Our democracy — or theirs?

As the political parties arrange the jigsaw of government into a moderately coherent — if transitional — picture much is being said about democracy and the democratic process. Much of what is being said seems to lack form and clarity — and is probably not meant to as those at the microphone in this power-broking phase are more interested in effect than substance. For the people the sense of relief at an election that was no more corrupt than most in south Asia is beginning to dissipate, to be replaced by the one-size-fits-all phlegmatic cynicism that is the default position of the average man and woman in the street.

With democracy, even Pakistan’s democracy-lite, you get what you vote for. And what you get is not necessarily what you want, particularly when the choices on offer are as unappetising as those currently writing the menu for the upcoming political meal. Despite obvious flaws in the process and a tainted political cohort, Pakistan has made a positive move in a different political direction. That might not be the direction of ‘democracy’ in terms of how it is understood by the developed nations, but it is a direction that is a significant shift away from the voting behaviours of the past and towards a more pluralist, less tribal, polity of the future. It looks nothing like the genteel ‘democracy’ of Washington or Brussels but it is a move towards a local interpretation of democracy that will be just as valid as any elsewhere.

In most western countries the multiparty democratic system emerged from the labour movements of the 18th and 19th centuries. The modern labour movement extended enfranchisement and steered political parties which were hitherto distinctly feudal and mostly moribund, into political mobilisation. People began to feel as if they were part of the political process and that their vote mattered. It was a time of enormous social change. Literally, the face and fabric of society was transformed. Sewers were built, and hospitals and railways. Child labour was abolished and literacy rates rocketed as nations industrialised — needing workers who could read and write; and the working man for the first time began to get a sense of security in the workplace. This was a time before the devaluation of political coinage, and a time when the difference between the political parties was sufficient to allow voters to make real choices.

Today, with the aging social-democratic parties in gentle decline choice is no longer an option in any real sense because the difference in policies between the parties is so fine as to be almost invisible; in effect by choosing one you are choosing all. The coats and badges may be different but they are the same underneath. Voting for many in the west has lost both meaning and value — evidenced by fewer people voting — as more and more reject the union between politics and the market.

Business and politics rub along in an adoring symbiosis—politics feeds on money, business has it. Politics feeds on money. Business has it. A marriage made in heaven. America is perhaps the clearest example of the paradigm as millions pour into the coffers of presidential hopefuls. America is also no longer (indeed it might be argued that it never really was) a democracy; instead it is what it always wanted to be — a plutocracy only vaguely mediated by democratic process. In other states the media, a branch of the business machine, has merged with politics and in Italy the dominance of the Berlusconi family is an ignoble example of a feudal press-baron looming large in the political landscape. The west, it is suggested, has moved to a position wherein the markets dominate and largely control political process and consumerism is established as the overriding societal ethos. Democracy, a shy and retiring animal, has disappeared in a welter of ‘freedoms’ and become indistinguishable from the market that bustles around it.

Attempts to export democracy in recent years have not always been successful. Russia was to be an example of the democratic triumph of the free market over a centralized, archaic and corrupt central control that stifled growth and development, the movement of goods and people and capital. The slightly grubby reality today is that the free market never really happened — or rather has yet to do so in a way that others might feel comfortable with — at least, not for the majority of Russians. The west, in its concerted efforts to promote and embed the free market under Yeltsin gave rise to the ransacking of its most valuable natural resources by his political cronies. The advice of the brokers of democracy and the Alan Greenspans of the free world seem to have done little beyond create a new cadre of Boyars and an extremely effective indigenous mafia.

Post to Yeltsin and Gorbachev, we have Putin, whose personal vision of democracy is doubtless shaped by his years as a secret policeman and whose personal omnipotence — validated through democratic elections — is redolent of a past littered with despots by the dozen. It may be possible that what went before colours what comes after, and that nations may have characteristics that ‘read across’ historical strata; and in the case of Russia to the type of democracy that is emerging and the way in which the internal free market has evolved.

The Post-colonial nations have not all fared well either. Africa is something of a democratic desert and the south Asian states with the exception of India have a decidedly patchy record of democracy. China, our neighbour to the north, remains an authoritarian communist state yet is economically bullish — clearly authoritarianism is not necessarily an impediment to national wealth. It does not work for everybody either and there have been some spectacular failures of authoritarianism, most notably in the Latin American countries over the last four decades; but a case can be made for democracy not always being best suited to achieving the conditions necessary for economic takeoff.

Amy Chua, writing in ‘World on Fire’ says ‘…Democracy is far from a sufficient condition for benign governance in the kind of multi-racial societies that are common in Africa and Asia.’ Pakistan is arguably not multi-racial but it is ethnically diverse and riven by sectarianism, hardly the best seed-bed for democracy. It is as feudal as when the Tolpuddle Martyrs first put their toe in the democratic waters and it most decidedly does not want many of the ‘freedoms’ that come packaged with western values. What it wants most of all is to find its own place, its own level, and its own democracy. It will be untidy, unruly, occasionally teetering on the brink of disaster and whatever form of democracy eventually evolves — and it could take generations, it did in the west — it is probably not going to look much like that of the EU or even that of India or Bangladesh. It will have elements of authoritarianism and militarism and will probably not be particularly benign. It will also be the product of the people of Pakistan, who have just demonstrated a growing political sophistication as voters that bodes well for the future. Democracy? Yes, please…but with ‘made in Pakistan’ written on the package it comes in.

By Chris Cork, a British social worker settled in Pakistan.


5 thoughts on “Our democracy — or theirs?

  1. Pingback: Our democracy — or theirs? | Tea Break

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