Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


Political instability

November 07, 2017


WE are facing political instability yet again. Such instability is common even in rich states like Italy and Israel where un­wieldy coalitions are common. But there the way out of it is clear and democratic: fresh polls. So, Israel has one every two to three years.

In Pakistan, instability is deeper. It doesn’t emerge from coalition spats and affects even regimes with solid majorities, like now. The trigger is usually a clash of institutions between elected regimes and the military or judiciary. Soon not only the former but even the system starts looking vulnerable. It becomes unclear whether the transition will be via legal means or the whims of strong institutions.

It is common to blame this instability on politicians’ follies. But this logic looks thin in looking at other lower-income states. Politicians’ follies there are similar to ours but most of them don’t have such instability. Unelected institutions don’t take advantage of these follies to derail the system to further their own aims. They recognise that these follies reflect not just the bad characters of politicians but more structurally the weaknesses of society that will take time to reduce gradually via regular polls and civil society action. So, they are patient with the system.

But in Pakistan these follies are viewed in isolation, sans regional comparisons, to argue that our politicians and democratic system carry exceptional faults, which must be fixed via exceptional means. Comparisons are done ineptly with developed states to condemn our system. In the 1990s, unelected institutions (military, judiciary and bureau­cracy) overtly dismissed assemblies often following concerted campaigns by loyal analysts and journalists to paint the illusion of a complete meltdown of the system.

The buzz now is about a technocracy.

Since 2008, things have become more covert with no unnatural dismissals of assemblies, but only of prime ministers via dodgy verdicts. Yet, political instability has often emerged. The pattern is as cyclical as in the 1990s: every two to three years an institutional tiff; pet anchors and analysts predicting impending doom based on dodgy analysis; smaller parties threatening sit-ins; leakages emerging that supposedly threaten national security; ISPR’s veiled hints and then a policy retreat by politicians.

The real cause is not political incom­petence but overambition of the leaders of unelected institutions, especially generals. Even if they don’t plan a coup, their frequent forays into civilian matters keep analysts and smaller parties plotting in hope of a favourable response from the kingmakers. This pressure doesn’t reduce political incompetence but only worsens it by creating paralysis. Clearly, Nawaz Sharif’s iffy past, his refusal to be accountable and unnecessary confrontation, has contributed hugely too. Justice in Panama is essential for furthering democracy. But plots to undermine the whole system in the name of dodgy alternatives are unhelpful.

The buzz now is about a technocracy. Even many lay persons see it as a panacea. In technocracies, experts with technical knowledge in scientific fields rule instead of elected persons. This impresses many as it suggests that technocrats will take decisions based on merit and not politics, which would ensure progress. But this is an illusion.

Governance includes politics and admi­nistration. Politics involves negotiations and compromise among society’s major classes and ethnicities by politicians to develop laws and policies that all follow. Administration is then about delivering services under these laws via bureaucrats and technocrats. Poli­­­­­tics is much more difficult, especially in deeply divided so­cieties like ours. In developed states, it still succeeds in en­suring compromises and developing suf­ficient laws that most follow. In politically unde­veloped societies, laws are insufficient given lack of compro­mise and even those which exist are routinely broken.

Thus, there is more space for successful administration and technocrats in deve­loped states. So, even our best technocrats work in developed states or global orga­ni­sations. But technocrats excel only in closed-ended jobs where no politics is involved, challenges are technical and solutions easy. Laws are sufficient and followed by everyone since they are all under the administrative control of technocrats.

To think that technocrats excelling in such jobs will excel in the open-ended politics of divided societies is like thinking that a child who can navigate a bike in a park can also navigate a motorbike in old Lahore. Thrust into political jobs and confronted with the no-holds-barred politics of a deeply divided, politicised and ferocious society like Pakistan, technocrats will sit like hapless baboons as they go through their manuals and check lists to desperately find technical solutions for deeply political issues. They will be as successful as aspirin is in curing cancer.

The writer is a senior fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.

Published in Dawn, November 7th, 2017