Perils of authoritarianism

Updated July 31, 2019

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The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”George Orwell

ONE year down the road our second democratic transition remains contentious. Last week marked the first anniversary of the 2018 elections. For the PTI, it was a commemoration of a day of deliverance but the opposition parties observed it as a black day; according to them, it was the day the electoral mandate was stolen.

In a show of political strength, the combined opposition held protest rallies across the country, though the blackout by the electronic media minimised the impact of the events. Pushed to the wall, the opposition parties now threaten to storm the capital, vowing to bring down the government thus heightening political confrontation.

Surely, the second consecutive democratic transition has not taken the country to what it promised. One year on, the country is politically more polarised and unstable. The democratic space has shrunk with freedom of expression being curtailed. The media has lost whatever independence and freedom it had enjoyed. The stand-off between the government and the opposition has rendered parliament totally ineffective.

Many top opposition leaders, including a former prime minister, are behind bars; another former prime minister and a former president are in custody; others are being hunted down. Populism has now increasingly turned into authoritarianism. Pakistan under Prime Minister Imran Khan presents some striking similarities to other populist regimes.

Yet his party does not have the same kind of strong popular political support base and control over the civilian bureaucracy and state institutions as other populist leaders may have. Imran Khan leads a fragile coalition government confronted with enormous domestic and external challenges. His weakness also makes him more authoritarian.

One year down the road, there has been deterioration instead of improvement in governance.

Since the PTI is not a well-organised political party with a strong grass-roots level structure, it cannot on its own provide the kind of base required for an authoritarian order. There is also no clear political ideology except for populist rhetoric that could make it a cadre-based party. PTI support revolves almost entirely around Imran Khan’s personal charisma and popular appeal, though that too is diminishing.

For these reasons, Imran Khan has appeared extremely dependent on the security establishment and the intelligence agencies. The security leadership too has a stake in the preservation of the PTI government. Given this situation, it is not surprising to see the military shadow hovering over the political spectrum.

Although the security establishment has historically been the determinant of Pakistan’s foreign and national security policy, it is unprecedented for an army chief to be part of the prime minister’s delegation for talks at the White House. But the establishment’s footprint is visible in certain government departments — the army chief is also a member of the newly established Economic Development Committee. Even a large part of the national media is seen as under the influence of the military’s information department.

Pakistan in the past has witnessed direct military rule or the security establishment being part of the power troika under civilian governments; there is now more of a system of diarchy in place. The balance of power is likely to tilt more towards the establishment with the growing problems of governance and deepening financial crisis.

But the weakening of civilian authority has its own perils, particularly in a federal system. It cannot provide the kind of political stability needed to meet the variety of challenges the country faces. Of course, one cannot expect the revival of the economy and structural reforms in an environment of perpetual political confrontation. Authoritarianism will further exacerbate political instability.

Elected civilian leaders like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif (in his first two terms), too, had tried to establish authoritarian rule with the help of the civilian establishment and law-enforcement agencies but with disastrous consequences, allowing the military to get back in power. But with Imran Khan, it is a different situation with the security establishment behind him, though there remains the possibility of things getting out of control.

Imran Khan came to power on the promise of establishing the rule of law, strengthening institutions and providing good governance. One year down the road, there has been deterioration instead of improvement in governance. The civil bureaucracy because of its fear of being hunted by NAB is not willing to implement any government decision. The much-promised institutional reforms have yet to be initiated largely because of the prime minister’s one-dimensional so-called anti-corruption agenda.

The entire accountability process being carried out by NAB has become questionable because of its selective targeting of the opposition. One must agree that corruption is a major issue hindering progress but the growing perception of a political witch-hunt in the name of accountability only protects the most corrupt.

As in all authoritarian regimes, the media is also the main target of attack by the PTI government. Interestingly, Imran Khan owes his own rise to power to an independent media. No political leader has received such wide media coverage as Imran Khan when he was in the opposition. The 24/7 television coverage of his four-month-long dharna in Islamabad in 2014 got him a political platform that no other political leader could have ever dreamed of.

Now his government cannot even tolerate the coverage of opposition rallies. It’s more a sign of weakness than strength. What the Khan government does not understand is that in this age of social media, such restrictions are counterproductive. What can only be described as unannounced media censorship has become the biggest blot on the PTI’s democratic credentials. The move to establish so-called media courts is also a part of the government’s anti-media campaign.

It appears that for the government, every independent voice is suspect and should be silenced. Now the government wants to investigate whether the media has been receiving funds from the opposition. But the PTI must also explain who had funded the uninterrupted 24/7 coverage of its 2014 dharna. Imran Khan should learn from our own history that authoritarianism has its own perils and comes with a heavy political price. The writer is an author and journalist.

The writer is an author and journalist.

zhussain100@yahoo.com

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, July 31st, 2019