Covert autocracy

19 Nov 2019


The writer is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.
The writer is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.

POPULAR Pakistani discourse focuses on economic progress. One rarely sees politicians, analysts or the public prioritise political progress towards democratic rule. Many even say that political progress inhibits economic progress and that autocracy delivers it faster than democracy due to its quick decision-making.

The role models for such ideas are East Asian Tigers that ignored political progress to achieve rapid economic progress. But elsewhere, autocracies perform in line with common-sense logic. Economics is about the best use of societal resources for public welfare while politics is about the use of power in society. If power use is inequitable due to lack of political progress, so too will be resource use, leading to conflict. So, durable economic progress requires political progress first.

The Tigers did well even under autocracy given their relative internal horizontal (ethnic, racial and religious) and vertical (class and caste) homogeneity which minimised political conflicts. Elsewhere, as in South Asia, where most states exhibit high vertical and horizontal divisions, autocracy not only fails to replicate the Tigers’ successes but also delivers huge conflicts as it produces uneven results for different groups.

Procedural democracy came easiest to the four larger Saarc states (India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh) which were ruled directly by the British, who laid the trappings of democracy near the end of their rule. But among the four, Pakistan and later Bangladesh had to set up governance structures from scratch, thus giving chance for autocracy to overpower democracy frequently.

Durable economic progress requires political progress first.

The smaller Saarc states (Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives and Afghanistan) that didn’t have direct British rule struggled longer to see even procedural democracy. Yet, recently, all have moved towards it. Bhutan now has free polls though the king retains influence. After long civil war, Nepal has adopted a constitution and has an elected regime. The Maldives recently had fair polls. Even Afghanistan has had elections of sorts.

Saarc’s history reveals clear results. The three ethnically divided states with least democracy (Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nepal) have seen most political conflict and violence and are economically most backward. Less divided Bhutan and Bangladesh have escaped major violence despite not having continuous democracy. Continuous democracy has helped India become a cohesive state despite divisions. But even continuous though ethnically diverse democracies like India and Sri Lanka have seen regional violence where certain groups have lacked equal rights.

Thus, autocracy in divided societies produces serious violence and economic malaise. This is a crucial lesson for South Asia, for just as its four smaller states are taking baby steps forward towards democracy, the four older democracies are taking giant steps backward towards autocracy. Yet, the extent of the backslide is in line with their earlier march towards democracy, being less in Sri Lanka and India and more in Bangladesh and Pakistan.

In Sri Lanka, presidents Rajapaksa and Sirisena both made power grabs by weakening opponents but failed. Yet prospects remains fluid, with the autocratic Rajapaksa winning Saturday’s presidential polls. In India, it is not so much opposition but minorities that are being harmed badly. But Bangladesh and Pakistan have backtracked more with attempts to create one-party states by weakening the opposition. In fact, given the dubious nature of their last polls, it is unclear whether they can even be called democracies.

In Bangladesh, power at least still lies with civilians. Pakistan is now seen by many as a covert autocracy, like Myanmar, Thailand and Egypt, where unelected forces hog power behind thin civilian façades.

The pillars of such a covert autocracy include dubious polls and alleged outside meddling in parliamentary numbers; one-sided accountability against political opponents; crackdown on media and judiciary; governance via ordinances and administrative steps; and excessive role of non-civilians in civilian matters. This system is already showing strong signs of strain.

But instead of demanding the prime minister’s resignation on the streets, the opposition must use parliament to demand an empowered parliamentary commission on poll rigging by agencies; an end to one-sided accountability and release of political prisoners; an end to the alleged role of agencies in propping up unnatural majorities and an end to the crackdown on media and judiciary. Otherwise, this civilian autocracy could have grave results for Pakistani political and economic progress and peace.

The writer is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.

Twitter: @NiazMurtaza2

Published in Dawn, November 19th, 2019