Cirque du Democracy | Bushra Zaidi

Apr 2013

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As the Election Commission of Pakistan’s efficient Returning Officers disqualify candidates across the country, Bushra Zaidi explores the democratic sensibility of the God-fearing, urban, middle-class Pakistani.

In most countries, the actual application for candidacy is not considered newsworthy. This being Pakistan, candidate scrutiny is always a bit of a side-show. We tell ourselves this is because most elections took place either after an Assembly was sacked, or under the watchful eye of a military dictator. Surely it is a sign of progress that we now no longer need dictators to carry out political witch-hunts. The side-show of scrutiny has now fully taken main stage. Let this be known as the first vote: some 800 Returning Officers armed with over twenty unique legal clauses set out to decide which of the 16,000 applicants are unfit to be displayed before 85.7 million feeble-minded voters.

The unfit to run for elections, at last count, include characters as diverse as Jamshed Dasti, Ayaz Amir, Abid Imam, and Pervez Musharraf. I defy anyone to come up with a unifying theory that would explain why both the uneducated and the Columbia graduate, the whiskey-lover and the face of moderate Islam, would face the same chopping block. The comfortable explanation is that Article 62 and 63 have always been used by rivals to keep opponents out of the race. But the purge has gone far beyond political rivals, and includes the media, the Returning Officers, and parts of the urban middle class.

The great guiding myth of all debate in Pakistan is that politics is bad for this country. Politics is the reason why economic growth in the last five years was at abysmally low figures, it is also the reason why a Parliament couldn’t dig the country out of an economic downward spiral. Politics is why the country faces a power crisis, a taxation crisis and a security crisis. Its practitioners, the politicians, meanwhile presumably enjoyed a safe, tax-free, and fully-electrified five years in power. We–the unelected and educated–would like to see people who are more like us come into power: honest and hardworking, BA-qualified and prime-time telly-watching, God-fearing and army-loving.

Instead, we are faced with the odious possibility of the outgoing class of corrupt, thieving, cheating crooks coming back into power. So we conclude there is an information gap, that voters are simply too ill-informed or stupid to understand what makes a “good” democracy.

Enter Democracy 2.0, courtesy Generals Zia-ul-Haq and Musharraf. Several excellent op-eds on this can be found here, here and here. Zia’s laws have persisted in the Constitution via Article 62, namely ones requiring candidates to have an adequate knowledge of Islamic teachings and abstention from major sins. This was surely a bit of a surprise to most people who thought politicians were expected to make policies, build roads and agree on taxes. As senior editor of The Herald Badar Alam puts it, it’s as if we now expect our political class to not just deliver on policies and roads and sewers but also to deliver us into jannat.

But leave it former President General (R) Musharraf to show us how it’s really done. Enough with these vague proxies of ethical behavior, let’s get some serious neo-liberal values in here! In Zia’s 1985 election 30 out of 1333 candidates were rejected. In 2002, a full 12.6% of the hopeful candidates (over 200 of them) weren’t deemed good enough to appeal to voters. Defaulting on your loan, failing to pay taxes or utility bills, all make you unfit to attempt getting a few seats in the assemblies. In 2002, the logic was simple. Politicians are corrupt. Pakistan suffers from corruption. Let’s boot out some corrupt politicians, and watch as decades of institutionalized, multi-sector patronage and rent-seeking disappear overnight.

(It didn’t).

Of course the piece de resistance of Mushrraf’s regime, the masterpiece of military art reflecting societal paranoia, was deeming it necessary that all provincial and national assembly candidates hold Bachelor’s degrees. What better way of articulating the fear of an educated minority being ruled by an illiterate, uneducated majority? To give some context, 58% of Pakistan’s population will never go to school. Post-secondary enrollment is less than one percent. If everyone followed Musharraf’s 2002 Election Ordinance law honestly and to the letter, it would be illegal for 99.9% of the population to represent itself.

(For the sake of comparison, in apartheid South Africa, the 19% white population was allowed exclusive rights to represent the Black, Asian and colored majority).

Thankfully we are rid of the education requirement. We are only cracking down on individuals who dared to defy a law that we’ve already declared was undemocratic.

Let us then conclude that the fault is with democracy itself. Democracy is unfortunately a varied and messy process. It has at times given rise to corruption, fascism, authoritarianism and other thoroughly un-democratic models. But attempting to control and purge it has led to even worse–brutal dictatorships, one-party rule, and religious intolerance.  It is probably a good idea that in most functioning democracies, there are some criteria for running for office. For example, in the world’s most powerful democracy, the constitution has this to say about eligibility requirements for serving as President of the United States of America:

No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.

That’s it.

Closer to home, India requires a candidate for the Lok Sabha to be a citizen of the country, 25 years of age or older, mentally sound, not be bankrupt and not be criminally convicted. Which requires more than just an allegation of water theft, or claiming someone’s op-ed exposes them as morally bankrupt. What India and America do have is extensive Right to Information laws, requirements of full disclosure for candidates, and most importantly, extremely harsh sanctions on anyone attempting to buy, bribe or pressure voters. It is by no means a perfect system. But it tends to err on the side that politics, and democracy, is a self-regulating system.

Which it is.

Bushra Zaidi is a pseudonym.

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