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 THE RIGHT POLITICAL SYSTEM

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MAJOR(R)KHALID NASR
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PostSubject: THE RIGHT POLITICAL SYSTEM   Sun Jun 15, 2008 5:26 pm



The Right Political System

Pakistan has suffered, since its inception, from a lack of political stability. Democracy has not taken root. Military and civilian governments have played a game of musical chairs with the nation's destiny. The pattern has become painfully familiar. A civilian government is installed after the euphoria of elections. Ineptitude and corruption pave the way for a military intervention. A military government assumes power promising to clean house and restore democracy. Neither promise is kept. Growing pressure - internal and external - forces the military to hold elections. The game begins again.

What is wrong? Is Pakistan congenitally indisposed to democracy? I think not. Our problem has to do with the sort of democratic system we have rather than democracy itself. What is wrong with our existing system? And, what should replace it? It is not sufficient to replicate an existing political system that has developed over decades or centuries in another country and transpose it to our context. What I will seek to do is to suggest that a democratic political system, which will be responsive to Pakistan’s very specific needs, can be designed. It is important, in what follows, to keep an open mind - a clean slate, if you will.


The existing system

Start with the fundamentals. Ideally, in a democracy, the assemblies make the laws, the courts interpret and implement them, and the executive manages the country. It clearly makes sense to keep all three players as independent of each other as possible. In Pakistan, things do not work this way.

People elected to our assemblies know little, and care less about law making. They seek election because they perceive that becoming an MNA or an MPA entitles them to power (a minister-ship ideally), protocol (VVIP lounges), and money (handouts to spend on their constituencies). Since they are not interested in legislation, little takes place in the assemblies. Instead they become talk shops where scheming and idle chatter replace the serious legislative business of the nation.

Matters are made worse because the executive - the prime minister and his cabinet - is drawn from these assemblies. So one critical barrier - that separating the executive from the legislature - is breached, as it were, by design. The prime minister, in our system, acquires almost unchecked power. He becomes head of the executive and legislature at the same time. The system then requires him to draw his cabinet - the nation's management team - from elected members of the legislature.

Assume, for a moment, that we get the right person as prime minister - sensible, practical, mature, wise, intelligent, humane, open minded, humble, and with the vision and management skills needed to lead a complex country like ours. Is it likely that he will be able to find people in the assemblies with the right managerial skills needed to run the government? These people - as ministers - will sit atop large, unwieldy bureaucracies critical to the functioning of the state. Does it make sense to put, for example, a scion of a large landowner, or a 'gadi nasheen' with little or no (relevant) work experience in a position that requires a very demanding set of skills?

Now replicate this already dysfunctional model in all the four provinces. So you have four provincial legislatures, four chief ministers, and four cabinets along with their concomitant regalia. Are these wasteful, ossified provincial structures of any benefit to anyone other than the people who occupy them?


The plurality-majority system

There is another problem with the way democracy works in Pakistan. The system of elections we have in Pakistan is what, in the jargon of political science, is called a 'plurality-majority system'. It is also commonly known as the 'single member district plurality' (SMDP) system or the 'first past the post' (FPTP) system. In essence, it is a winner takes all system. So if two people are on a ballot then the one who gets a simple majority is declared the winner. If three or more people are contesting then the one who gets the most votes, (a plurality) wins.

In Pakistan SMDP has led to 'adversarial' politics. At the district level, this means the winning MNA has no interest or motivation to work with the loser or losers for the betterment of the district. This is because the 'losers' though they may have collectively garnered more votes than the winner have no further say in the process. The 'spoils' are for the victor to take and distribute as he chooses. The system, as it were, creates needless rivalry and confrontation, when in fact, what is needed is cooperation and consolation.

At the parliamentary level, the dominant party knows that it does not need the support of other parties at the grass roots level. This introduces a certain intemperance, if not outright arrogance, in its conduct. If it does not have an outright majority, 'lotas' are sought out. If it does have a clear majority, it acts dictatorially, knowing that, at least until the next election, it has no one to answer to. The conduct of our two dominant parties, whenever they have been in power in the past, suffices as evidence.

There is something about this system that seems to go against the essence of democracy. In a tight two-person race, for example, the person who gets a shade over half the vote wins. So about half the people in the district get the representation they want. The other half are, in effect, disenfranchised. Is this a democratically acceptable result? Whatever the answer, it is safe to say that a more 'democratic', and in Pakistan's specific context, a more appropriate electoral system can be designed.

The context

Electoral systems must be designed to suit the context in which they are applied. We in Pakistan inherited the SMDP system from the British. Little, if any, thought was given to whether such a system would work for us. The consequences are evident and painful. Sixty years have passed since independence and Pakistan is a nation at war, so to speak, with itself.


So what is our 'context'? We are not a homogeneous people. This is a nation with a multiplicity of 'cleavages'. There exist deep schisms along, provincial, ethnic, linguistic, religious, and tribal lines. There are large and small provinces. Some of them are rich in minerals, others in agriculture. Should all of this suggest that we are somehow doomed as a nation? On the contrary I believe that our 'multiplicity of cleavages' if harnessed can become an enviable source of stability and strength.


Yet there is no denying that this fractured tectonic geometry, as it were, raises many contentious issues. These include for example, the distribution of water between upstream and downstream provinces - the proposed Kalabagh dam is a case in point. The dispute over allocation of revenues from natural resources - specifically gas from Baluchistan - has developed from a slow simmer to a dangerous conflagration. The people of Karachi have long complained that tax revenues collected in the city are not fairly allocated. The list goes on.

Let us understand that no one is 'wrong'. All people have a right to their views and a right to protect what they view as their vital interests. The challenge for Pakistan is to design a democratic system that is accommodative and conciliatory, a system that engenders harmony not division.


The solution – Part 1

The solution is really in two parts. The first part has to do with the way elections are structured.

Our current SMDP system must be replaced by Proportional Representation or PR. The basic principles underlying proportional representation elections are that all voters deserve representation and that all political groups in society deserve to be represented in parliament in proportion to their strength in the electorate. In other words, everyone should have the right to fair representation.

In order to achieve this fair representation, all PR systems have certain basic characteristics -- characteristics that set them apart from the SMDP system that we have now. First, they all use multi-member districts. Instead of electing one person in each district, as we do now in Pakistan, several people are elected. These multi-member districts may be relatively small, with only three or four members, or they may be larger, with ten or more members. (The figures below illustrate districting maps for a hypothetical 50-person assembly). Figure 1 shows 50 single-seat districts, as is common with plurality-majority systems. Figure 2 depicts 10 five-seat PR districts, and Figure 3 shows 5 ten-seat PR districts.)

The second characteristic of all PR systems is that they divide up the seats in these multi-member districts according to the proportion of votes received by the various parties or groups running candidates. Thus if the candidates of a party win 40% of the vote in a 10 member district, they receive four of the ten seats -- or 40% of the seats. If another party wins 20% of the vote, they get two seats, and so on. That, briefly, is how proportional representation works.*

Imagine the soothing effect such a system (or an appropriate variation of it) would have on Pakistani politics. There would be no disenfranchisement of voters at the district level. Opposing politicians would have to learn to work with each other in their districts and, as a consequence, in the assemblies. Cooperation would replace confrontation. Accountability would replace profligacy. We would see a manifestation of what Arend Lijphart has called 'consociationalism'.

The solution – Part 2

What I have talked about so far - the choice of an electoral system - is, to borrow a term from economics, an issue of micro politics. The macro political issue, to extend the economics analogy, is just as, if not more, important. By macro political, I mean issues relating to the structure and remit of representative agents such as the parliament, senate, and the executive.



I alluded earlier to the breaching of the barrier between executive and parliament. This is a critical defect in our system. Let us look at what would happen if we separated the executive and the parliament. In this case, parliament is elected separately from the executive i.e. the prime minister or the president (this is what happens, for example, in the U.S. system). The directly elected prime minister or president, free from the constraint of choosing his cabinet from elected members of parliament, is able to select the most suitable and professionally competent people for his team.



The effect on parliament would be even more salutary: Politicians would realize that being elected to parliament is not a ticket to spoils and power. Instead, it calls for them to think and work hard on the serious business of legislation, and of budgetary and executive oversight. Once they realize that becoming an MNA or an MPA is not a pot of honey, only those people who are interested and qualified will seek this office. What a refreshing and constructive change that would be!

Epilogue

I am not a political scientist and it is well beyond the scope of this modest paper to suggest an alternative democratic structure for Pakistan. My purpose is to open a dialogue, or at least create an awareness, that we are not necessarily bound to the 'democracy' that we now have. What I do know for sure is that there does exist a democratic structure that would meet our aspirations. Our problem is akin to that of a sculptor. What he imagines already exists in the block of stone. He just has to use his intelligence and skill to expose it to the light of day.





Nadeem Qureshi


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