Pitfalls of Democracy?

By Yasmeen Aftab Ali

Democracy, or rule, by the people is an ideal situation for modern states, if achieved. Ideally, it must include as much representation across the board from people to create a society that is just and ‘for the people.’ The fundamental principle is building a system of governance that is not only for the people but is formed ‘by’ the people. This automatically excludes the unchecked power by a few at the expense of the society. Hence, elections cannot be a substitute for a democratic order. Elections are means to an end, not an end. Elections are a method of deciding who shall rule. It does not determine the morality of the resulting government.

Elections can only lead to a good democratic order if voters can make informed decisions. In societies like Pakistan – with much of population living in rural areas divorced from many crucial governance issues and blunders and unaware of implications of bad decisions – an informed opinion becomes an elusive dream. Rather an impossible dream! The lack of an informed opinion may not be restricted to rural areas though. Rather, to extends to urban areas as well with some variation in reasons.

The influence of corruption due to excessive funds rolled out in election times also is a contributing factor. Mitt Romney once pointed out by saying; “47% of Americans will vote for Barack Obama “no matter what” because they are financially dependent on the government. These people are voting with their pocketbooks rather than with the nation’s interests in mind.”

One reason for failure of democratic order is placing too much importance on elections and not enough on related essential elements that form part and parcel of the process. Some of the related elements are a check on powers of the government as opposed to individual rights. These rights are often enshrined in the constitution. Having laws written down and implementing these laws are two different things altogether; or adding laws that serve those who hold the high offices. Several African leaders removed term limits on presidency – a phenomenon we saw in Pakistan as well when term limit of premiership was increased from two to three to accommodate Nawaz Sharif.

This is abuse of the majority vote. New democracies must understand that checks are needed for a robust democracy. Majority vote alone is not a carte blanche for arbitrary rule in the name of democracy. Jeane Kirkpatrick, scholar and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nation, defines ‘democratic elections’ wisely saying, “Democratic elections are not merely symbolic. They are competitive, periodic, inclusive, definitive elections in which the chief decision-makers in a government are selected by citizens who enjoy broad freedom to criticize government, to publish their criticism and to present alternatives.”

Delegating power at grassroots level is one way to ensure good governance. Delegating downwards helps involve the local people in governance to the benefit of the greater good. In Pakistan, there has been a dithering in taking this crucial step. Alexis Charles Henri Clérel, Viscount de Tocquevillea French diplomat, best known for his work Democracy in America, argued that democracy works best at local levels.

Pakistan has exercised the voting rights and interpreted this as a substitute to democracy. This clearly is a fallacy. Where poor governance has been the predictable outcome of this approach, other institutions like the judiciary had to step-in to fill the gap. This was the case recently with FATA’s merger that came about with pressure from the Judiciary and the Army.

Decisions are taken in Pakistan to invest in economically nonviable projects, such as the Red Metro, eating up billions where the country is faced with drought around 2025, due to an “absolute scarcity” of water according to experts. Due to warped priorities, funds go into projects that could have taken a back seat. Although fourth higher user of water in the world, Pakistan depends solely on Indus River basin where levels have declined due to reduced rainfall. In Karachi there is dearth of water with the poorer sector people lining up for water and DHA, for decades, has been held hostage to tanker mafia and therefore never gets running water in pipelines. There are reports from many other areas in the country where there is ‘water load shedding’ and no water in some localities and this includes Islamabad as well.

Pakistan needs broad based education. Education is the key that opens doors to both individual and national success. Pakistan has so far failed in providing quality education to its citizens. Gender discrimination in education, even by parents, is commonly practised. Public awareness is needed to ensure equality in education without gender discrimination. Unfortunately, the focus has been on importing 37 luxury armoured vehicles costing over $11 million US dollars to the national exchequer for the use of Sharifs and his close cabinet friends.

Any democratic structure, to be successful, must be accountable. The elected officials are answerable and accountable to the people they govern. Different pillars of the society must play a role to make this happen, and that includes the media, civil society and bureaucracy. The problem becomes complicated when these different pillars, to some degree, become an accomplice to the process and not the solution.

Transparency in governance is a check against corruption; in decision making, appointment of officials, filing of documents and declaring of assets and in undertaking various functions of the government. ‘There can be no faith in government if our highest offices are excused from scrutiny, as in words of Edward Snowden, they should be setting the example of transparency.’

The writer is a lawyer, academic and political analyst. She has authored a book titled ‘A Comparative Analysis of Media & Media Laws in Pakistan.’ She can be contacted at: and tweets at @yasmeen_9


  1. Excellent piece indeed. Looking through different perspectives on Pakistan’s Political scenario.

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