State of democracy

26 Jun 2018


THE elections are upon us. The campaign season is under way, as is endless punditry. All important and fascinating — but coming at the cost of the only question that really matters beyond elections: what does all this mean for the country?

Pakistan is approaching its second successive democratic transition. The data point is important. For long, there has been an argument that consolidating democracy here requires three to four successive terms of civilian rule. The logic flows directly from the theory of democratic consolidation which highlights uninterrupted rule by legitimately elected governments as an indicator of the strength of democracy in a country. The premise: as democratic transitions become more predictable and stable, undemocratic governance options become unrealistic and obsolete; people and politicians generate greater trust in the sanctity and fairness of the democratic system; and crucially, the system begins to sift out the corrupt and incompetent and, instead, rewards those willing to move beyond short-term selfish interests. Upshot: improved governance and economic performance.

Put the theory to the test and you’ll find mixed empirical evidence. There are countries whose experience conforms but others where merely democratic continuity didn’t translate into appreciably better governance outcomes. The probability of success tends to be linked to two factors: (i) democratically elected governments, no matter how poorly performing, are accepted as the only game in town. Undemocratic choices or influences are no longer considered viable; and (ii) on-time democratic transitions become predictable and do not end up in witch hunts against the losing side in polls.

Neither holds up in Pakistan’s case. Ever since the Panama crisis escalated, the belief has been that non-political forces are directly or indirectly gaming the political system. From the theory’s perspective, the problem is neither that a sitting prime minister was ousted — in a parliamentary system, an in-house change doesn’t necessarily qualify as an interruption of the system — nor that conspiracy theories make it impossible to determine what really is happening. The real issue is the belief itself that institutions other than parliament wield the leverage to disrupt the organic political process and orchestrate political outcomes. The Nawaz Sharif-establishment duel has led to this belief. There has been an aura of uncertainty. While it seems more and more likely that polls will take place on time, this hasn’t been a foregone conclusion.

The system favours those playing the politics of patronage.

Put mildly, Pakistan isn’t following the optimal trajectory posited by democratic consolidation theory. Uncertainty and unpredictability remain entrenched and till they do, they will tend to skew political incentives towards short-term parochial gains. This would imply a more protracted journey from uninterrupted civilian rule to mature politics and improved governance.

There are also voices more willing to put their faith in individual messiahs as a route to good governance. The typical Pakistani version is that what we really need is an honest leader willing to work in the national interest. This line of thinking isn’t without precedent. A prominent strand of comparative politics literature sees individuals as real-change agents and stresses their centrality in charting the destiny of nations. The rise of countries like Singapore, South Korea, etc is often owed to such charismatic leaders.

But it isn’t clear how such a person is to emerge. The political system in Pakistan is rigged in favour of those willing to play patronage politics. No amount of street credibility or individual honesty has been able to break the pattern. Imran Khan is an example. After years of resisting, he has made the same compromise Nawaz Sharif of yesteryear did: bank on status quo power institutions and on electables. We have also tried military rulers — right-wing and liberal and ones ostensibly financially clean. Nothing seems to work.

The reality is that Pakistani rulers face structural constraints so entrenched that it is impossible to circumvent them. Any ruler must work with a minority of the national resource pie to cater to the development needs of 200 million. Everything else goes towards administrative expenses, debt servicing, and defence. Even the most visionary leader would have to work with a public sector whose capacity is abysmal, and within the constraints of a national security and foreign policy paradigm that stymies innovation.

Even the best individuals need the system to open up. For that, democratic consolidation is necessary. But the argument for it continues to weaken if uninterrupted civilian rule doesn’t produce better outcomes within a reasonable period. This is the paradox we face. The next elections will likely produce more of the same.

The writer is author of Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: U.S. Crisis Management in South Asia (Stanford University Press, 2018).

Published in Dawn, June 26th, 2018