March of interests or ideas?

November 04, 2019

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The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

THE JUI-F’s march to and as yet unspecified sojourn in the capital has instigated considerable debate around issues of political stability, civil-military relations, and the health and future of democracy in Pakistan. It has also invigorated a particularly fertile (normative) debate among liberal/progressive sections of the commentariat on the value, if any, the march may serve towards the democratisation of the Pakistani state, especially considering the regressive and exclusionary tendencies that tend to populate Islamist politics in the country.

Some of these issues are worth parsing through, not necessarily because this march is going to result in some drastic change to the political system, but because Islamist parties like the JUI-F are reasonably well entrenched, and any type of political future will likely see them remain as key stakeholders.

The first question worth raising here is abstract in nature — can a march led by a religious party that excludes women from participation, and one that raises flammable conspiratorial discourse regarding minority communities, be considered a vehicle for democracy?

The answer is contingent on the definition of democracy deployed. It would be ‘yes’ if one takes a narrow procedural view of democracy, which involves basic adherence to constitutional principles on free and fair elections and civil-military relations. The history of Islamist politics across much of the Muslim world shows such movements and parties playing a key role in democratic mobilisation (of excluded populations), often against ‘secular’ authoritarian governments. While the outcomes have only occasionally been successful — with authoritarian clampdowns and repression being far more common — it would be incorrect to assert that religious parties are somehow hardwired against democratic politics.

Is the JUI-F, specifically in its current incarnation, a vehicle for procedural democracy?

However, if one deploys a wider definition of democracy to include liberal principles of inclusion, tolerance, and equality in the experience of citizenship, then religious parties are more often than not a vehicle for regression rather than progress. This would be true even on the broader issue of women’s right to vote and participate in political processes, which are not liberal values per se.

The second question worth asking here is empirical in nature — is the JUI-F, specifically in its current incarnation, a vehicle for procedural democracy? In simpler terms, is its current incentive structure and ideational worldview capable of serving constitutional goals?

The answer here is decidedly mixed, at least in my view. Other, far more astute observers have highlighted that there’s nothing in the JUI-F’s current (or even past) political dispensation that suggests a deviation from its present ‘pro-democracy’ position. The party remains a legitimate stakeholder, given its electoral history, and is now challenging an unequal civil-military imbalance. None of this, according to one interpretation of the march, is at odds with the party’s intellectual and practical disposition.

I think it’s possible to both complicate this analysis, while finding some grounds for agreement. The push for any change to the political status quo is always determined by both the ideas and the interests of those making that push. In the case we have today, if we (crudely) assume that the status quo is the ‘hybrid’ nature of the regime, and the desired change is greater space for opposition parties, this can be largely explained by the incentive structure facing the JUI-F.

The party has suffered considerable electoral setbacks in recent years due to the rise of the PTI in its traditional electoral stomping ground of southern KP. It places the blame for this, again, on the ‘hybrid’ nature of the PTI project. This might be a correct assertion, or it might be an exaggeration. It could just be that the PTI is electorally more effective than the JUI-F in those areas and does not require outside support. Regardless of what the underlying truth is, the calculus for the JUI-F is to challenge the PTI in a manner that is both highly visible, allows it to mobilise its core electorate, and step back into the electoral limelight, ahead of, say, the local government elections scheduled in the province over the next few months.

This is an interest-based interpretation of the march, which while not currently at odds with the larger ideational push for procedural democracy, does limit the long-term impact that it may have. In other words, if the JUI-F succeeds in clawing back some political space, or if it manages to extract some sort of a ‘hybrid’ deal for itself, the push for transforming the status quo will probably end.

In view of the party’s own history — where it has shown no distaste for ‘accommodative’ arrangements with the establishment to counter ethno-nationalists, as recently as five years ago — and the history of Pakistan’s compromised mainstream political parties in general, it would not be misplaced to suggest that ideological commitment to procedural democracy usually runs shallow.

This here is the ultimate riddle then. The march is unlikely to achieve its stated goal of the prime minister’s resignation, which is just a placeholder for the JUI-F’s broader interests in clawing back dwindling electoral/political fortunes. It is also true that this particular set of interests is not at odds with the push for greater procedural democracy, but only at this current juncture.

Will its incentives and reality remain compatible with this larger goal? When incentives run out, ideas and ideology are usually the fuel that drive political transformations in status quo arrangements. Is the JUI-F running on that fuel? Has it demonstrated that it is willing to stick to this agenda of transformation, when the going potentially gets tough?

The point of raising this riddle is not to provide an answer to it at this point, which given where events stand would be an empirical impossibility anyway. But for interested observers and activists, these are questions worth considering from both an analytical perspective and a normative one.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, November 4th, 2019