By I. A. Rehman
DAWN - 21 February, 2008THE poor, dumb, illiterate voters have done it again. They have maintained their tradition of cleaning the politicians' stables every nine or ten years and securing for their elected representatives opportunities to establish a system of governance that is democratic, sensitive to the people's sorrows and their aspirations, and responsible to them.
What the masses did on one of the most radiant Mondays in Pakistan's political history was not easy. The attempt by the arrogant members of the executive to influence their choice and pre-determine the electoral outcome may have been largely foiled in the final round, it need not be forgotten.
Everyone knows about the cheques and bags of flour that were being distributed in Lahore on the eve of the election or the canvassing for the King's party done by the mightiest in the land by predicting its triumph. The people's success in overcoming these factors makes their effort all the more impressive. They deserve credit for Monday's vindication of the majesty of the ballot more than anyone else. They made the final lap of the race somewhat credible, the earlier laps were not.
The media is a close second on the roll of honour, for they stuck to their job despite provocations and not only made the hurdles placed in their way ineffective, they also made the curbs placed on them look ridiculous. The voters' achievement can be summed up in a few words. They left no room for doubting their comprehensive repudiation of the regime and the way they have been governed for many years.
By calling off the bluff of trouble-makers they reaffirmed the fact that gatherings that demonstrate freedom from fear of violence are not likely to be interfered with. They kept the rate of turnout abreast of the requirement and at places it exceeded 50 per cent.
The voting pattern had quite a few notable features. In three provinces the establishment party was routed and it survived only in Balochistan because the potential winners there, the nationalists became more serious about the poll boycott than the authors of the idea. While the political parties invited criticism for their lack of planning and preparation the voters did not display any such shortcoming. They respected the multi-ethnic character of the provincial entities and avoided voting exclusively along ethnic lines. And they have obliged the various pretenders to the seat of power to learn the art of governance by coalition which must in all circumstances be based on the principle of inter-party consensus.
That Pakistan's crises have been aggravated to such an extent that they cannot be adequately addressed by any single party is quite widely understood. Even a government of national consensus will realise the need for patient application to the task of creating a reasonably efficient order. The split-vote in almost all parts of the country means that there is no alternative to a sincere search for national consensus and reconciliation.
Let nobody presume that democracy has been restored, only the journey towards this goal has began. No election guarantees change and fulfilment of people's expectations. It may be suicidal to take the establishment for granted. Its capacity to protect itself by exploiting differences between the major political actors must not be discounted. The danger that democratic politics could be undermined by a replay of the centre-province confrontation such as was witnessed after the 1988 election has already been noted in public debate and it must not be ignored. Whatever the nature and composition of new governments at the centre and in the federating units, it will obviously be necessary to keep personal ambitions of the front runners in check.
Those capable of staying out of power may last in public favour longer then those rushing to assume responsibility for what must for quite some time be unpopular decisions.
In order to be able to fully respect the electorate's verdict in favour of change the new governments will need to be clear about their priorities. Essentially this applies to the PPP and the PML-N. Fortunately both of them reaffirmed their commitment to the Charter of Democracy in their election manifestos. Their ability to deliver on the people's expectation will depend on the degree of their faithfulness to the charter.
The new governments will start off well by recognising that democratic governance will not be ushered in with their oath taking. Their most formidable task will be to lay the foundations of democratic institutions, beginning with resurrection of the parliamentary system, which consists mainly of rule by a cabinet totally responsible to and guided by parliament. A speedy revival of parliament as the locus of state authority will be necessary for evolving the system of responsible governance. Pakistan has suffered a great deal over the past decades because of its rulers' tendency to avoid interaction with the people during inter-election years.
Mature politicians do not always talk down to their people; they listen to them and are not shy of learning from them. It is time to free political parties of the stigma that their sole purpose is to manage periodic elections.
Now is the time for democratic political parties, to establish mechanisms for a two-way flow of ideas between party leaders and the cadres so that the choice of candidates for elective offices can be made solely on the basis of one's talent, skill and record of public service. The only defence democratic forces can build against their authoritarian rivals lies in broadening the base of governance, the greater the number of the people in power the stronger and more benevolent the democratic system will be.
Of course, there will be pressure on the new rulers to resolve the issues that have fuelled agitation and discontent over the past many months. These are: restoration of the judiciary and its status as an organ of the state by no means inferior to either of the two other state pillars; resolution of the causes of discord over the presidency and a redesigning of its constitutional role; the need to build up a federation of duly autonomous partners; the urgency of devising effective means to overcome militancy and extremism; and the pressing demand to guarantee the disadvantaged hordes freedom from want through gainful employment, social security and advancement of women's and children's rights.
Fortunately the electorate has created possibilities for resolving all of these matters. None of these issues is new, and the causes of failure in the past to deal with them should be kept in mind. Quite often the democratic forces make the going difficult by poor manoeuvrings against their adversaries. Efforts to address the critical priorities must begin straightaway because delay in facing a crisis is the surest way to perpetuate it and make it progressively more intractable.
But the temptation to find instant solutions to complex issues through hasty and ill-planned initiatives can be as damaging as inaction. The new leaders will improve the chances of their success if they can learn to take the people into confidence and to take them along. Broadest possible public support to their enterprise alone can assure the new leaders of the minimum necessary comfort on what is manifestly a bed of thorns. Only the fittest to govern will survive.