The cost of stability

Updated January 27, 2020


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

IN another testament to how unrooted and repetitive Pakistani politics can be, major talking points for the media in recent months have been rumours of in-house change, ruling coalition factionalism, deals and no deals, and other artefacts of elite intrigue.

No one can draw a complete picture of the actors involved; no one fully knows who is staving off or applying pressure; no one knows what the exact contents of any purported deal may be. And yet shadowy intrigue and its related discourse are what pass of as mainstream politics here. This is a country in which the idea of constant conspiracy is not only a framework for explanation, but also a force that actually destabilises politics itself.

So what is the cost of maintaining at least the appearance of political stability in Pakistan? The current dispensation provides an interesting case study to test through one major theory. The idea just prior to the 2018 election was that stability is a product of a few key actors being on the same page. This included, principally, the military high command and the ruling party leadership, with the judiciary providing passive consent. This particular theory was grounded in several things, with the most obvious being what had happened with the last government (or for that matter, most other civilian governments in Pakistan’s political history). The theory is that clarity of mandate, a firm and accepted hierarchy between the two main actors, and a shared vision of how to proceed with the nuts and bolts of domestic and foreign policy would be enough to keep the ship steady.

This theory is seductive on paper for a number of reasons. Most visibly, it eliminates the biggest source of political instability (and its underlying intrigue) by ensuring that the most powerful and well-resourced political actor — the military — has ownership of the process. As long as it stays firm — and why wouldn’t it in a scenario where it gets to call all the major shots — the ship remains steady.

Go back to every period of apparent political stability in the country and you’ll see how a layer of patronage was needed to sustain it.

But in practice, this theory, and much of our conventional analysis that feeds into it, tends to underplay the fact that political outcomes are at least partially contingent on a host of other actors as well. Most prominently, these include elected politicians both in and outside government, as well as the bureaucracy.

Electoral legitimacy has mostly been a surface-level concern for parties and governments in Pakistan. This has been true for nearly every type of ruling arrangement since 1970. But for whatever reason elections continue to exist. Whether under military regimes, or under nominally democratic ones, elections have been hard to shake off; and they seem to produce their own sources of stability and instability.

Party leaders need elected politicians to provide them with a veneer of legitimacy and to form a government. They need elected politicians from other parties to pass legislation. Simultaneously, elected politicians need the government (and its considerable material and administrative resources) to stay elected. For all the machinations in the world, for all the experiments in hybrid design, for all the same-page-ism, this reality is hard to shake off.

Now, let’s turn back to events from recent weeks: a few elected politicians grumbling about a lack of resources in Punjab; a few of them doing the same in KP. One set in Balochistan trying to engineer a change in government, another in Punjab trying to change the chief minister. And a media accustomed to reporting on political intrigue and instability for its eyeballs having a field day.

From a functional perspective, politicians — especially rural ones — asking for the coffers to free up so they can direct resources to their constituency is a conflicting feature of Pakistani politics. It’s obvious this money is going to be used to sustain and secure their own privilege through patronage. But holding back the pork sets the wheels of intrigue in motion, which produces its own instability. Go back to every period of apparent political stability in the country (1960s, 1980s, early 2000s) and you’ll see how a layer of patronage — mostly in the shape of curated local and provincial governments — was needed to sustain it.

This is the dilemma that the current dispensation faces. Its leadership promises technocratic government with civil-military congruence, but undergirding one part of the equation are elected politicians. It repeatedly promised programmatic use of state resources (in a bid to fight discretion) but it has no strength to fight off the factionalism. And it promised fiscal prudence and political stability (and desperately needs both) to ride out a painful period of macroeconomic stabilisation, but it is unclear whether it has the numbers and discipline to see through it.

If the logic of electoral survival throws same page-ism and its promised stability into disarray at one level, it also reveals the hollowness of Pakistan’s political parties. Imran Khan — the leader of the party that promises reform — is popular with sections of the electorate. But it is still unclear just how powerful (and how much sway) he has over the people elected by that electorate. And to complicate matters further, it seems that the party has no organised way — short of upending the entire political system — of sidestepping or replacing the elected representatives that prop up its central and provincial governments.

At some point, a functional decision will be made (if it hasn’t already), as has been the case in a number of occasions in the past. The decision will entail loosening the coffers, placing preferred individuals in desired positions, and giving in to the demands of coalition partners. It will mean an acceleration of spending on discretionary schemes, transfers and postings on political rather than programmatic grounds, and, consequently, a reversion to familiarity. This will happen because in Pakistan, with its praetorian hangover, weak parties, and unrooted politics, it is the cost of maintaining stability.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at LUMS.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, January 27th, 2020