By Umair Javed
For some observers, 2015 marked the consolidation of power by the sitting government, and the entrenchment of the prime minister’s political position after what had been a tumultuous preceding year. The opposition’s street agitation withered away, the military chose to work through the sitting government, and electoral results were largely favourable for the incumbent party.
These trends alone, however, tell us little about democratic consolidation in Pakistan. Leaving all moral or abstract arguments in favour of democracy to one side, it makes sense to assess progress on this front for three fairly simple reasons. The first is measuring whether a country’s de facto political system conforms to its de jure goal as set out in the Constitution. The second is whether a political system is efficient and functional enough to guarantee stable expectations, demarcated authority structures, and a smooth transition of power (as and when needed). Thirdly, and this holds especially true for poor countries, is assessing if a particular power configuration offer the potential to deal with existing social fractures. In our case that would be ethnic or provincial, along with class-based and religion-based divides.
Given the year the country’s had, it’s safe to say Pakistan’s trajectory from procedural democracy — where regular elections and some freedoms are the only measure — to substantive democracy has been mixed at best.
On the basic issue of balance of power between elected and unelected institutions, the system’s stagnation is apparent. The military’s consolidated its hold over specific areas of security and foreign policy, reshaped the narrative to cast itself as the arbiter of Pakistan’s fate vis-à-vis the fight against terrorism, and has expanded its PR profile to engage in what it says is a ‘recalibration’ of governance, nationalism and religion. This is being done through direct interventions, like in Sindh, and cultural activities like public advertising, events, songs, films, and television shows. The elected government has been, at best, a passive accomplice in this expansive task.
Pakistan’s trajectory from procedural democracy to substantive democracy has been mixed at best.
The other unelected institution, the bureaucracy, has seen its powers remain largely unchecked and unreformed at the district and sub-district level in Punjab. New LG laws, and their accompanying elections, change little in the way provincial bureaucracies exercise power at the local level, and only KP has shown some progress in making bureaucrats more accountable at all levels of government. If we count representative municipal administration as a fundamental aspect of substantive democracy, Pakistan is at a considerable distance from it.
Similarly fundamental to any process of democratic consolidation is the evolution of political parties, and their ability to represent and deliver. The ruling party, at the centre and in Punjab, has shown signs of life in technological adaptation, bringing in expertise for economic development, and pursuing a particular growth vision for the country. However, on institutional evolution, it has continued to remain a tightly knit family-oriented enterprise, with little grass-roots organisation, and a heavy reliance on local strongmen and sections of the bureaucracy.
The result of this is clear — its political space for reform is limited, it frequently bypasses parliament and its own members when it comes to policy legislation, and it is unable to bring in dynamism in administration, especially in fiscal affairs.
Other mainstream parties exhibit similar tendencies. The PTI’s internal implosion due to a controversial intra-party electoral process has resulted in the creation of personality-based offices at the district and provincial level. ‘Coordinators’ appointed by the chairperson and their main financiers now manage party affairs, while costs of elections have been externalised to the candidates.
As a result, the PTI is playing PML-N’s game and is losing at it in Punjab. In KP, however, it seems to have found a more functional party-government balance that’s allowed it to carry out some reform efforts.
The PPP’s internal rot, and the blurring of lines between party patronage and the provincial government machinery in Sindh has completely destroyed its ability to deliver, or to effectively market itself as a party capable of both representing and delivering. While the army’s moral crusade against corruption and bad governance continues, there is little chance that the party is capable of wresting the narrative or the momentum to clean house itself. The core reason here is that as with any patronage-based system, the misuse of authority and state resources is now crucial for the party’s survival. Finally, on the issue of resolving basic political divides and delivering social justice, limited progress has often been followed by regressive tendencies. Centre-province relations, laid out by the 18th Amendment and the political consensus of the previous tenure, look tumultuous.
The CCI remains underused, especially on matters of large-scale infrastructure development, and the military’s push for control in Karachi (passively assisted by the centre) has raised issues of provincial autonomy once again. As acrimony grows, the fragile federalist structure may give way to centralising tendencies, and hence, political conflict once more.
On the social justice front, the year ended with the announcement of a national health insurance scheme for 3.2 million of the poorest households in Pakistan. In a country where healthcare for life-threatening diseases is seldom available, this is a tremendous initiative, and the government deserves a round of applause for this and for its continued focus on providing mass-transit solutions in urban areas.
Scant attention, however, has been paid by any tier of government to the issue of dignified employment, access to affordable housing, and the quality of education being provided in government schools.
As these elected governments near the end of their third year in office, there remains a lot still to be done for more substantive democratisation. Here’s to hoping they’re up to the task in whatever time’s left.
The writer is a freelance columnist.
Dawn, January 4, 2016