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.”
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