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.

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