The term ‘hybrid regime’ has gained increasing currency in Pakistan among analysts and politicians. It is specifically used to explain the existential nature of the current PTI-led coalition government, which came to power after the July 2018 elections. The elections were severely criticised by various parties for being ‘rigged,’ whereas a December 9, 2018 report by the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) found ‘various irregularities’ in the electoral process. 

The government’s critics insist that institutions such as the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) — at the behest of the so-called ‘military-establishment’ — tampered with the voting and counting processes. They claim that this was done to aid Imran Khan’s centre-right PTI, so it could gain just enough seats to form a coalition government, especially at the expense of the country’s two other mainstream parties, the centrist PML-N and the liberal-left, PPP. Over the decades, the relationship of these two outfits with the military-establishment has continued to deteriorate.

Observers and analysts who subscribe to this view, use the term ‘hybrid regime’ in a negative light to explain the current government as an artificially bolstered civilian vessel of the military-establishment, propped up so that the latter can sustain its political influence within a semblance of democracy and without the controversial complexities of direct intervention. However, interestingly, even though the government and its supporters rubbish such claims, there have also been those within them who have used the term in a positive manner, to mean that the government and military-establishment are ‘on the same page.’ 

Read: Welcome to the hybrid regime

Nevertheless, ‘hybrid regime’ as a concept and reality has come under increasing scrutiny and criticism by political scientists. But this criticism was missing when the Hungarian sociologist Elemér Hankiss first used the term. Hankiss used it in the 1990s to describe the communist regime of János Kádár in Hungary. Kádár was appointed by the then Soviet Union as Hungary’s premier in 1956, after a popular uprising in Budapest against the preceding communist set-up was crushed by Soviet forces. Hankiss treaded a fine line between the democratic aspirations of the protestors and Soviet-style authoritarianism by introducing civil, cultural and economic reforms that were a departure from the previous ‘Stalinist’ model of authoritarianism. But he maintained the political supremacy and monopoly of the Hungarian Communist Party. 

However, Hankiss’ term was quickly picked up by European and American political scientists to mean a transitional period in former communist countries and non-communist dictatorships, which began to adopt increasing democratic reforms and mechanisms after the end of the Cold War in 1991. Till the 1980s, countries going through this process were described as ‘transitional democracies.’ But this term was replaced with ‘hybrid regimes’ in the post-Cold-War period.

Electoral authoritarianism is a staple in the concept of ‘hybrid regimes’. But even sham elections can create new power centres and give the opposition access to constitutional tools that it can turn against such a regime...

In an essay for the January 2012 issue of the Journal of World Politics, the American political scientist Yonatan Morse writes that, initially, there was an element of optimism in the term, because most political scientists believed that hybrid regimes would eventually evolve into becoming full-fledged liberal democracies. Their optimism can be understood in the context of an unprecedented occurrence at the end of the Cold War, which saw numerous authoritarian systems across the world erode and/or adopt democratic electoral and constitutional tools and reforms. 

In 2002, the American author and political analyst Thomas Carothers nudged political scientists to study the term ‘hybrid regime’ without the optimism attached to it, and without the assumption that such regimes would transform into becoming liberal democracies. Secondly, hybrid regimes were not homogenous. After Carothers’ essay (published in the June 2002 issue of the Journal of Democracy) a conceptual shift occurred in the study of ‘hybrid regimes’.

According to Morse, the common practice and theme in most ‘hybrid regimes’ is ‘electoral authoritarianism’ and that’s how most of them are now understood (as opposed to earlier, when they were seen as political systems transitioning to liberal democracy). In electoral authoritarianism, elections do not stand up to democratic standards of being free and fair.

Such elections continue to, directly or indirectly, keep an authoritarian constant in power, but give it ‘democratic legitimacy’ and the authority to alter the constitution to sustain its monopoly over large areas of power that it had earlier accumulated as a non-electoral entity, before the system went hybrid. This arrangement can be seen in countries where once-dictatorial cliques reinvented themselves as ‘popularly elected’ entities through sham elections. They pay lip-service to democratic rights and manipulate the judiciary and an ‘elected’ parliament to do their bidding. Examples in this respect include former ‘strongmen’ in certain African countries and in former Soviet republics in Central Asia, and Vladimir Putin in Russia. 

Another manifestation of electoral authoritarianism is when a powerful state institution, such as the military, gets one of its high ranking former members elected through a questionable electoral process and continues to manipulate elections and alter the constitution to keep him there (e.g. Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi). Or the institution may nourish the rise of an easily manoeuvred and manageable ‘democrat,’ and aid him to come to power through a tampered election (e.g. allegedly in Pakistan).

Yet another manifestation is when a genuinely popular figure/party is elected through a fair election but, once it becomes an established incumbent, it begins to alter the constitution and laws to aid its continuation (Erdogan in Turkey).

All these manifestations of ‘hybrid regimes’ claim to be democratic but resort to undemocratic practices, including usurping civil rights, using strong-arm tactics and state machinery to browbeat the opposition. However, according to Morse, electoral authoritarianism and/or ‘hybrid regimes’ can become problematic for those who impose and retain them.

Morse writes that electoral authoritarianism can be a ‘double-edged sword’ because even the process of sham elections has the potential of creating new power centres, and also give the opposition access to certain constitutional tools which can be turned against ‘hybrid regimes’ — especially if, because of an assortment of economic, political or existential threats and challenges, the polity pours out on the streets to protest.

One can thus conclude, that a ‘hybrid regime’, such as the one currently in Pakistan, inevitably heads that way.

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 11th, 2020

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