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TFT CURRENT ISSUE| June 01-07, 2012 - Vol. XXIV, No. 16






Hot Features




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Good Times

Opinion By Ayesha Ijaz Khan

Politics and public opionion

Only by understanding its constraints may we formulate a more palatable democracy, lest the romance with it withers altogether


Romance with democracy

 0 0

Like most Pakistanis, I too have concluded that democracy is the best form of government for Pakistan. But my reason for that is not the cliched "the worst democracy is better than the best dictatorship" line. That is just not true.

But Pakistan's experience with dictatorship has been wanting. Dictatorships in some other parts of the world, like in Turkey, Malaysia, South Korea and Singapore have brought with them great progress, even though this may have come at the expense of marginalising certain groups and suppressing certain freedoms and rights. In Pakistan, however, dictatorships have left no lasting legacy and are remembered instead for their attempts at co-opting politicians and legitimising their own rule as make-believe democrats.

Should public opinion really be the guiding light in matters of foreign policy?

Perhaps as a reaction to this and the feeling that democratic governments have not been allowed to run their course in the past, I notice a fascination for democracy in Pakistan's intelligentsia that tries to gloss over its constraints. Consider, for instance, the recent decision to block NATO supply routes. Those informed about foreign policy and international relations knew it was not a tenable position. Yet they applauded the parliament's resolve to reflect public opinion. Should public opinion really be the guiding light in matters of foreign policy?

I always find it rather futile, if not downright counter-productive, when I see reporters questioning ordinary citizens about their views on foreign policy. This is not because I don't value public opinion but because public opinion is only relevant in matters they are directly affected by and hence informed about. For instance, I watch very closely when reporters ask ordinary Pakistanis how they are coping with load-shedding or lack of clean water. On these issues, it is imperative that the public's views be taken into account when formulating, for example, a load-shedding schedule or providing access to clean water. But our governments seem to be doing quite the contrary. They pay little heed to the public on these issues but become beholden to their emotive sentiments on matters they are least knowledgeable about.

Dictatorships in some other parts of the world, like in Turkey, Malaysia, South Korea and Singapore, have brought with them great progress

In his book, Profiles in Courage, American President John Kennedy ridiculed the idea that a member of parliament should always reflect the opinion of his constituents by saying that would reduce the role of the parliamentarian to that of "a seismograph to record shifts in public opinion". The idea that serving the best interests of the country must necessarily coincide with majority public opinion is a deeply flawed one. As an example, consider the case of Washington DC Mayor Adrian Fenty. After his election in 2007, Fenty and his team embarked upon public school reform. Although they made significant inroads, they had to do this by taking on the teachers' unions and ending teacher tenure. This was an unpopular move that cost Fenty his ticket for the Democratic Party in the next election and although the Republicans were willing to give him a ticket, he decided against elected office altogether.

Fareed Zakaria, in his book The Future of Freedom, makes interesting observations. He attributes India's success to the Nehru years (1947-1964), lauding Nehru's "obsession about secularism and religious tolerance," yet making the case that this was only possible because India was largely a one-party democracy in those initial years. He makes the case that as India became more democratic, parties like the BJP came to power, "denouncing Nehruvian secularism, advocating a quasi-militant Hindu nationalism, and encouraging anti-Muslim and anti-Christian rhetoric and action." Although I do not share Zakaria's elitism, which is often reflected in the book, his well-researched analysis about the pitfalls of democracy and the idea that protection for minorities is a real challenge in illiberal democracies must be taken seriously.

Let us not forget, for instance, that fascism in Germany caught on whilst it was a democracy and nor is the West immune from these challenges today. The far right seems to be gaining strength in several European countries and is already a force to reckon with in America. In the Muslim world too, the Arab Spring, much as it was needed, is not exactly the harbinger of liberal thought. In Pakistan, we have no option but to muddle through a rambunctious democratic process, not only because dictators have failed us but also because democracy is very fashionable now and the new regional trend.

The purpose of this piece of course is not an indictment of democracy but an understanding of its limitations, especially when too much credence is given to public opinion on matters all and sundry. Only by understanding its constraints may we formulate a more palatable democracy, lest the romance with it withers altogether.


Comments (1 comments)

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. --Sir Winston Churchill, Hansard, November 11, 1947

Posted: Saturday, June 02, 2012 by Bala from Miami





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