The Condemned Heroes of Pakistan’s Democracy

Source: Dawn.com/White Star

Source: Dawn.com/White Star

We often find our political experts singing praises of the responsibility which political party leaders such as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and President Zardari have shown in coming together over issues. While there is no denying that Pakistani politicians have certainly learned their lessons as far as preventing the suspension of the constitution is concerned, the kind of consensus that we have been seeing of late is hardly doing democracy any favors.

Some would say that veteran politician Raza Rabbani has proved to be a great hero for democracy for speaking his mind about voting against his conscience during the passage of the 21st amendment in the Senate. He is certainly a hero for democracy, but hardly for simply shedding tears when his constituents waited for him to do the right thing, at least in his view. In the end, it was his vote that would have made a difference, albeit at the cost of the seat of Chairman Senate.

But the heroes that I am talking about are the ones who are condemned and cornered by their parties and are pressured every election season to follow the party leadership. No one is opposing a little whipping every now and then, but when the Prime Minister writes to the Election Commission for suspending the membership of an MPA for voting for the Senator of another party, you know that things have gone too far. Similar is the case for constitutional amendments preventing voting against party liners.

People such as Javed Naseem of the PTI, who has been thrown out of the party for issuing dissenting statements against the alleged corruption of the party leadership (treatment of own medicine), and Wajihuzzaman of PML-N, both from the KP Provincial Assembly, are lone warriors for the fight of the rights of the individual legislator. Same goes for many more individual MPs, such as Jamshed Dasti, breaking away from their political parties for whatever reasons they had to give.

The greatest damage that the party leaders are doing to the very fragile democracy in Pakistan is to try blocking individual vote of dissent in party lines in the name of preventing corruption. Just the very mention of the expression “horse trading” triggers a knee jerk reaction from the media and the people alike, limiting the individual delegate’s choice and influence. We must remember that the claims and allegations of corruption are not its proof, and a politician who switches parties is not necessarily corrupt. The need of discouraging “horse trading” stems more out of political parties protecting their investment than looking after the interest of the people or penalizing corruption.

The greatest example of such suppression of individual legislators could be witnessed in the recently concluded Senate elections. Even though all parties try blocking independent voting within their rank and file, two have been at the forefront for proposing amendments to the Senate election procedure. PML-N and PTI were all for changing secret ballot to open show of hands, only to be blocked by the PPP & JUI-F.

While there is no harm at all in open voting, it is also important to understand the motives of the political parties supporting the proposed 22nd amendment. This is probably to discourage what little hope individual MPs have to vote for the candidate of their choice, even if they are not from the same party. What our party leaders are now happy with is the absolute consensus for passing controversial constitutional amendments and electing the Senate Chairman unopposed, as long as their orders are obeyed. Party discipline.

Actually secret ballot hardly even matters as dissenting members of the legislature are pressurized by their parties already. However, open voting works well in legislative systems where members are not threatened with suspension for voting as per their will.

In Pakistan, the entire purpose that it would serve for now would be helping the media figure out which Senators from other parties voted for Shibly Faraz, the PTI candidate for the position of Deputy Chairman Senate, over Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Haideri, the cleric backed by the consensus of secular parties.

The post was originally published in The Nation blogs.

 

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The Politics of Personality Worship Cults

Source: Pakistan Today/geo.tv

Source: Pakistan Today/geo.tv

An overwhelming number of Pakistanis draw many of their life lessons from religion. It is an important part of their personal beliefs that extends to personal relationships, lifestyle, social habits, world view and politics, of course.

While religion has its due benefits, it could not have possibly affected an area of life more adversely than politics. Not only does it twist the concept of the government and its role, but terribly destroys the approach of the masses toward politics due to Messianic influences in its teachings.

While this sweeping commentary may seem far-fetched to some, it is not hard to observe clear displays in Pakistani politics supporting this notion. None is more obvious than the way we rally around our leaders and how far we are willing to go in our submission.

Religious indoctrination has conditioned people in Pakistan to turn political parties into personality worship cults.

A good number of political parties devote solemn attention and unconditional submission to their holy leaders. Not very different to the way the local religious people devote worshipful attention to their holy spiritual leaders.

Combine that with the Messianic effect and it drives home a very unhealthy approach toward politics, and life itself. It helps followers escape personal responsibility and build unrealistic expectations as far as addressing issues is concerned.

And if by accident, or by deliberated effort, a leader is killed, then they are raised to the status of martyred saints.

This approach to politics is probably a reason behind the support of dictatorships and monarchies among people in the Middle Eastern and Asian countries. Why bother about democracy when you are willing to give up your rights for a beloved leader?

Another problem with personality worship cults is that it deprives a political group of logic and reason, discourages progressive debate and gives way to unreasonable political tactics. But above all, it maintains the golden rule of religions.

The authority must not be questioned.

And where there are personality worship cults, there are blasphemy laws.

Even secular political parties can act like cults, forcing shutting down cities in protest of their leader being insulted. Likewise, you would often see these cult-like parties waste weeks, if not months, over needless juvenile squabbles and obscene name-calling. It always involves one cult party insulting the holy figure of the other, causing wide outrage.

As soon as the blasphemy is committed against the party leader, logic and reason are locked out of the debate. And well, then there is no debate.

The sooner we move to issues in our political debates, the sooner we would be able to help restore people’s faith in democracy. But while doing so, we need to learn an even more important lesson.

Let’s stop blaming others for our problems. Let’s use democracy as a tool for the same. Don’t render it useless by turning it into a war of cults.

No, democracy is not perfect. It does not promise you prosperity, or paradise.

But that’s no reason to wait for a Messiah, or blindly rallying behind one.

The post was originally published in The Nation blogs.

ISIS: Islamist Terrorists Only Sound Threatening Next Door

Source: The Telegraph

Considering the Gaza crisis, which is undoubtedly a humanitarian disaster on both sides, you can’t help but ask yourself a question. A question that seems even too simple to ask.

Why do Islamist terrorists sound threatening only when they are operating next door?

It is actually because the threat is greatly underestimated.

But I don’t want to get too carried away over here. I have been of the opinion that the Islamist militant threat is greatly blown out of the proportion by liberals at home (Pakistan) and conservatives abroad (West).

Source: scaleplasticandrail.com

Source: scaleplasticandrail.com

And for the sake of an academic argument, I still subscribe to that theory, when compared them to a number of secular powers that could start a World War on their own. But they do become a menace when they get too strong and when they are not offered any real resistance. Or when they go out of control, as the Taliban did after the realpolitik Americans were done with them.

So if the Islamists are used as pawns for the Free World, why take them so seriously?

Because they actually believe in their ideology and are really not warriors for the cause of Western Democracy and Liberty. Concepts which are actually not only alien to them, but greatly sacrilegious in nature.

This is why you cannot trust someone subscribing to the Islamist school of politics.

Source: dawn.com

Source: dawn.com

But we repeat the same mistakes, don’t we? Another area, where I have found that my opinion was terribly wrong and have changed my mind.

We are all for empowering Islamists in our democratic process, when everything they stand for is contrary to the democratic values.

But don’t we do this out of fear? So that they resort to dreaming about the numbers in elections and do not take up arms. Well, their dream is not too far away. Look at Egypt. Look at Hamas. Why go far? Look at the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

But as in the case of Lal Masjid, as in the case of Swat, as in the case of Gaza Strip, as in the case of Kabul, even. You don’t get to realize the threat until the time it manages to sneak into your neighborhood. That’s when brutal action becomes indispensable.

The same is true for Syria, Libya and Iraq. Iraq, especially, because the country was “liberated” just a decade ago.

Especially because the ISIS is a nightmare.

Source: The Telegraph

Source: The Telegraph

But today, despite warnings from the likes of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), and yes, the devil-incarnate Dick Cheney, the matter is being trivialized. Now there are two sides to the picture, even though I think left and libertarians, who I would otherwise agree with, have it wrong.

1. Iraqis are in trouble thanks to the Islamists. Their lives and liberty are in jeopardy. All chances of democracy dying. Let’s take action against the ISIS through military intervention.

2. It’s a centuries long sectarian conflict and nothing that concerns America. No need to involve our boys needlessly into this unsolvable issue. Or maybe just fuck Iraqis.

But there is also this third viewpoint that not many talk about and that many on the left, libertarian and anti-establishment spectrum could possibly appreciate. Alright, it has its share of logical problems, but worth considering.

3. You, Republican or Democrat, fucked Iraq and pretty much handed it over to the Islamists. Clean up the mess you made.

The funny part is that all three of them seem morally right in their own way. Even though the opponents would still see great moral wrongs in them. But I am kind of surprised by the mainstream resistance to the idea of intervention, more owing to the popular American sentiment.

However, the Democratic opposition to the suggestion by Republican conservatives seem more partisan than moral. I hope you know why I am saying this.

Source: AP/Washington Times

Source: AP/Washington Times

At the same time, the indifference of President Obama and his administration over the situation in Iraq is hard to ignore.

You know anti-American and anti-Israeli conspiracy theorists are suggesting that ISIS might be funded by the United States (partially true thanks to the Syrian Civil War) and Israel (OK?). While the latter completely sounds like bullcrap, the way the United States is letting the ISIS run loose is enough to raise doubts.

I never thought I would be advocating military action, ever. It’s for a very different reason though. But are you left with a choice with people who are actually threatening the peace of people’s lives?

The safety and security of Iraqis are at stake here. And it does not matter really because it is apparently a distant, unimportant threat. But really, some action would become necessary if they get within 50 miles of the borders of Israel.

This is where we need to assess the gravity of the situation of Iraq.

Source: The New York Times

Source: The New York Times

One thing is for certain that the United States directly or indirectly contributed to the present mess in Iraq and allowed an opportunity for the ISIS by dismantling a secular dictator in Saddam Hussein. Especially due to allegedly arming Al-Qaeda rebels for the Syrian Civil War.

Though the argument from the conservative side is that it is actually the Obama administration which is to blame for the disastrous situation in Iraq.

And you know what, that actually makes more sense. Why advocate Saddam as the lesser evil?

This question is rightly asked whether controlling the situation in Iraq would mean constant occupation. It’s a valid question and that is why the invasion was such a terrible idea in the first place.

At least, Iraq was stable under Saddam Hussein.

In any case. When you claim to be the liberators of a people, the upholders of the value of Liberty and Democracy, you gotta live up to the name. Or as Congressman Paul says stop being the policeman of the world, and perhaps let the EU intervene, which they hardly ever do.

Especially when you ruin the lives of millions of Iraqis who had absolutely done nothing wrong and not to mention thousands of allied soldiers who did not have to die for that needless campaign.

Yes, let me call that campaign absolutely needless.

Because under the ISIS, Iraq will never be free.

Voting By Candidate

Source: thekooza.com

Source: thekooza.com

I have grown up hearing that you should always vote for the party and the ideology. Well, it makes sense too because with more seats, the party would possibly gain a majority and the people who remotely share a fraction of your political world view could become decision makers. But does that mean you should turn a blind eye to the candidates?

But thanks to our parliamentary system, this voting approach has a severe drawback. Particularly for undecided voters and particularly for people who are not voting for ideology. I guess there would be a lot of educated voters in the upcoming 2013 general elections in this regard.

To most people, the general elections for National and Provincial Assembly representatives are a substitute for Presidential or Prime Ministerial elections. They vote for Nawaz Sharif, Imran Khan or Asif Zardari, rather than considering the candidates. Probably it is the same for the rest of the parties too.

I am even told by many that they would vote for a pole if it runs for the party or the leader of their choice. Others would vote for fly-over bridges and construction and development projects, which is a somewhat better approach, But obviously hardly anyone concentrates on their legislative stance and ability.

A lot of people vote for the legislature candidates as if they were voting for a councilor or a mayor, and that is the value they get in the end. But probably it is not their fault. We have a terrible parliamentary system prevalent in this country which only lets people vote for their representatives, but not for their Senators, Governors, Chief Ministers, Presidents or even Prime Ministers.

Furthermore, the 5 year term of a government is ridiculously long. I can hardly think of any better system than the bicameral US Presidential system which has 2 year terms for the representatives, though a long term of 6 years for the senators. But it is an electoral system which allows the US people to elect all of their representatives and even mayors directly. The parliamentary system seems autocratic in comparison.

Now they have even worsened this terrible electoral system in the 18th Amendment to the 1973 Constitution during the last term by introducing and unanimously voting for the Article 63 (A) about disqualificaiton on the grounds of defection. It is an article which requires every member of the legislature to vote according to the party lines or have their membership terminated.

How undemocratic is that. I actually find its passage hard to believe, and our politicians have the audacity of incessantly boasting about it. I can’t imagine a democracy without individual freedom and liberty.

How is this for treason to democratic values? At least it goes to show that there is no respect for individual freedom and individual opinion in Pakistan. Then why worry if the message is reflected at the grassroots?

This clearly goes to show that democracy has “not been able to work” in Pakistan because several provisions in the constitution are not democratic in the first place.

But when voting for a party is thrust upon you as a moral responsibility, you are hardly worried about factors such as these.

But when I look at a candidate, and I imagine whether I would want him or her to represent my constituency or not, I would really find myself responsible for the sake of spending public money the right way to assign the right person to the job. Well at least they must be able to read and understand the constitution, even if that means voting for a candidate who would get a total of 63 votes. I am mentioning that figure for a reason.

Malik Ibrar Campaigning - Source: Official facebook Page

PML (N) Candidate – Malik Ibrar Campaigning – Source: Official facebook Page

PPP Candidate Zamurd Khan campaigning - Source: pakistanleaders.com.pk

PPP Candidate Zamurd Khan campaigning – Source: pakistanleaders.com.pk

PTI Candidate Hina Manzoor Campaigning - Source Official facebook Page

PTI Candidate Hina Manzoor Campaigning – Source Official facebook Page

I need to vote in the NA-54 constituency where the major contenders are the incumbent Malik Ibrar Ahmed of PML-N, Zamurd Khan of PPP and Hina Manzoor of PTI, apart from other members from the JI, JUI (F), MQM, ANP and independent ones which are not expected to get much votes, like always. The candidates for the PP-10 Punjab Assembly constituency are much worse and picking the right canddiate would be an easier task there.

While I largely find myself undecided over the current constitutional and electoral mess, I would surely vote and I would try to vote by candidates. I am not saying there is anything wrong to vote by parties. Do so by all means. But I believe that evaluating the candidates is just as important.

While I am disechanted by the last parliament for unanimously voting for the controversial clause about Article 63 (A) in the 18th amendment, by the same rationale, I could just as well vote for just about any candidate not elected to the last parliament term.

But is that really the answer? Because provided our brilliant parliamentary system, any member you vote for would simply vote on party lines, regardless of what they want and how terrible the party stance is. Slavery could never have been abolished in the United States if they had such a constitutional provision. This largely destroys the purpose of voting for choosing the legislator for your constituency, because you are actually choosing no one, as rightly pointed out by some in my family.

I wish I could possibly not vote for gangs, because this is what political parties wearing the most civilized and democratic façade are acting like. And it is such a shame. Sadly, it is behavior like this that extremists and undemocratic forces like the Taliban would like to see, which in the end means that you have no choice but to stick to “lesser evils.”

That is why we need to criticize the autocratic legislation of our political parties loudly and clearly more than ever before if we are to ensure the establishment of true democratic values and principles in this country. But I know I must vote to send out a strong and clear message to those who do not want me and all of you to.

But it’s all really confusing and I would rather like to wait till May 11 to make up my mind.

Till then, I’d rather vote for the person I’d hire.

Freedom of Speech and the Illusion of Secular & Liberal Political Parties

Source: Pakistan Today

The May 20 twitter ban from the Pakistani government and the recent announcement of the PTA to seek vendors in order to block “objectionable” material from the internet have been revelations for those who are under the impression that the current Pakistani government has anything to do with promoting freedom of expression and values consistent with their democratic claims. They may be pretty tolerant of the local television channels and the crude satire and criticism that is the part of the most of their content, but they have really shown signs of weaknesses where it really matters.

Nothing highlights a government’s intolerance of freedom of speech more than its restrictions on the internet, the most immediate medium of publication for the common man. Some of the most undemocratic and authoritarian regimes have been noticed of their intolerance of the internet. Blocking websites, internet censorship and limited user access are common in regimes such as China and North Korea. However, in the recent years countries such as Pakistan and, surprisingly or maybe not so surprisignly, India are joining the list.

The funny thing is that the government does not realize that its most immediately noticeable act of suppressing the freedom of expression on an international level is banning websites and putting controls on the internet. As a matter of fact, the Pakistani government and its overzealous telecommunications watchdog, the PTA, have been highlighting online events perceived to be blasphemous themselves by going out of their way and banning them. And ones that hardly anyone in Pakistan even knows about, let alone bother about them. Responding to anything that can be perceived remotely blasphemous has actually become a political stunt to gain cheap public sympathy in Pakistan. It is even worse to see these tactics employed by political parties which claim to uphold democratic, liberal and secular values.

The funniest thing about these bans are that they only last a while. Why is that so? Not sure what changes about the internet afterwards. One of the greatest examples of that is the Wikipedia page about Prophet Muhammad which contains his illustrated images. The problem about that page is that to date it has still not changed a bit since the ban on it was imposed and lifted, so I am not quite sure what do you achieve by a ban, other than have a false sense of self-importance that you are in charge, just because you can block access to certain webpages. Also, the banning of certain social media websites as a response to any blasphemous event taking place would not take away all the blasphemous content from the internet.

The blasphemous content can actually turn up in an instant with a simple Google search. But hey, I guess the only ones searching for such content seems to be the PTA. Because frankly, I can hardly imagine that an average intenet user in Pakistan is even bothered by that. And even if they are, why would they disarm themsevles in response of an action supposedly carried out to offend them? Why should they not keep themselves empowered to respond to that? Why cannot they use the same medium to protest against any blasphemy, which is used to carry it out?

You really can count on the Pakistani government to make fools of themselves in whatever manner they can find possible. I don’t even want to start with foreign policy examples, but the mere mention of the twitter ban episode is enough to prove that point.

I want the PTA and the Government of Pakistan to read this.

Because I want them to know that their way of protesting against something is absolutely nonsensical.

Grow up please.