Political engineering

April 29, 2018


IMAGINE for a moment that you are a highly qualified political engineer, and have been given the assignment of derailing a country’s journey to becoming a functioning democracy.

Your employer is the national establishment, which has allies that include the military, the right-wing and religious political parties, sections of the media, and opportunists who are always waiting in the wings for political turmoil. Opposing you are the dwindling grouping of centrist and left-of-centre parties, civil society and a handful of liberal journalists.

What has given your assignment a degree of urgency are the approaching general elections. Although you would appear to have overwhelming firepower on your side, the joker in the pack is public opinion. Unfortunately for your boss, a centrist party appears to be very popular with the electorate, so you need to cut it down to size.

In the old days, it would have been a simple matter to launch a coup, and for the army to take over. But now, unconstitutional intervention is frowned upon, and for the last many years, the security establishment has called the shots without feeling the need to emerge from the shadows.

So how do you reduce a party’s popular appeal to ensure the result your employer is calling for? Firstly, you go after the popular, right-of-centre party’s leader by first encouraging his main rival to launch a movement that culminates in the top court hearing a case of corruption and money-laundering. What nails him, however, is the accusation that he had an iqama that permitted him to travel to a nearby emirate without requiring a visa each time. There is no evidence that he benefited financially.

Many channels and newspapers swiftly fall into line.

But even though the leader is duly disqualified, while his rival is exonerated on similar charges, the former remains popular. What next? To show him who’s boss, his party-led coalition in one province is toppled, and his rivals succeed in installing their own chief minister. In a turn of the screw, the speaker of the Senate is also an unknown figure; in his election, both opponents of the popular party combine, supposedly on ‘orders from the top’.

TV chat shows have become increasingly powerful in shaping the national discourse, and in humiliating all and sundry. Many anchors are pressed into service to rubbish the reputation of the leader. Many channels and newspapers swiftly fall into line; the one popular TV channel that doesn’t is effectively blocked.

Social media activists, while of small relevance to the project at hand, must be curbed. So to send a signal to the whole community, some of them are ‘disappeared’ and forcibly made to see the error of their ways. Others are accused of blasphemy by friendly TV channels and bloggers, shutting them up forever. Few protesters wish to face the death penalty for the sake of their convictions.

Luckily, the leader of a much-reduced national party that once was anti-military is now playing ball with the establishment. He knows that only by having a seat at the high table will he have the kind of protection he requires to fend off the kind of corruption charges his rival faces.

The problem of forming a coalition between him and the main rival — a charismatic but divisive figure — is that the latter had dismissed the possibility of working with somebody he has always accused of being massively corrupt. But ambition can work wonders in creating odd partnerships. The establishment can’t afford the luxury of allowing principles to get in its way.

With the elections approaching, your employer is demanding a guarantee they will go his way. If they don’t, you stand to lose a hefty part of your consultancy fees. So maybe the time has come to play hardball. By applying the same constitutional provision that calls for parliamentarians to be ‘honest and righteous’ that was used against the leader, one of his closest colleagues is disqualified.

Sadly, there is now too much public scrutiny of polling stations to indulge in massive rigging. And the leader’s brother is running the country’s biggest province, so that makes things harder. However, he and the prime minister will be replaced soon by caretakers. The aim now is to make them democracy’s undertakers.

You had thought that by nailing the rulers on corruption charges, you would so tarnish them that they would be toxic to voters. Amazingly, this has not happened, leading you (and the main rival) to understand that, for most voters, taking a commission is not a mortal sin. In fact, they expect their leaders to make money on the side, provided they deliver on the basics. And the leader and his brother have delivered: why else would they be popular after the massive campaign you have run against them?

So despite having done everything a political engineer could, the elections are still up in the air. Who knew this would be such a tricky assignment?


Published in Dawn, April 29th, 2018