EVERY few months or so, the demand for a ‘presidential system’ of government in Pakistan makes an appearance on various social media sites. This happens most prominently on Twitter, where a number of users share similarly worded tweets, all using the same hashtag.
Read: The Chinese model
On its own, there’s nothing wrong with the demand for a constitutional redesign. Political systems are, theoretically, not set in stone, and neither are constitutions. Parties in a number of countries have contested for power on platforms that seek to change electoral systems, voting formulae, power-sharing arrangements between different social groups, and relations between the executive, legislature, and the judiciary. If anything, initiating a public conversation on institutional redesign is certainly more practical and preferable than cheerleading for ad hoc interventions by a particular organ of the state.
The most recent chorus of presidential fetishism is also slightly different from previous iterations on at least two counts. One is its frequency, which seems to be picking up pace since this government took office in July 2018. It appears an ever-increasing number of people from one side of the partisan divide believe that the lack of executive authority with the Prime Minister’s Office, the reliance on largely incompetent ministers, and the cumbersome legislative procedures required to push through ‘change’, are holding the country back.
The second change is the citation of two countries as case studies worthy of emulation — China and Turkey. While the infatuation with Erdogan has been around for a while, the systemic embrace of Turkey is relatively new. What’s also interesting is that believers in the ‘China model’ seem to be increasing in proportion to the country’s enhanced footprint on Pakistan’s economic and strategic decision-making. The drawing room logic is some variant of ‘if their system allows them to build a motorway at lightning speed, it’s surely worth importing’. Less facetiously, high growth rates, ‘strict rule of law’, zero-tolerance for corruption, and the overall welfare success of this developmental model are usually cited as reasons for systemic emulation.
It is worth clarifying some important features of China’s political economy before embracing it as an ideal.
This is curious because China’s actually existing political system (what drives its well-publicised growth story) is considerably under-discussed in mainstream political conversations across Pakistan. The print and electronic media doesn’t report on China’s domestic politics, and it rarely reveals any insight into what drives economic growth. There’s a recurring caricature of strong leadership, mythical levels of anti-corruption, and decisiveness, in drawing rooms, WhatsApp groups, and TV studios alike, but that’s where the depth of it ends.
Leaving aside the moral and functional desirability of parliamentary democracy in ethnically fractured societies, and China’s own authoritarian behaviour with minority groups, it is worth clarifying some important features of China’s political economy before embracing it as an ideal.
In an excellent new book on the past, present, and future of economic systems, titled Capitalism, Alone, Branko Milanovic draws a sharp contrast between two ideal types of capitalism that have shown relative durability. Liberal meritocratic capitalism, exemplified by the US, and increasingly characterised by plutocratic levels of inequality and disparity. And political capitalism, exemplified by China, which stands as the only present-day alternative to organising politics and economics in a particular configuration, since the implosion of communism (or state socialism).
China’s political capitalism, according to Milanovic, rests ironically on certain pillars some of which seem to be at odds with its popular caricature in the Pakistani imagination. Tracing the current system back to Deng’s reform period, Milanovic argues that political capitalism exhibits two main features: The first is a highly skilled, technocratically efficient, and meritocratically recruited bureaucracy. This bureaucracy (which is clearly the primary beneficiary of the system) has as its main duty to realise high economic growth and implement policies that allow this goal to be achieved. Growth is ultimately needed for the legitimisation of continued bureaucratic and party rule.
The second feature is the absence of rule of law, rather than its unequivocal application. This, Milanovic argues, is necessary to ensure that the interests of businessmen (and the private sector in general) are never in a position to become primary drivers of government behaviour, which they would if a stable and consistent application of law was undertaken. Instead, the state retains authority and autonomy precisely because it can choose to apply the law to whomever and wherever it wishes.
To even semi-informed observers, it should be apparent that these two main features produce an inherent contradiction. How can you have a technocratic and meritocratic bureaucracy at the same time as the transient absence of rule of law?
In Milanovic’s account, this is precisely what leads to another defining trait of the Chinese system — rampant corruption. This is because any system that requires discretionary decision-making opens the door to malpractice. The problem with corruption, from the point of view of the leadership, is that, taken too far, it tends to undermine the integrity of bureaucracy and the ability to conduct economic policies that produce high growth.
Therefore, the system is always in a precarious equilibrium. On one hand, it needs discretion to punish opponents and favour certain actors (businessmen, bureaucrats) over others to ensure high growth rates. On the other, discretion can result in the usage of public resources for personal enrichment, as it has demonstrated time and time again. The only way this balance is held is periodic interventions that ensure that corruption doesn’t destabilise growth completely.
The bit about a technocratic and efficient bureaucracy is certainly worth emulating. States that seek to improve the welfare of millions need dedicated and talented human resources to administer major development programmes.
Ironically, though, the other — and arguably equally crucial — bit that drives China’s growth miracle is exactly the type of behaviour that many supporters of Pakistan’s current ruling party wholeheartedly stand against — discretionary applications of law and the ‘right’ amount of corruption. This, unfortunately, is a contradiction some may need to work out before the next hashtag campaign for the China model is initiated.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
Published in Dawn, December 2nd, 2019