Democracy sans political parties

RECENT local government elections in Pakistan are being interpreted as a major boost for President Pervez Musharraf and the Pakistan Muslim League loyal to him.

The Muslim League has claimed major victories in two of the country’s four provinces and made impressive gains elsewhere. The ruling party has made inroads in the North West Frontier Province and Sindh, the strongholds of opposition parties MMA and PPP respectively.

President Musharraf has reasons to celebrate the poll results also because the local government elections were originally his idea. The system was introduced by Musharraf four years ago as part of his idea to promote ‘grassroots democracy’. A record 218,000 candidates, including more than 55,000 women, took part in these elections.

However, this impressive performance by the governing party has been undermined by the opposition’s allegations of massive rigging and the governing party abusing its power to ‘manage’ the outcome of these polls.

Although international observers have given a clean chit to the government and Election Commission for holding ‘free and fair’ elections, the claims of massive and widespread fraud by both the Islamic alliance, MMA, and secular grouping, ARD, are too serious to be ignored. The fact that the local government elections were supposed to have been held on non-party basis and yet most candidates were fielded and actively backed by their respective political parties goes to expose the inherent contradictions of the system. The quota system may have ensured greater involvement of women and minorities but, as many parties have complained, the non-party system is slowly but decisively undermining the parliamentary system of democracy in the country. Which is a pity considering the fact local government bodies elsewhere, especially in neighbouring India, are seen as nurseries of parliamentary democracy.

Pakistan’s successive military rulers, from Field Marshal Ayub Khan to Gen Zia-ul-Haq to Musharraf, have always been enamoured of the idea of non-party elections evidently because of their aversion to political parties and their irritating ways.

However, such attempts to bypass political parties while championing ‘grassroots democracy’ have not been too successful. And Pakistan has had to pay a heavy price for these frequent short cuts to democracy. Political stability has been the first casualty of this democracy sans political parties.

While Musharraf’s goal to dispense administrative and financial powers to lowest tiers of the decision making bodies through local elections is laudable, right ends can’t justify wrong means. The government needs to take the complaints of election irregularities seriously. An independent investigation should be ordered into the accusations and action must be initiated against those responsible. This is necessary to restore the sanctity of the democratic process in Pakistan. No government in a genuine democracy can afford to ignore the opposition and the issues it raises.

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