycles have we allowed to proceed unfettered?  Pakistan is saddled with the ignominious label of never having had an elected Prime Minister complete a five year term.

I fear that few in Pakistan fully appreciate the negative impact that the removal of an elected political leader conveys on the world stage.  I fully support transparency, accountability and a just system but I have no illusions that such a system will take many cycles to evolve and that there is no such thing as a “quick fix”.  In my opinion, judicial coups and populist demonstrations do more harm than good in bringing about real institutional change in a country like Pakistan. Constitutional and legal reforms belong as debates for parliament about all wings of government; namely the legislative, judicial and executive branches. I have no political affiliation in Pakistani politics but I was saddened to hear that yet again, courts have decided to remove an elected Prime Minister instead of allowing the election cycle and the public to pass judgement on Election Day.  I doubt the greater good of the nation’s interests were served with elections looming next year. I am convinced with greater awareness that we in Pakistan can trust the judgement and wishes of the voting majority. Chitralnews recently published a quote by Winston Churchill, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”. However, in parliament, Churchill also cautioned, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

References:

Berry, M. F. (2016). Five Dollars and a Pork Chop Sandwich: Vote Buying and the Corruption of Democracy. Beacon Press.

Dinkin, R. J. (1989). Campaigning in America: A History of Election Practices. Greenwood Press.

Hersh, S. M. (1998). The Dark Side of Camelot. Back Bay Books.

Kessler, R. (1996) .The Sins of the Father: Joseph P. Kennedy and the Dynasty he Founded. Grand Central Publishing.

Pogue, D. J. (2011). Founding Spirits: George Washington and the Beginnings of the American Whiskey Industry.  Harbour Books.
 .. Shahzadi Sofia Beg, 19 Aug 2017

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7 Comments

  • Sultan Wali says:

    The comprehensive report of Ms. Shahzadi Sofia Baig regarding “Democracy is always Work in Progress” with reference to US and UK is a complete political analysis on democracy in Pakistan. Apart from analytic and optimistic comments, I would like to appreciate the English language of the writer. It is really a standardized English Literature which should be studied by the students particularly to improve and upgrade the quality of their education. As regards the prevailing political scenario and somehow controversial decisions, I have no reason to disagree with the narrative of Ms. Shahzadi Sofia Baig. My daughter Sofia, I belong to Chitral (KPK). I am a senior citizen of 72 and a retired officer of Punjab Government. I am well aware of over 100 years history of Indo-Pakistan. Unfortunately, our past history is not bright. Our country Pakistan is God gifted blessing but we are always indulging in indigenous issues which is not in national interest at all. . We have always the domination issue between the Armed forces and Civilian governments. We are still reaping that what had sown by the then Gen. Said Akbar and others and subsequent assassination of PM Liaquat Ali Khan. The Founder of Pakistan had felt the bad intention of establishment and had warned them to set right their direction but the Founder was subsequently poisoned to death.

  • Faridul Haq says:

    @ Shahzadi Sofia Baig
    Can’t understand what kind of work is in progress with Democracy in Pakistan. The more it progresses the more we see things going from bad to worse. More tricks and methods are evolved by politicians to fool the illiterate and naive people who are in majority and they decide the fate of elections. If we have a hundred more elections in Pakistan within this system, we will go down and down with each elections.

  • Ikhlasuddin says:

    Madam Sofia’s article may be well written and rich in content and references, but it does not convince me as a reader. How can you allow politicians to continue ruling when their primary objective is to serve themselves instead of the country and this they prove year after year, election after election. When the moral fiber of our society is so weak duly acknowledged by all, and politicians are part of this society, then it is imperative that we should evolve a system where the politicians cannot indulge in corruption even if they want to. Unfortunately because of the absence of any such check within the constitution, the army has to interfere from time to time. If the system is strong, the army nor the judiciary will dare interfere.

  • Nasir says:

    We have one boarder line with India, socioeconomic condition in both sides of the boarder are same. But across the boarder democracy is success story and leaders are not corrupt, while inside of the boarder Pakistan side democracy is failure and leaders are corrupt. In case of Bangladesh which separated from us in 1971, there democracy is success story but in Pakistan it is failure and leaders are corrupt. This is something which disturb people, why leaders in Pakistan has been targeted, assassinated and after these process if some leaders left they have been painted as corrupt. In Pakistan democracy will succeed if it has been allowed to function freely and sanctity of people vote has been respected by all and sundry. Was Z.A. Bhuttu corrupt, Was Liaqat Ali Khan corrupt, was Benazir Bhutto corrupt; no our leaders are not corrupt but their image has been tarnished by using this word. Fully agreed with the article and it is a master piece of work on democratic system.

  • Sultan Wali says:

    The corruption morphia is very active almost in every country of South Asia In India, democracy is strong but the poverty level is high. The lifestyle of general public is of low standard and the overall development is slow as compared to Pakistan. Unfortunately, the democracy could not get strong grip in Pakistan because of unnecessary frequent interference of the establishment. Whereas in India, the establishment never interferes IN the elected civil government.A single event of sorrow cannot be posed at the political leaders during the short tenure of civil government. The details of blunders could not be mentioned. The senior citizens like me well know all about the history of our establishment. Today. according to news channel, one of the persons, sitting abroad, has humiliated our national hero Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan by giving statement at the crucial occasion is just to please U.S President. We, in Pakistan have domination issue and every unit particularly the Establishment like to dominate in all matters.

  • Noor Shahidin says:

    Shahzadi would never appreciate the dysfunctional democracy of Pakistan if she could see the news of Habibe Bank NY’s closure,one of the reasons which was money laundering.

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