x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Democracy needs more than ballots

Clearly the spirit of compromise that is essential to good governance is in short supply in Pakistan.

The arrest of Pervez Musharraf, the former president of Pakistan, seems likely to prevent him from contesting this spring’s election there.

The one-time military chief, who returned to the country from self-imposed exile to try his hand at electoral politics, now faces a raft of charges, including treason, instead.

Whatever the merits of the cases against him, the drama of his return is not a positive chapter in Pakistan’s short, choppy history as a democracy – of which Gen Musharraf, as he was then, was no friend.

And although the elections on May 11 are expected to mark the country’s first-ever transition from one elected government to another, the record is already unpleasantly blotchy: A number of candidates have been murdered or beaten.

Former prime minister Raza Pervez Ashraf has also been banned, over unproven corruption charges.

Journalist Ayaz Amir was disallowed as a candidate by a judge who disapproved of a column by Amir. Another worrying limitation on candidacy comes from regional election officials who have reportedly required would-be candidates to perform ad hoc tests of their virtues.

Exploiting the electoral process before the voters are consulted is not new in Pakistan, nor unique to that country. But such legalistic finagling calls into doubt the future health of Pakistan’s democracy. And there are other worries. A recent British Council poll showed that only 29 per cent of Pakistanis between 18 and 29 want a continuation of democracy.

Electoral politics was found to have a lower level of public support than either religious rule or a return to military control.

Clearly the spirit of compromise that is essential to democracy is in short supply in Pakistan. In this, that country is not alone – the forms of democracy, such as ballot boxes and campaigning, are sadly empty in many countries that call themselves democracies.

But few of those countries are as populous as Pakistan. Few are as poor. Few have such difficult relations with their neighbours. And few countries with all those difficulties are also nuclear-armed.

It is important to the region and the world, to say nothing of the 177 million Pakistanis, that the mandates of representative government be respected.