AS Pakistan heads to the polls and politicians in the country make epic promises to create a “new Pakistan”, it’s important to remember: democracy is not just about who wins the elections.

It’s not about who gets to be prime minister, takes over the reins of power, travels to faraway lands to meet famous people and then comes back home to hold cabinet meetings, travel in motorcades and give ponderous speeches about fighting corruption, both moral and financial.

Democracy is about good governance. It’s about institutions. Civilians in charge and military in the barracks. It’s about strong, solid institutions, people committed to putting the interest of their fellow citizens above party and personal interests and following the rules and laws of the land.

Pakistan is not the only country which faces the challenge of fighting off populists or a powerful military.

Politicians who are so focused on fulfilling their personal ambition that they forget their duty to the nation and the people who elected them are the norm in many parts of the world.

Strong democracies require an honest and credible press, an active and committed civil society, robust municipal and city authorities and the active political participation of women, young people end ethnic minorities.

Let’s start with the press. It used to be the case that journalists were murdered, abducted and censored only in countries ruled by dictators and autocrats. Or, as illustrated by the brutal killing of 10 journalists in Afghanistan last week, media came under attack in countries wracked by war.

Journalism is still a perilous profession in many parts of the developing world. But as witnessed recently when investigative journalists were killed in Slovakia and Malta, working as a reporter is also becoming increasingly risky in many established democracies.

And then there is the constant outpouring of hostility against journalists promoted by media-bashing enthusiasts such as US President Donald Trump and his friends and fans in central and eastern Europe.

By calling reporters “enemies of the people”, these and other political leaders are not just attacking journalism and journalists, they are endangering democracy itself.

The warning contained in the latest World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders, should give us pause for thought.

Yes, fake news and propaganda are all interfering with elections, referenda, politicians’ reputations and, more generally, with governance across the world.

But democracies are also under threat from within. By promoting hostility and animosity towards journalists, politicians in established democracies are also encouraging the rise of populists, prompting decisions like the one on Brexit and facilitating the dissemination of toxic messages against migrants, refugees, women, Jews, Muslims and other “others”.

The unleashing of hatred towards journalists is one of the worst threats to democracies,” according to Christophe Deloire, the secretary general of Reporters without Frontiers. “Political leaders who fuel loathing for reporters bear heavy responsibility because they undermine the concept of public debate based on facts instead of propaganda. To dispute the legitimacy of journalism today is to play with extremely dangerous political fire.

Second, to revive dying democracies let’s stop looking for “hero” politicians and focus instead on the many extraordinary ways in which ordinary folk are changing the world.

It is time to move beyond the conventional wisdom that political parties are synonymous with democracy and that it’s only about who wins elections and referendums. Politicians in Pakistan and elsewhere have helped to make the world more tribal and polarised, to make the global political discourse shallow and crude.

While politicians argue and squabble, it’s ordinary folk who are shaping the world. Regretfully, they are not often in the headlines – good news rarely is – but they are the ones welcoming refugees, demanding equal rights, asking for gun control, cleaning up our parks and our oceans.

Look carefully, and it’s clear that these so-called “strong” men actually fear their own people, especially human rights defenders, including people like the late and much-celebrated Asma Jahangir.

Third, democracy will only thrive and flourish when the global body politic encourages the participation of women and young people.

The feminist movement is already gathering momentum – even in conservative countries where women have traditionally taken a back seat. When women become more confident with wielding power – their power – they will be able to really challenge convention and change the way societies think and behave.

Fourth, democracy is about what happens in villages, towns and cities. The real heroes of the 21st century are not national politicians but local ones. They are the men and women who have to deal with the day-to-day problems of citizens.

In Europe and America, it’s mayors and local authorities who are standing up for immigration, fighting climate change and working in myriad ways to improve the lives of “ordinary” citizens.

So yes, let’s celebrate democracy and let’s vote in elections – national, provincial and local. But let’s also remember that true democracy is not a top-down affair, something that the “rulers” grant to the “ruled”.

It’s about holding politicians to account, a free press that doesn’t hesitate to speak truth to power and giving everyone in society – women, young people, minorities – a say in shaping the future.

Published in Dawn, May 5th, 2018

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