Saturday, December 7, 2013

Accountability, Ideology, and State

On Representation

There is a wide gulf between the politicians that the Pakistani public elects to represent them and the public itself. The political class is, in no way, representative of the public they claim to represent. This is most obvious in the rural areas of Pakistan but it is a persistent urban problem as well.

Politicians must be representative of the public that elects them to ensure that the problems of the common person are able to enter the public discourse. It is unwise to depend on well-meaning politicians that are unrepresentative of the public to solve the problems of the public. No matter how sincere such politicians are, it is impossible for them to understand the issues that beset an average person on a daily basis. 

However, as is so often the case, politics is something only the wealthy can afford to engage in. Pakistan is no exception. This scenario doesn’t seem likely to change in the near future barring some sort of seismic shift in the social dynamics of Pakistan. As such, we are forced to confront the fact that unrepresentative politicians are here to stay.

On Accountability

What is required to confront this lack of representation is a very stringent accountability of the political class. Pakistan’s problem does not lie in the absence of democracy. It lies in the existence of unaccountable democracy.  

That is why the judiciary must be empowered to pursue suo moto cases against politicians. Every attempt at holding politicians accountable outside of elections must be pursued. This does not mean that the courts should begin formulating policy and providing recommendations to the ruling government on security, economic, defence, and foreign policy matters. But it does mean that the Supreme Courts should use their authority to hold politicians accountable when it comes to matters relating to the constitution.

Unfortunately, such accountability is not enough. The courts do not have the capacity to pursue each and every matter. And taking this too far will result in excessive politicization of the courts. Politicians will be only too keen to paint the courts as being undemocratic and attempting to steal their mandate.

Does the key to accountability, then, lie in the media?

The media does have a role to play in this regard. While one major function of the media is to report events in an unbiased manner, their other function must be to act as a voice for the voiceless and vulnerable sections of society.

Once again, however, this is simply not enough. The media can be easily influenced and it is unclear what the source of funding for many of the major news outlets are. Ultimately then, the burden of accountability falls on the voting public.

On Elections

If the burden for accountability falls on the public, why is it that the public has so far proven incapable of holding its leaders unaccountable?

The first reason involves voters who have no particular sense of holding politicians accountable. This occurs when voters are completely ignorant of their political rights. One example of this is where followers of pirs and makhdooms vote for their leader solely on the basis of his spiritual, religious and social significance.

The second reason involves the absence of accountability due to vote rigging. Every Pakistani election in history has suffered from rigging to the extent that it is arguable whether any of these elections truly represent public opinion. Because of the nature of the international political system which is always in a hurry to legitimize any democratic system as well as the instability that may occur if election results are cancelled, there is always a push to accept election results no matter how much vote rigging occurred. In this scenario, voters may very well have a genuine desire to hold politicians accountable to their promises but are simply unable to. Once the election results are confirmed, the vote rigging is legitimized and the public is left waiting another 5 years for another feeble attempt at accountability.

The final reason for a lack of accountability involves voters that want to hold politicians accountable but where the accountability is of a very limited kind and only relates to how the politician has personally helped the voter and his or her immediate circle. This is an accountability of a sort but it results in politicians having to only deliver on short-term promises to individuals. There is no accountability in terms of how the politician has delivered on a party mandate.

On Political Parties

The responsibility for this perverted form of accountability lies with politicians and the political parties that they create.

At present, parties are built around individuals and families. The parties try and present a political platform but it is a calculated lie. Their support stems not from political principles and platforms that are sincerely believed in but rather from their social network. Only a political leadership which is short-sighted and selfish can be held responsible for this.  Such leaders have at their disposal material and social resources to build parties which push for a collective national vision. But in this regard they have failed. The rot began with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who exchanged socialist ideals for pragmatic political gain when he pulled back land reforms. Given his penchant for power, it is debatable whether he ever believed in his ideology. The history of the PPP since then has been one of a party gradually devolving from a left-wing socialist one into a Bhutto cult.

Is it conceivable that parties can be built around high-minded ideology in a country as conservative as Pakistan? Social traditions no doubt have their place. But there is no reason why age-old social traditions cannot exist side-by-side with collective political values. The rise of the communist party in China on the backs of peasants is one such example of this.

On Ideology

For the moment, pragmatism is the only ideology that holds sway with the exception of a few parties. This is because Pakistan’s political parties are shaped by historical and material circumstances more than political ideals. Parties like the MQM that were once radical and anti-state are now sitting in parliament. So called progressive leftist parties like the ANP and PPP have constituents with social values that are deeply conservative. A party like the PML-N whose supporters once stormed the Supreme Court subsequently supported the movement to restore Supreme Court judges.  

Not only does the development of a collective ideology require political leadership to put a limit on purely pragmatic power politics, it also demands strong state institutions to enforce that ideology.

On the State

The Pakistani state is essentially incapable of enforcing laws. On a day-to-day basis, the state is virtually invisible and has abdicated most of its responsibilities to society. This is one of the major reasons for the flourishing of NGOs which provide the health and education services that are the responsibility of the state. Such NGOs are only stop-gap measures that are incapable of providing services that can reach all citizens.

The situation is particularly dangerous because it gives the false impression that social development is taking place when in fact it is occurring for only a particular section of the population. In the long run, such a policy will lead to a widening gap in inequality because private initiatives will never be able to scale up to meet the demands of Pakistan’s population.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Third Way

The success of PTI in the general elections represents a significant shift in Pakistani politics. A third power has arrived to counteract the influence of PPP and PML-N.

For a shift to occur, it isn't enough that a party simply carves out room for itself on the political scene. It must do so on the basis of some new political idea or strategy that hasn't been tried before.

In the case of PTI, it can claim to be the first truly democratic party in Pakistan on the basis of the highly visible and transparent internal elections that it conducted leading up to the general elections. When these internal elections were conducted, many onlookers believed that PTI would have been better off delaying them given the destabilizing nature of party elections. However, PTI proved that internal elections could take place and party unity could still be maintained. That PTI was able to reorganize themselves after the internal elections and launch an effective election campaign displays a level of party professionalism rarely seen in Pakistan's political culture.

Another characteristic that sets PTI apart is consistency regarding policy. For example, it has steadily maintained a clear anti-drone stance. For better or for worse, it has refused to compromise on this issue. This is in stark contrast to the policy adopted by the previous PPP government which tacitly allowed drone attacks while publicly condemning them.

However, there are several grounds on which people argue against PTI being a third force.

There is the fact that PTI has only been able to form a government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). Even if the party manages to set itself apart from other parties, it only has representation in KP. The argument is that this isn't enough representation to cause any major political shift.

However, parliamentary presence is not the only indicator of popularity. For example, PML-N has more than three times the number of National Assembly seats as PTI. However, it has only won twice as many votes overall. These results don't even take into account the vote-rigging that occurred in Punjab where PML-N won the brunt of its National Assembly seats. The same can be said for the vote-rigging that occurred in Karachi. Eyewitnesses and vote counts testify to PTI's substantial popularity here despite the near omniscient presence of MQM.

It is clear, then, that the alternative appeal of PTI is not relegated to KP.

Another complaint that is frequently brought forward is that PTI came to power using political tactics not much different from other parties.

For example, PTI brought political veterans like Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Javed Hashmi into its ranks. As Makhdooms, they derive much - if not all - of their political capital from their personalities and not their policy positions. By engaging in this practice, is PTI not perpetuating personality-based politics in Pakistan?

There is no doubt that these are expedient measures which PTI used to gain a short-term advantage. However, as a party which has national ambitions, PTI needs to work within the very political culture that it seeks to change. And this political culture is a direct product of a social culture which is frequently centered on powerful individuals, clans and families. It is that culture which produces the phenomenon of personality-based politics.

Many critics also point out that the party engaged in the age-old practice of seat adjustment with the likes of Jamaat Islaami and Sheikh Rasheed. This tactic is essentially an alliance of convenience which parties enter into to secure seats. It is rarely an alliance based on vision. The worst part is that it degrades the political process by removing the element of competition between parties.

This, however, is once again a by-product of Pakistani society. Many voters simply refuse to vote along the lines of ideology. And where there is no demand for a competition of ideas, there will be no supply of ideas. It is within this context that PTI - like all other parties - agreed to enter into seat adjustments. The difference is that with PTI, there is at least some room for ideology. With most other parties, there is little to none.

In any case, this is all set against the backdrop of elections in which many parties came to power through coercion, voter intimidation, and rigging. Gaining power through personality-based politics and seat adjustments may be short-sighted. But it doesn't compare to stealing a mandate.

PTI must use the mandate that it has gained to solidify its position and push through its policies wherever it has gained power. KP represents a major challenge in terms of security and success here will have far-reaching consequences for the rest of the country as well. KP, then, will be one of the major tests of whether PTI represents a true third way.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Reform, Revolution and Conservatism

Is reform possible?

Though it may not seem so, the upcoming elections offer a significant opportunity for change in Pakistan's political system.

On one side stand the tried and tested crop of parties. Those that have tasted power and would like nothing more than to do so again. Their constituents may differ and their strategies may diverge. But they all share the distinction of having been major forces at some level of the past government. The PPP has ruled in the centre and has kept its hold on Sindh. The PML-N has dominated Punjab. And MQM has governed Karachi with an iron fist.

On what basis do such parties campaign for votes? After all, Pakistan has lurched from one crisis to another on their watch. Whether it be an economic crisis in the form of inflation or a fiscal crisis brought on by aid dependency, the country is experiencing crises on virtually all counts.

For parties like the PPP whose constituents are largely the rural poor, election campaigning isn't much to worry about. Most of their constituents have neither the time nor the resources to understand the crises that are afflicting them and who to assign blame to. However, other parties have to deal with constituents who have the capability of understanding the quagmire that the ruling parties have thrown them in.

Faced with no track record to offer, such parties instead promise stability in a world of political uncertainty.

The constant presence of the Sharif brothers, Altaf Hussain and the Chaudhary brothers are all an attempt to remind people that change is not always a good thing and that experience in government should count for something. In short, people should vote for them because their parties have lasted and ruled the longest.

Such reasoning ignores the fact that power brings with it many benefits. One of these is the ability to manufacture legitimacy for your party. The rampant politicization within Pakistan's law enforcement agencies and judicial system means that any party in power can use the legal and judicial system to survive no matter what the wishes of the public may be. The longevity of these parties, then, may not be a reflection of the public services they provide but rather of how well they can use the system for their own sustenance.

The appeal for no change is also a clear violation of this generation's democratic right to reshape their country as they see fit. This violation is particularly acute in the case of youth that are willing to vote for someone different in the face of biradari, ethnic and family peer pressure. No generation should have to inherit the political evils of a past generation for the sake of stability. This is especially true when the previous political administration has little good to offer and much ill.

If this conservative appeal for stability and lack of change is not the requirement of the day, then what form of change is ideal? And how should it be brought about? Through reform? Or revolution?

Reform begins with a recognition that whatever needs to be reformed is capable of being saved and doesn't need total dismantling. This is ideal for Pakistan where social structures are ancient and capable of enduring whatever revolution is thrown their way. Social structures such as biradaris and pirs don't lend themselves well to a modern form of ideological politics. The only solution, then, is to layer ideology on top of such structures.

Of all the current parties, PTI is the only one that has attempted to achieve something like this. When it began bringing on board political veterans like Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Javed Hashmi, the party leadership was severely criticized for abandoning its ideology in the name of political expediency. However, it vindicated itself by holding transparent internal elections and legitimizing positions at all levels of the party. In this way, PTI reformed traditional politics by blending it with visionary politics.

Besides a willingness to work with what already exists, another advantage of incremental reform is its ability to take place without violence and coercion. In contrast to the brand of bombastic and radical politics that a figure like Tahir-Ul-Qadri advocates, incremental reform attempts to bring about change in a manner acceptable even to enemies of reform. This is because incremental reform works around political divisions through consensus-building and not violence.

When Tahir-Ul-Qadri took to the streets to demand electoral reforms, the PTI leadership was under populist pressure to join in. However, its refusal to do so was vindicated when Qadri began making anti-democratic statements and hinted at forcing the government's hand violently. This points to PTI's commitment to incremental and long-standing reform.

Change is inevitable. Hopefully, for the better. And the only mechanism that can provide this is incremental reform.

Caught between conservatism and revolutionary ideologues, PTI will stand alone on election day as the only party that has genuinely pushed for true reform.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Alliances of Convenience

In the run-up to the general elections, electoral alliances are occurring at a staggering rate.

They're taking place between the ruling PPP and its largest coalition partner, the PML (Q). The PML (N) has joined hands with a host of smaller opposition parties. Even parties with no representation in parliament - such as PTI - have joined in

Electoral alliances don't necessarily remain once elections are over. Nothing prevents a party from backing out of a ruling coalition. After the 2008 elections, the PML (N) did just that when it backed out of the government. However, it never gave up parliament. Instead, it managed to remain in opposition and continue to have its voice heard - albeit, in a less direct way. The main purpose of its electoral alliance, then, was not to form a government with the PPP and implement any sort of joint government policy. Rather, it was to grab as many parliamentary seats as possible.

It is with this view that one should analyze Pakistan's ongoing electoral alliances. They're not examples of parties wishing to implement joint policies. What use for joint policies when politics is based on individuals and not policies? Nor are such alliances examples of ideological consensus. What use for ideological consensus where there is no ideology?

In Pakistan's current political culture, electoral alliances are simply a convenient means of grabbing seats in parliament.

Is this such a bad thing? After all, a party should strive to ensure that the voices of those that it claims to represent are heard. And the parliament is one avenue for this.

The problem is that Pakistan's current batch of parliamentarians do not garner votes on the basis of any clear principles or ideology. In such a system, the only possible electoral alliance is one that is narrow and short-term.

Pakistani politics lends itself well to alliances and consensus building. There are a range of national issues that can only be solved via legitimate political consensus. One example is the issue of how to share Balouchistan's natural resources. This requires consensus between Balouchi political leadership and the rest of the country. Another example is the issue of the rights to the Indus River. What is required here is an alliance between stakeholders in Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Punjab. 

Nor is there a lack of issues requiring electoral consensus at the provincial level. The Sindh People's Local Government Ordinance revealed the tensions that exist between rural and urban Sindh regarding the distribution of administrative power in Sindh. In Punjab, the push for a Seraiki province revealed the difference in living standards between South Punjab and the rest of Punjab and the need for consensus on the distribution of Punjab's provincial resources.

The lack of progress on these issues exposes the refusal of politicians to arrive at any meaningful long-term consensus. Certainly, there are other factors that affect the success or failure of these difficult political issues. The communalism and sectarianism of Pakistani society doesn't help. Nonetheless, it is the job of political leadership to forge a consensus despite such hurdles. This responsibility becomes even more heightened when one considers the rampant illiteracy in Pakistan and the prevalence of uninformed voters. In such an environment, responsibility shifts towards the better informed in society and those with authority and resources.

Instead, the public is confronted with the ruling PPP and the PML (Q) meeting to discuss "seat adjustment". This political tactic amounts to little more than haggling and bargaining over a particular constituency and trading and swapping one constituency for another. This tradition has continued for far too long and political power is far too addictive for political parties to stop engaging in this act on their own.

As such, the responsibility falls on voters to hold their leaders accountable. Such responsibility is made easier by growing media coverage and an increasingly independent judiciary that have allowed the public to become more informed about political events. The voter is now in a better position to judge their political representative.

Ultimately, it is the average person on the street who suffers from alliances of convenience that produce no long-term social gain. When the only consensus that political parties arrive at is which constituencies they can use to gain power, such parties have already shot themselves in the foot. Voters and loyal party followers will inevitably realize the true nature of such alliances when they fail to produce long-term solutions that directly improve their lives.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

One Party to Rule Us All

What is an ideal outcome in the upcoming elections?

Everyone has their own definition of ideal. In a society so diverse and a political system so complex, can one expect anything less? Diversity and pluralism breed a range of political interests. What adds to this complexity is that most of these interests stand in direct opposition to each other.

Come election day, some will vote based on ethnicity while others on religion. Some will vote based on loyalty to a political family or to individuals like Pervez Musharraf or Pir Pagara. Some political interests are urban like those that support the MQM while others are rural like the PPP's. Some operate at the national level like PTI's while others are provincial like Punjab's PML-N. The presence of so many political interests represents a splitting of political power within society.

However, one possible election outcome could be the very opposite: a concentration of power in a single party government.

In a way, such an outcome runs counter to the very fabric of Pakistani politics. Over the past 5 years, the ruling PPP has taken the art of building and maintaining a coalition to another level.  This has strengthened the perception that coalition governments are the new Pakistani norm. Such a perception is aided by Pakistan's ethnic diversity which allows the creation of an endless variety of parties around ethnic interests. To make matters worse, there is no shortage of opportunistic politicians who have no ideology but have supporters. The many faces of the PML - N / F / Q - are one of the best examples of this. Such politicians will never allow their voices to be contained by a larger party. Instead, they represent an endless supply of coalition partners that refuse to become a permanent part of the largest party. In this way, they ensure that coalitions thrive and single-party governments remain impossible.

If forming a one-party government is so unnatural in Pakistani politics, why should it be pursued at all? For the simple reason that having a single party controlling the government increases the efficiency, effectiveness and stability of government action. And Pakistan is severely lacking on all three counts. It would mean less time spent on consensus building and more time spent actually implementing policies and laws. The policies need to be well planned and the laws need to be just. But, at the very least, there will be some sense of government attempting to govern.

A legitimate concern is that a one-party government may be unjust against smaller parties. However, elections are always available to vote the party out. Democracy should never be just about consensus-building. It should also be about the government feeling a sense of urgency in delivering upon its mandate and being voted out if it doesn't deliver. Besides elections, there is also the presence of the judiciary to hold the government accountable as well as the media.

What, however, are the chances of a one-party government forming? At least one of two events needs to occur.

Firstly, individuals need to stop identifying themselves and others on the basis of religious sects or ethnicities. This would stop the endless formation of political parties and unite people around a smaller number of parties. However, the chances of this happening in the near future are very remote. Such social change occurs across multiple generations and there is a strong possibility that it may never occur in a country as conservative as Pakistan where people identify themselves less by individual identity and more by the social group they belong to.

The second event that needs to occur is that the largest and most established parties take the initiative and transform themselves from serving a narrow section of the population to representing the concerns of the wider public. It is possible for such unifying parties and leaders to emerge even in a population that is riven by sectarianism. Such a scenario acknowledges the presence of deep divisions within society but seeks to overcome them by promoting a unifying political vision.

It remains to be seen whether such a unifying party can emerge.

The PPP has the advantage of being the largest party in power. It would seem they are the most capable of forming a one-party government. However, their brand of politics has largely consisted of building coalitions to hold onto power. The economic mismanagement that has occurred across Pakistan over the past 5 years as well as the deteriorating security situation has virtually ensured that the PPP won't have the same popular support it commanded following Benazir's death. Far from increasing its share of seats, there is a good chance they will lose power. Besides, the PPP doesn't have any semblance of an ideology that can go beyond Bhutto worship and the rural population of Sindh and Punjab.

The PML-N is the largest party after the PPP and has spent most of the past 5 years in opposition. Ideologically, it is empty and centered around the Sharif family. In terms of a national presence, it doesn't have one and its focus doesn't extend beyond urban Punjab. It has even less of a chance of forming a one-party government.

The only party that stands out in any way is PTI for it has campaigned on the basis of a truly unifying ideology. The ability of this ideology to cut across many segments of society lies in its nationalistic character. PTI's framing of US drone attacks as a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty is one of the best examples of this nationalism. And while it is true that nationalism can be a reactionary force, it is just as true that nationalism can be used to unite people divided by ethnicity. The PTI's brand of nationalism which attempts to use the philosophy of Iqbal is a far cry from the reactionary nationalism of the religious parties.

Regardless of which party forms a one-party government, it is clear that doing so would be a positive step for Pakistan's politics. It would increase the possibility of strong, and capable government. It would mean the presence of a unifying party that can cut across multiple social classes. And it may finally put an end to the ceaseless coalition building that has weakened and paralyzed so many past Pakistani governments.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Long March back to the Election Commission

Now that Dr. Tahir-Ul-Qadri's long march to Islamabad is over, one can sit back and assess its possible impact on Pakistan's democratic system.

One of the concerns that has been present from the very beginning is Qadri's source of funding for the march. To be more specific, this concern centers on the possible existence of anti-democratic forces behind Qadri. Leaving aside the fact that none of these anti-democratic allegations against Qadri have been proven, one should take care to remember what the aim of the long march was.

 Electoral reform.

This, then, would have to be the first anti-democratic movement in history whose aim was to push for electoral reform and a stronger and more independent Election Commission.

There is also the fact that thousands upon thousands of protestors took part in the march. Whatever the source of Qadri's funding, he managed to tap into a legitimate democratic sentiment of reform in bringing out so many willing people. Is it not undemocratic to doubt the sentiments of such a large number of protestors?

None of this is an attempt to defend anti-democratic forces. The point, rather, is that it is misguided to focus solely on the power behind Qadri. If, at some point in the future, some irregularity is discovered, then Qadri should be held responsible. In the meantime, it is more worthwhile to focus on the fact of the long march itself and its possible future effects.

The primary issue that the protest brought forward was that of electoral reforms. When the march was over, Qadri stressed that the reforms that the government had agreed to implement would strengthen the Election Commission. From a political development perspective, this is a positive. Political systems work best when their institutions remain autonomous and free from interference. A truly independent Election Commission would go some way towards ensuring that Pakistan's elections remain free and fair and truly represent popular will.

It remains to be seen, however, what the exact nature of the electoral reforms will be.

A simple reconfiguring of existing election laws or the introduction of new laws would add little value. Pakistan does not suffer from a lack of laws. It suffers from institutions that are too weak to impartially enforce laws. These institutions simply don't have the manpower, funding, and professionalism that is required to enforce the whole range of laws they are authorized to enforce. Whatever little law enforcement there is, is primarily geared towards the protection of powerful elites at the expense of the vast majority of the population.

On the other hand, if the electoral reforms are aimed not at creating or modifying election laws but at enforcing these laws, then the march will have been worth the effort.

Another issue that was brought forward by the protest was the setup of the caretaker government. Qadri has stated that, as part of the agreement with the government, he will have a say in the appointment of the caretaker prime minister. Handing over such power to Qadri is dangerous because it is possibly unconstitutional. According to the 20th amendment to the Constitution, only members of the government, the opposition, and the Election Commission have the authority to select a caretaker prime-minister. Of course, one can hardly hope for electoral reform when the government and the opposition get to decide the caretaker government. But that is where the Election Commission and Supreme Court come in. They have the political legitimacy to disqualify unqualified candidates. Qadri does not.

In any case, a single caretaker prime minister cannot be expected to bring about the type of systemic change that Pakistan's electoral system requires. 

And so, for all its headline-grabbing ferocity, the Islamabad long march doesn't seem like it will be able to impact Pakistan's democratic system in any appreciable way. The only hope is that the legitimacy and authority of the Election Commission may increase due to the sudden focus on electoral reform.