In the summer of 1988, I conducted field research in Mexico after my first year in graduate school in the US. This coincided with the elections in Mexico in which there were widespread allegations regarding electoral fraud by the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). It was accused of stealing the elections from the leftist candidate, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas.
That historical defeat has finally been vindicated by the recent victory by the progressive candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador against the PRI in Mexico. AMLO’s (as he is popularly called) persistence in continuing to participate in elections in 2006 (when he also alleged electoral fraud), 2012 and now in 2018 shows a certain determination toward working within the democratic process even when the state machinery is bent on denying you the space to organise and continue your legitimate struggle. Cardenas, who is 84, must have finally felt vindicated.
This memory of Cardenas’ defeat and the recent victory of AMLO’s progressive coalition raised pertinent questions for me regarding the current political climate in Pakistan. The present situation in Pakistan also reminds me of the early 1990s, again during my graduate studies, when I worked as a human-rights monitor for the UN in El-Salvador.
The zealous pursuit of power by the major political parties of Pakistan has obscured their moral fulcrums. In the face of adversity, is there an alternative?
This was a time when El-Salvador was going through a brutal civil war with left-wing guerrillas and democracy activists on one side, and a government supported by the elite and the military on the other. Our mission was to oversee the peace process brokered by the UN that would lead to free and democratic elections. The last two decades have seen El-Salvador witnessing a series of elections that has led to some of the ex-leftist militants being elected and forming governments. It is still a country with many social and economic problems, but a new generation of Salvadorans has grown up without the memory of the violence the country witnessed in the 1970s and 1980s. Despite problems (and they are severe), some political groups have continued to struggle for the betterment of their country without losing their moral fulcrum.
Central American politics remains somewhat distinct from our own political history, where also, there have been major hiccups in the institutionalisation of democracy. Much has been written on these pages about the restriction of political space, the influence of the proverbial “hidden hand” and the overzealous judiciary during the current election cycle. On the contrary, there needs to be an analysis of what our own democratic political groups are presenting as an alternative in terms of ethical politics.
Here, I am not merely speaking about “corruption” — the bogey word on everyone’s lips — but about the long-term political space that is being envisioned by our mainstream political parties. For a future that addresses issues related to economic equity, social justice and the consolidation of civilian institutions (the supremacy of the parliament), perhaps similar to what the guerrillas in the mountains and plains of El-Salvador were demanding more than 25 years ago, similar to what Cardenas talked about in 1988 and similar to what Obrador is insisting on today. Being excluded from the political process was a price they paid, yet they did not give up their ethical political positions in the face of adversity; they did not compromise.
In contrast, in Pakistan we find the PPP pragmatically muting its political rhetoric so that it can avoid the “line of fire” and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s (PTI) captain —after campaigning for years for clean politics — is openly embracing “electables” in a pragmatic move that claims that it is the only way to assume power in a place like Pakistan. This desire to ascend to power is not surprising coming from Imran Khan. His sudden increase in popularity in 2011-2012 opened a new chapter in Pakistan’s political landscape. Despite many apprehensions about what his party actually stood for, its surge in popular appeal brought a younger generation of potential voters into the political arena. There was also a move among disaffected prominent political figures from other parties to drift towards PTI and the party, for the first time, became a political player in 2013 when general elections were last held in Pakistan.
The taste of power (the government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and some seats in the parliament, yet the disappointment in not being able to decisively defeat the PML-N in Punjab (that is all that matters these days and perhaps PTI was “promised” more) has made Imran Khan feel that this year is his “turn”, come what may. Hence, PTI has opened its door to the traditional elite, especially in rural Punjab, and hopes that they would help increase the captain’s chances.
This process is analogous to how, in the late ’60s, many joined the PPP under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s leadership. Then too, while starting with a group of young members, mostly middle-class professionals and with support from left-wing student groups, Bhutto by the mid-’70s eventually attracted the Pirs, Makhdooms, Chaudhrys and Khans. The democratic vision and populism of his early years, faded quickly and there was a subsequent authoritarian turn in his politics.
A crucial difference between the PTI and that earlier incarnation of the PPP is programmatic vision. The PPP, with all its flaws and revisionist tendencies, still holds a promise of being the largest centre-left party in the federation (the others are Awami National Party and the Awami Workers Party).
Bhutto’s government, despite its populist rhetoric and genuine attempts to institute reform in Pakistan’s cultural, economic and political life, ended up harassing and persecuting political opposition within and outside the party, from the left or from the right of the political spectrum. The PPP, although it still has a number of sincere people in its midst, has not been able to regain the respect it garnered in the early ’70s.
No one can predict what future trajectory PTI’s populism will take. Yet, I seek to raise a cautionary note about the contours of populist politics. Populism revolves around a charismatic figure and has historically given rise to authoritarian and undemocratic governance structures. In their desire to succeed, populists tend to be less ideologically focused and pragmatically accept a range of political actors in their parties, many from the established elite circles. If this happens, as the trends show, it may come to haunt the PTI, much as it unmoored the PPP from its earlier more inclusive and democratic history.
A crucial difference between the PTI and that earlier incarnation of the PPP however, is programmatic vision. The PPP, with all its flaws and revisionist tendencies, still holds a promise of being the only centre-left party in the federation. The PPP’s latest manifesto is a reincarnation of its ’60s slogan of Roti, Kaprra Aur Makaan (food, clothing and housing) with the added line Ilm, Sehat, Sab Ko Kaam (education, health and employment for all). The PTI has finally come out with a manifesto with the usual pronouncements of such documents, yet Imran Khan keeps on harping about efficient systems, orderly management, maximising profit and curbing waste. This is part of the lingua franca of contemporary global capital and “best business practices” from which the PTI chief borrows heavily and dresses it in a language of cultural nationalism (in this sense Imran Khan is not different from the Sharifs).
In his speeches Imran Khan praises Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia and Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, who may have enabled their respective countries to become “economic power houses”, but their records have been one of authoritarian rulers with strong undemocratic tendencies. Perhaps such pronouncements by the PTI chief can be excused as mere performance in front of large crowds. But it may also point toward an underlying thought process that in its populist rendering encapsulates an elite agenda, which merely knows how to fix problems through the application of correct technocratic solutions and not through consensus building. This is evident by his dismal record of attendance in parliament (close to five percent, he has little patience or respect for others’ points of view) and wants to rely on “electables” rather than trusting his own cadres. He alone knows what is best for Pakistan and how the system works; he knows how the “masses vote” and he cannot take any chances. Elitist arrogance is part and parcel of the Imran Khan phenomena.
Nawaz Sharif may feel like a victim today, but there is no soul searching or remorse about his own role in destabilising earlier-elected governments in collusion with the powers that be, whose own prodigy he once was.
It is the same for the Sharif’s. It is ironic that in terms of a politics or technocratic fixes, the Sharif’s are very similar to their arch rival, Imran Khan. Nawaz Sharif may feel like a victim today, but there is no soul searching or remorse about his own role in destabilising earlier-elected governments in collusion with the powers that be, whose own prodigy he once was. People can change, we can concede that, but Nawaz and his brother have always believed in politics from above where the parliamentary procedure and process is best avoided. Nawaz, too, seldom entered the National Assembly during his tenure in office and mega-development projects and technocratic interventions micro-managed by Shahbaz and his coterie of chosen men (and they were mostly men) was the order of the day in Punjab. Despite their slogan of “vote ko izzat do [respect the vote]”, Nawaz and his close associates have, in the past, been masters at electoral manipulation and backroom deals.
Despite these elitist tendencies, in the ’70 elections and perhaps in 2008 we clearly saw that, when given a chance, the Pakistani people freely voted for their own representatives. The political task may be to deepen the democratic impulse that is present in Pakistan’s populace, rather than disrespect them. Further, in all cases, the leadership of these parties tend to forget that whenever they have trusted non-civilian forces to assist them into power, they have always been betrayed. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, sided with the governing junta in ’70-71 and even became the first civilian martial law administrator of a truncated country; no reminders are needed about his fate. Nawaz Sharif was created by the regime in power in the ’80s; he was sent packing once and debarred the second time. And now Imran hopes that the “umpire” will favour him; history has repeatedly shown that such trust is misplaced.
The civilians may want to finally understand this and start developing a consensus and a vision of ethical politics that adheres to guidelines that puts the success of building a democratic process and strengthening institutions above and beyond their own personal success. The challenge remains to address the issues that are pertinent to the lives of the people, such as poverty, health, education and housing. But this should not be at the cost of democratic freedoms or cultural rights. If the PTI, or any other political group, truly wants to deepen democracy in Pakistan, they need to
bring these several threads of political practice together — respect for cultural and religious difference, economic justice and civic liberties. Only then, a more meaningful democratic future can be imagined, the kind that Obrador is about to embark on.
The writer teaches at University of Texas, Austin
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 22nd, 2018