Saving their ‘democracy’

Since the late 80s, successive governments have been consistently violating citizens’ human and constitutional rights under the cover of the World Bank and IMF. In 1987, the IMF slapped us on the wrists with a Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) put into effect in1990. It was approved neither by an elected government nor a military dictatorship but by an interim government that had no authority to take such a step, yet no subsequent government ever questioned or tried to undo its illegitimacy.
Democracy in Pakistan was stunted because of feudalism and bureaucratic elitism, whether upfront or through pulling the puppet strings of the agricultural economy. Then, despite a reasonable Constitution and elections, any improvement in democratic effort was effectively paralyzed.
Unless the steps and impacts of structural adjustment are examined under democratic criteria, the public won’t understand how democratic norms that encompass human, social and economic rights, were first violated by the World Bank and IMF.
The UN and democratic countries of Europe remained silent. Every good that UN branches like UNICEF, FAO, UNCTAD, WHO, UNHCR, UNESCO, etc. tried to do was undermined by powerful unilaterally-acting colleagues as well as US military-backed might breathing down every government’s neck. The UN itself needs more democratization so that it is less vulnerable to infiltration and American pressure.
Our own governments violated our rights by accepting SAP’s crippling conditions imposed by global loan-sharks themselves borrowing money to lend out to countries. Posing as development banks, they use the same dubious money-making methods that other global commercial and investment banks use. Yet governments continue irresponsible borrowing for the unnecessary.
SAPs completely slashed tax-funded allocations on health, education, physical infrastructure and much else, diverting money to debt-repayment. In turn it became a reason for more borrowing to pay for what was once entirely tax-funded. A long time ago, essential food rationing enabled the urban poor to get by. The SAP forced a withdrawal of subsidies, credit and other support to small farmers and peasants producing for domestic consumption. Instead the SAP supported a minority of landowners and industrialists producing for export and industries. How is this democratic?
The masses only vaguely understand World Bank/IMF causing usury-based debt but aren’t explained the ulterior motives. SAPs were designed to make our economy conducive to foreign investment and the export of commodities the industrialized west wants, diverting more farmland to cash crops instead of people’s food needs, opening us to imports and foreign investment, needed or not. Some call it re-colonization.
Later, having paved the way for WTO, tax-funded public services, formerly forbidden for sale, were put on the auction block. Underpriced sale prices don’t reflect true and recurring value. Instead privatized state enterprises serve only those who can afford hiked prices, thereby immediately dismissing 80 percent of the population. Countries lose their recurring income source to foreign control and sovereignty. Foreign investors repatriate all profits abroad, rather than reinvesting into widened services as needed.
An entire new generation has passed and made way for another while entrenched political dynasties made a virtue of repression in the name of ‘representative’ government. The ‘democratic process’ in the National Assembly turned out to be quite a spectacle. It was also highly illuminating — an education in how the process is used and abused that no amount of books and lectures could teach. Since the reputations of most politicians have long preceded them, viewers were not newly disillusioned. It was just a shock to discover things were worse than they thought.
Since the 80s, dictatorships dominating the ‘Third World’ began to topple. People believed democracy would bring them their rights and fulfill their needs. It didn’t happen. Instead structural adjustment caused unprecedented hunger and deprivation. In Pakistan, autocrats and industrial barons collaborated with feudalism doubly strengthened by the takeover of some political parties, justifying themselves with democratic lingo.
Nawaz Sharif feels that election to power gives his party the right to centralized and unilateral decision-making, brooking no consensus let alone dissent. Voters are then expected to withdraw from any involvement whatsoever. Completely sweeping aside one of the key factors of democracy – ongoing active citizen participation.
Citizens can’t afford to take any declared democracy for granted but keep a constant eye on how developments affect them locally, spotlighting anything undemocratic. This is possible only when citizens are adequately informed about democratic processes and the justice system protects their self-expression against intimidation. But it’s impossible for the masses kept ignorant by design.
The marginalized can however be empowered by oral and visual education designed for them. Strength also comes from informed numbers banding together. This is exactly where media, essentially television, failed, as it didn’t bring advertising revenue. They do little or nothing for the public interest although they are part of society and profit from it. Only in one recent instances before the sit-ins began, one channel telecast a series of simple lectures for laypersons and uninformed citizens by Dr. Qadri on specific Articles of the Constitution listing the requisites for citizens and democracy.
In a participatory democracy citizens need to be informed about public issues and debate them on an ongoing basis. As taxpayer-funded institutions, the government media – PTV and Radio Pakistan – should especially be doing this.
Instead, NGOs undertook this task because no one else would. But NGO outreach is limited, and unable to link theory with practice without getting involved in local politics that is bound to raise the ire of local dominant politicians and parties. So it leaves the effort half-done.
A lot of unparliamentary language was used by some politicians. The spat between Aitzaz Ahsan and Chaudhry Nisar and the not-so-veiled threats was highly entertaining. Most parliamentarians seized the opportunity of being on national television to talk about their illustrious pedigrees and claimed track records while exposing the limits of their knowledge and expertise. The Speaker blocked all except those permitted by the PM. Women said nothing. Hardly democratic. The former PM stepped-down gentleman-like, without making an ego-issue of resigning. But then, the law in Pakistan is largely a matter of interpretation. It’s easy to understand why the opposition backs the PM irrespective, but not why Aitzaz chose the PM and a defective process over the people.
The ‘jirga’s’ credibility was instantly killed by the much-discredited Rehman Malik, otherwise known as ‘His Master’s Voice’ and ‘Front Man’, whose chief contribution appears to be pushing Zardari,s idea of endless ‘dialogue’ as a stalling technique, preventing any resolution whatsoever.
Democracy was certainly the best revenge of feudals and the business barons.

The writer is a former journalist and currently director of The Green Economic Initiative at Shirkat Gah, a rights and advocacy group.

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