A gift from Panama

Published April 11, 2016
The writer is a freelance columnist.
The writer is a freelance columnist.

LET’s start off with first-order concerns. Politicians and state officials stashing money offshore or using shell companies to avoid taxes may or may not be illegal, but it is certainly unethical. Those aspiring for public office are, in evolved countries at least, held at a higher moral standard than everyone else. The legitimacy of the political system and buy-in of the citizens it governs is based on this very notion. Put simply, why would I act in accordance with a social contract when those tasked with enforcing it follow a completely different set of rules?

Using this logic as a starting point, the information revealed by the Panama Papers leak puts the prime minister and his family in a morally ambiguous position. The source of funds may or may not be legal, but the action of keeping it somewhere else — hidden using financial and logistical wizardry — is ethically dubious. It is thus in the long-term interest of Pakistan’s political system that the political opposition maintains public pressure for full disclosure, highlights where the illegality has taken place, and helps in building a culture of probity for those holding state office.

This brings us to second-order concerns. Some may use this episode to highlight how corruption and the power held by corrupt individuals is one of the biggest issues plaguing the country’s politics. In my view, the spectre of corruption in and through politics is merely a symptom of a more fundamental problem — that of weak political parties.

Does the aftermath of the Panama Papers show just how little Pakistan’s political system has evolved?

Here’s how this plays out: a weak political party is one which is dominated by a few powerful individuals; possesses no formal organisational structure; has a loose hierarchy based on proximity to the leadership; has no clear-cut path for promotion of lower-tier activists; has little grass-roots presence and identification with voters; behaves in an ad hoc manner (often on the whims of those at the top); and is not wedded to a coherent economic and social agenda. Any combination of these characteristics would define nearly every mainstream party in the country.

Now because these parties are weak as institutions, the leadership relies on already powerful/wealthy/influential individuals to win elections. These individuals thus use public office to hold on to and reproduce their social and economic advantages, thus greatly diluting external pressure from voters to deliver services. Secondly, because the party, its leadership and its elected members have varying degrees of commitment to broad-based agendas, there is no concerted internal pressure to deliver effectively. This combination results in a situation that is characterised by its unaccountable and thus sub-optimal nature.

In historical terms, it explains why we see so many of the same faces being elected repeatedly, why — as someone writing on these pages recently highlighted — so much of our political elite belongs to the upper-most tier of the economic pyramid, and why public office is used for private gain by such a large number of people.

The weakness of our political parties also manifests itself in the sycophantic and at times almost comical defence of the leadership by those close to them, those aspiring for bigger office, and those who see no difference between supporting a party and its agenda, and supporting an individual.

Since the leaks gained traction in local news media, a coterie of PML-N legislators and advisers has been going around offering a range of excuses. The most sensible out of these have employed the ‘nothing illegal per se’ defence, while a range of others use everything from mass conspiracy to ‘the others do it too’. Going by the way the political system has evolved, this stupidity is understandable. If someone’s career prospects are tied to subservient adherence, rather than exhibiting competence, independence of thought and political acumen, this is the likely end product.

If all this had taken place in a political context where parties are reasonably strong, such as the case in the UK, the result would’ve been much more varied. Some would have defended the leadership by using recourse to the law; others would have raised questions by reading the public mood, while some would have taken the opportunity to launch a bid at greater power within the party by denouncing incumbents and claiming moral certitude.

This is imperfect for a number of other reasons, but at least it creates space within the system for long-term stability and progress.

So does the aftermath of the Panama Papers show just how little Pakistan’s political system has evolved? Well, yes and no. There’s little evolution within parties and the nature of political elites the electorate has to choose between. This is without doubt a function of, amongst other things, the military’s repeated interference in the political system. However, there is a silver lining for those on the lookout.

Had this happened in the 1990s, the odds of any concerted backlash would have been much less. The bigger pressure then would have been whether this could be used by the military to reassert itself in the political scene. The difference now is that there is a political opposition that can take this up coherently and build public opinion around it.

To a certain extent, this seems to have already worked. The commission, while highly imperfect in its conception, is proof of the notion that something ‘needs to be done’ about this. It may end up as eyewash, but even the urgency to carry one out is evolution. Given another couple of election cycles, we may arrive at a situation where governments, and political parties in general, grow to be a lot more responsive and concerned about how they appear in the public eye.

The writer is a freelance columnist.


Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, April 11th, 2016



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