Waris Husain: Procedure without Substance: The Downfall of Democracy

Procedure without Substance: The Downfall of Democracy

Waris Husain

            Political parties serve as pillars of democratic order, but if abused, they can become bartering markets for the elites of a society to exchange power, influence and money rather than representing the interest of common citizens. This pattern has emerged in Pakistan and the United States wherein voters are limited in their democratic choices because they identify with a political party that doesn’t represent their ideals. In Pakistan, feudal lords and landowners continue to control political parties and rarely campaign on issues pertinent to the average citizen; rather they further the plague of nepotism and ineffective leadership. The same can be said for the United States, where the dominance of the “old boys club”/ two-party system lacks the diversity necessary to represent a people with vastly different ideals and needs incomprehensible by the millionaires that sit in Congress.

A. United States

Some may disagree that while the two-party system in the U.S. may be limited, the party alliances are based on substantive issues that represent a divergence in the American public. This was true for the first political groups in America, the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, who differed on what role the federal government would play in the development of this young nation. Two parties were adequate at that early point in U.S. history because there were two basic views on this issue and the role of the federal government was so central to the development of the state.

However, the modern socio-political context is far more diverse than the Federalist times of the 1780’s; yet we still only have two political parties. One can simply look to the election of 2008 and the diversity of voters (from communists to fiscal conservatives) who voted for Barack Obama. One should wonder why such politically diverse voters would elect the same person when their expectations for that person are so different. The only answer is that the two party system fails to represent the true diversity of the American people and thus we are limited in our access to democracy.

For many voters, their party affiliation has become so engrained in their identity, that no matter how badly their candidate campaigns, they will vote for their party. This allows for the populace to concentrate so much on affiliation between these two parties, that they fail to act on their civil duty to elect a person that represents their INTERESTS rather than their party. Further, it allows for the elites of the society, who are at the top levels of these parties, an opportunity to extract resources and power from the government without the public noticing.

While there are several parties which exist in the U.S., they are kept in the periphery of the American public’s attention. Many individuals do not vote for parties like the Green Party simply because they have no chance of winning, and a vote against a liberal candidate is perceived as a vote in favor of conservatives in two-party setting. Yet, if we are to enhance American democracy, it must be done by allowing more of a fair opportunity to the multiple parties whose rise will more accurately represent the people.

B. Pakistan

            While adding more parties may be a fix for the American model of democracy, Pakistan maintains dozens of parties and yet still does not embody the benefits of political parties. The problems in American democracy are multiplied in Pakistan where land reform has not taken place in several areas and much of the country remains feudal.

If one then mixes the procedural elements of democracy (through elections) while allowing these feudal elites to maintain power, political parties become vehicles for elite dominance instead of representation. Further, if ethnic and provincial rivalries are allowed to dictate the parties, the stability of democratic rule will continue to weaken.

            The organization of parties currently lacks a holistic view of Pakistan’s future because they are limited by their ethnic and provincial affiliation. The political party thus represents an identity for the voters with respect to their background or place of birth, instead of the issues at hand such as energy and terrorism. Thus, similar to the diversity among voters who vote Democrat in the U.S., Pakistanis do not select the representative that they believe can best serve their needs.

            Much like the Federalist period in the U.S., Pakistan also has seen a positive development in political parties through the early stages of the People’s Party. Campaigning on issues such as welfare and the role of the state, Z.A. Bhutto was one of the only leaders to successfully articulate an agenda and campaign on issues that concerned common people. While the wisdom of his policies can be debated, the Peoples Party of the 1970s is a far cry from the current party.

After the death of Benazir Bhutto, the People’s Party has been dominated by an array of elites who don’t share ideologies but do share the same economic status. Individuals vote for the PPP because of an allegiance they feel they owe to the ghost of the Bhuttos; and the same can be said for most parties in Pakistan which lack a legitimate set of ideals or plans of governance.

The answer in Pakistan’s case should be the emergence of new parties who campaign on the divergent issues pertinent to the economy, terrorism, foreign policy, and religion. In order to close the disconnect between the ruler and the ruled, there must be an uprooting of the old guard from institutions like the PPP by new parties focusing on substantive issues. This will engender a more active populace who places greater trust in the government to be able to understand its diverse issues.

To fully implement the benefit that political parties offer in representing the interests of the public, Pakistan and the U.S. must diminish the domination of elite interests. In America, the introduction of new parties to challenge the Democrats and Republicans would allow a growingly diverse public to have access to parties that better embody their ideological perspective. In Pakistan, the elimination of the current party structure could allow for the democratic regime to function properly in representing the public and meeting their citizens’ needs.  



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