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Islamabad Wire: Democracy and the Rule of Law

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Winston Churchill is famously quoted as saying that Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried. Those in Pakistan who would attempt to destabilize and disrupt the democratic system by rioting and burning tires in the streets of Punjab in reaction to the unfortunate disqualification by the courts of PML (N) leaders Mian Nawaz Sharif and Shehbaz Sharif might do well to pause and reflect on how other, more mature, democracies have dealt with similar situations. The greatest strength of the democratic system is its ability to bring about peaceful change under the rule of law. If the Democratic Party of the United States can live with, and over time overcome, the consequences of the Supreme Court judgment in Bush v. Gore that deprived Al Gore of the presidency despite his winning a majority of the popular vote, our Supreme Court's judgment should not be an excuse for any leaders or any parties to take to the streets to provoke chaos.

The images of several hundred political activists rioting in the streets of Punjab to protest the Supreme Court judgment contrast sharply with the image of American members of the Democratic Party shaking their heads in 2000 in disbelief yet moving on with the Bush presidency to win back the congress in 2006 and the presidency in 2008. With the presidency ripped from his hands by a problematic court decision, Al Gore went before the American people and said "George Bush is my president too." Even in Pakistan, Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto dealt with her disqualification in 1998 under a system set up by the PML (N) and run by a Senator from the ruling party by appealing the judicial decision and continuing to work within the political framework. The only disqualification that matters in politics is the loss of popular support. The Democratic Party in the U.S. and Shaheed Mohtarma both went to the people and did not riot in the streets. It may have taken time but the outcome for the country in each case was much better than inviting chaos through violence in the streets.

The Democratic Party in 2008 boldly stepped forward and courageously nominated a new and fresh voice, embracing the message of peaceful change. The fact that the messenger of change was an African-American stunned, and inspired the world. That the world's oldest democracy would so boldly embrace new leadership, against all odds, is a testament to the power of democracy.

An equally strong affirmation of the soundness of the democratic system came almost in parallel in the speech of the losing candidate John McCain "Let there be no reason for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in the greatest nation on Earth... Whatever our differences, we (McCain and Obama) are fellow Americans, and please believe me when I say, no association has ever meant more to me than that".

It helps to be skeptical. Life is generally not easy and skepticism helps negotiate its vicissitudes. Pakistanis and Pakistan know this well. We have suffered from America's inadequacies, mistakes and sometimes plain exploitation. Yet it also helps to learn from the accomplishments of others. What America did on November 4, 2008 and consecrated on January 20, 2009 should prompt us Pakistanis to look inside ourselves and ask if Pakistan would be better or worse off with a system like America -- a system where the answer to every question and crisis is yet more power to the people but not to the mob. Can we continue to make more investment in our institutions and put more faith in and persevere with democracy even when the outcome of constitutional processes is not completely to our liking?

What America has been able to do forty three times without once faltering, from the time when monarchies vastly outnumbered democracies to this day when democracy is taken to be a self-evident truth, we Pakistanis have managed only once -- on February 18, 2008. We must cherish this achievement. We must give the system time to work and must have faith that it will sort out its kinks. The US system is not perfect but every peaceful and regular election cycle rids it of some of its imperfections. So will our system progress and become more purified but if we Pakistani let it work.

Farahnaz Ispahani is a Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Member of the National Assembly of Pakistan. She is a spokesperson for the President of Pakistan.