When the elite fight

Oct 26 2019


The writer is director at a strategic consulting firm based in Washington D.C.
The writer is director at a strategic consulting firm based in Washington D.C.

FROM the democracies of Europe to the kingdoms of the Gulf, almost every nation-state has intrigue and conflict within its ruling elite. In democracies, the conflict is resolved through the regular democratic process, with independent institutions making sure that the rules of the game are followed.

The process is less transparent in authoritarian regimes, but observers paying attention know if and when conflict occurs. In transitional democracies, where the independence of institutions remains weak, the conflict can play out over a long period of time, often descending into a Machiavellian contest where the victor gets to keep a firm grip on power for a long time to come. In all three cases, when the process to resolve the conflict drags on, instability, both political and economic, increases. Countries undergoing this prolonged elite conflict quickly find themselves falling behind the rest of the world in terms of both social and economic indicators.

The fact that too much conflict among elites draws their attention away from the daily task of policymaking, governance, and legislation should not be surprising. Plagued with daily battles for control and power, both through legitimate and illegitimate means, elites quickly begin to lose focus on key areas of national interest and reform. The desire to gain or maintain control leads them to view policy from a narrow perspective where personal or institutional interest becomes conflated with national interest.

The desire to gain or maintain control leads them to view policy from a narrow perspective.

Pakistan’s history since independence has been plagued with an ongoing conflict among and between civilian and non-civilian elites. The first major flashpoint was the imposition of martial law soon after the country’s independence; the second was the break-up of East Pakistan and the formation of Bangladesh; the third was Bhutto’s hanging and the dark period of Zia’s dictatorship; the fourth began with the tug of power between Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto and culminated in the Musharraf dictatorship; and the ongoing crisis began soon after democracy was restored in 2008 and is still playing out.

The upcoming dharna by Maulana Fazlur Rehman, a cleric with dubious democratic credentials, should be viewed within the contest of this ongoing elite conflict. The playbook is the same irrespective of who the elite faction is: they claim that their faction represents the interest of the downtrodden masses that are struggling to make ends meet; that the ruling faction came to power through illegitimate means and must pack up and go; and that they will protest until their demands are met. The ensuing protests seek to maximise instability in key parts of the country, especially the capital. Based on the evolving situation, non-political elites play off one faction against the other to guard and maximise their interests, and the issue drags on until a tenuous ceasefire is reached and the factions retreat — only to fight another day.

This conflict is less about the future of the country, the socioeconomic benefit of the masses, and the country’s standing in the world, and more about who gets to keep control over the resources of a country where patronage and rent-seeking is the only way to maintain a grip on power.

As this elite conflict has dragged on, Pakistan as a country has continued to fall behind the rest of the world. Poorly educated and skilled, malnourished, and struggling to make ends meet, most of Pakistan’s citizens have seen their standards of living remain stagnant, if not erode, over the course of this century. The most recent IMF programme, a necessity due to the elites’ inability to meaningfully reform the economy, has only compounded problems for the masses.

Meaningful reform, both political and economic, is all but impossible under the current situation. An example is the failure to privatise loss-making state-owned organisations like the PIA and Steel Mills. The process is opposed by the elites in political parties when they are in opposition but is supported by the same set of actors when they come to power. Facing an opposition that is trying to weaken the government, the process does not move forward, mainly due to fear that the upheaval caused by privatisation would open the door for opponents to weaken the government and take power away from the rulers.

Another example is devolution of power to the grass-roots level. Every political party talks about devolution in its manifesto and while power was devolved to the provinces, it has not been devolved to the cities and municipalities in a suitable way. The reason? Real devolution would take power away from parties at the provincial and central level and give it to the masses, inflicting significant costs in both political and economic terms on elites who benefit from the status quo.

Pakistan’s inability to enact meaningful reform that benefits a broad spectrum of society must be viewed within the context of this elite conflict. The art and science of economic development almost wholly depends on the capacity and ability of ruling elites to execute policies, flawed as they might be. But this capacity and ability is curtailed when elites are settling scores among themselves and trying to use patronage and rents to buy the loyalty necessary to stay in power.

The masses, yearning for change, have been nothing more than mere pawns in this game of thrones. Their interests are quickly forgotten when any faction finds itself occupying the seat of power, and the cycle repeats itself as another faction promises them change, only to abandon them once it reaches the top.

What is needed in Pakistan is a consensus among elites on key aspects of economic development and nation-building. Policies related to skills development, education, healthcare, and industrial production need a broad consensus. A new set of rules must be set, one that ideally seeks to isolate and get rid of corrupt and unethical practices across institutions and political parties. If this does not happen, Pakistan will go on muddling along and continue to fall behind the rest of the world.

The writer is director at a strategic consulting firm based in Washington D.C.

Published in Dawn, October 26th, 2019