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A fumbled attempt at democracy

Extremism and apathy remain key obstacles to a free and fair Pakistan

A fumbled attempt at democracy
Silent Thinker, Lahore

September 21, 2012

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The government could make history next March as the first civilian administration to complete a full five-year term. But something is missing. Boasting officials have already drafted preparations for the next general elections while ignoring society at large, which has now become further split between the haves and have-nots. The “common man” remains deprived of the fruits of democracy. Terrorism has become the norm. Religion has become a tool of mob violence. Society is more deeply divided along economic, religious, sectarian, linguistic and ethnic lines. So what went wrong? Where did we fail? Perhaps things will get better and peace will prevail if we overhaul our political system. One thing is for sure. Elections alone cannot offer true democracy in Pakistan. There are 172 political parties registered with the Election Commission of Pakistan, 52 of them religious. However none fulfills the definition of a true political party. “There are no lists of members with their identity and addresses. A culture of donations has done away with any system of subscriptions. None of these parties has a non-Muslim or even a woman as their president or general secretary.  They do not have a clear policy on dealing with religious extremism,” said Professor Mehdi Hasan at a Peoples Forum held yesterday under the auspices of the Centre for Human Rights Education. “Dynastic politics and feudalism have corrupted the houses [in parliament]. Many promote a tribal system while the opposition remains apologetic. Plus, a religious state cannot be democratic.” It is true that our state structure has excluded the participation of weaker segments of society. To begin with, a candidate for the national or a provincial assembly must spend at least five million rupees on his election campaign. A few parties follow the tradition of internal elections. Almost all are now running their militant wings while many are pro-jihadist groups. I was startled when a veteran politician of Pakistan called Mullah Omar – spiritual leader of the Taliban – an Amir-ul-Momineen (Leader of the Faithful) during a recent public gathering. Similarly, the silence of the ruling Pakistan People Party on the killing of its governor for alleged blasphemy was equally ominous. The cricketer-turned-politico Imran Khan is often criticized for his soft stance on the Taliban. There is no denying that our leaders have made sacrifices, including imprisonment and martyrdom for the country. Many have refused to go abroad even after the killing of their sons and other family members in terrorist attacks. However they have to deliver when they get the chance to serve the nation.  The blame game is counterproductive. Our leaders need to become true role models. Deliberate actions, not slogans, can change the destiny of our country. The textbooks have to be rewritten, this time with corrected history, so that we can reap a new crop of genuine leaders. There has to be social accountability at the level of union councils. Concrete measures should be taken at all levels for the social inclusion of marginalized members of society to ensure equal citizenship. This is vital because there are presently no Jews or Ahmadis, a minority Muslim community regarded as heretical by orthodox Muslims, as ministers in the government. The country’s first foreign minister was an Ahmadi and a Hindu law minister at the time of separation from India. A lot has changed since then, especially after three decades of dictatorship. The only hope lies in restoring the country to its original blueprint. Secularism can help in achieving this objective but the principle is generally confused with atheism in an increasingly fundamentalist society. We have to bring back the estranged citizens who have given up on the country. All we need is a political will punctuated with some patriotism. Silent Thinker is the pseudonym of a Catholic commentator based in Lahore
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