Democracy is much more than mere elections
This article is inspired by editorial of a local newspaper I read and a piece by I A Rehman.The editorial closes with, “Simply, without intra-party democracy there can be no real democratic decisions. When the leader is the party, when the leader is for life and when the leader decides who else gets what position, it is difficult to have spirited debate or meaningful dissent. Can the constitutional constraints and intra-party realities be changed though?” On the same day, writing in the same newspaper, Rehman says, “The absence of party activists from the political scene is not a recent phenomenon. Apart from a couple of minor outfits and quasi-religious militant organisations the so-called mainstream parties hardly qualify as thoroughly organised and functional political parties. The cost being paid by the country for this fundamental deficiency in the polity is absolutely unaffordable.”
It reminded me of some suggestions I had made in a piece many years ago. I was not so popular then and it was dismissed as being out of sync with reality. Sad! Those more in sync with reality many years down the road reach the same conclusion.
The National Democratic Institute (NDI) in 2008 published a comprehensive paper titled “The Minimum Standards for the Democratic Functioning of Political Parties”. I strongly recommend our parliamentarians to read it. It sets out beautifully doable standards that I touch upon here before sharing my suggestions tailored to our specific conditions many years ago.
First, party rules should define membership eligibility requirements and spell out members’ rights, roles and responsibilities. Clear membership rules can help facilitate such participation, particularly participation in the selection of candidates and the designation of leaders.
Second, party statutes can clarify lines of communication, authority and accountability between party’s various layers. When a party has multiple organisational levels and multiple governing organs, its statutes should designate the highest authority in the party. In some cases, the highest authority may vary according to the policy area.
Third, party statutes should anticipate conflicts and should provide frameworks for not only fostering but also for containing, healthy internal debate. These frameworks should include an independent appeals body within the party in cases where party members or party representatives are expelled from the party, or from the party’s legislative caucus. Having an independent appeals body within the party not only leads to more considered decisions, but also makes it more difficult for local or national party factions to use expulsion mechanisms to entrench their power or to settle personal scores.
Fourth, parties benefit from having clear rules about the regular selection (and possible de-selection) of party leaders and party candidates. Clear rules help to channel and encourage competition among politicians and among advocates of rival policy alternatives. Many parties have developed mechanisms of intra-party democracy that give party members a meaningful role in these important decisions.
Five, party officials and party employees should adhere to party rules for making decisions, including selection decisions for candidates and leaders. Procedural frameworks can only contribute to a party’s long-term stability if those within the party agree to abide by the stated rules.
Six, political parties should keep sound and proper financial records which serve to generate confidence, enhance credibility and encourage contributions to finance party operations. In addition, officeholders and party units need to be internally accountable for party finances within their domains. Parties should take responsibility for their officeholders and other leaders who abuse their positions for personal gain. If party representatives are convicted of such offenses, their parties should disown them, not seek to minimise the crime. Even in the absence of convictions, parties which overlook credible charges of corruption within their ranks may harm their own long-term goals, as well as damage overall support for democracy, because doing so sends the message that self-interest is the parties’ primary political aim.
The paper offers in-depth rationale about all the basic points stated above and is worth a read.
Democracy is a wonderful thing. Sans democracy within ranks of political parties themselves, it a sham. Strong party structure based on sustainable policies, encouraging party members’ development and grooming with a commitment to clearly spell out party goals is a must. If democracy does not exist in party ranks, how can the party claim to sustain democracy in the country?
Here is what needs to be reviewed and corrected is the Political Parties’ Act. Laws made but ignored on implementation level are not worth the paper they are written on. Extracts from my paper, updated and added upon, to address the political parties’ structure formation are shared herewith.
First, do we need a lifetime chairperson? What democracy we ape to follow, does this? No sirs, we need to ensure that there are in-house party elections every three years. I am sure all parties have their share of good, sincere people. Let them come forward. Let there be a healthy competition for slots based on merit, not on excess use of buttering ‘the’ party leader.
Two, we see a repetition of the same faces on party tickets, or their children taking up the mantle without any credentials but for the name they carry. Such steps further weaken the democratic intuitions. We need to ensure that no one contests for the in-house party seat more than twice. Likewise, no one should be allowed to contest for national and provincial assemblies more than twice.
Three, mechanisms for in-house accountability must be put in place and party core leadership must be responsible for misdeeds of their party members. Likewise, prime minister must be elected twice only. In USA, a country on the forefront of democracy, restricts its presidents to serving a maximum number of two terms by virtue of the Twenty Second Amendment. A reproduction, “No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once. But this article shall not apply to any person holding the office of President when this article was proposed by the Congress, and shall not prevent any person who may be holding the office of President, or acting as President, during the term within which this article becomes operative from holding the office of President or acting as President during the remainder of such term.”
A lack of the above factors briefly touched upon gives birth to a dictatorship of another kind. Democracy is much more than mere elections.
Cornel Ronald West, an American scholar and public intellectual, rightly says, “Of course, the aim of a constitutional democracy is to safeguard the rights of the minority and avoid the tyranny of the majority.”
The writer is a lawyer, academic and political analyst. She has authored a book titled ‘A Comparative Analysis of Media & Media Laws in Pakistan.’ She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org and tweets at @yasmeen_9.