Lack of trust

Published March 21, 2022
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

THE current crisis in Islamabad reveals a few standard features of Pakistani politics. Depending on one’s vantage point, it shows the influence of the establishment through its active intervention (or pointed withdrawal). It shows the power of money, patronage politics and the promise of office. And it shows the fluidity of alliances and the persistence of unrestrained political ambition.

These are features that will be discussed ad nauseam till we arrive at some end to the current crisis. However, there is another that is eminently clear from the opposition’s recent manoeuvring, just as it has been from the current ruling party’s actions in the past: a lack of faith in the electorate itself.

The standard story on the airwaves is that the opposition — with the blessings of the establishment — is moving in to de-seat the prime minister because of apprehensions around a certain appointment later this year. An addition to the story is that another year in office could allow the ruling party to consolidate its position, especially if economic conditions ease up. The logic then is that moving in now makes sense as there’s a general atmosphere of weariness around inflation, the ruling party’s ticket is said to be toxic in Punjab, and the establishment is willing to play the part of a sympathetic ‘neutral’.

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Unfortunately, the cost of such a move is not paid immediately by those pursuing it. It is largely paid by the long-term health of the political system itself.

The wilful abdication of responsibility by political parties cannot be ignored.

What opposition parties are saying through their actions is that they do not trust that the electorate will hold the government appropriately accountable in another year and three months. What they are also saying is that they do not trust themselves to make a strong enough case with the same electorate that would allow it to make an informed decision in their favour. And finally, what they are saying is that they do not trust the electoral process and the anonymity of the ballot to withstand any potential conspiracies that a favoured appointment to a powerful office might do in 2023.

This makes for depressing reading simply because it highlights the lack of faith and commitment that politicians have in the process that brings them to power in the first place. It is also fairly bewildering at one level because in the third term of this country’s most recent transition to democracy, the ballot box has proven to be a reasonable bulwark against political excess.

Even in the heyday of ultra pro max ‘same page-ism’ (may it rest in peace), opposition parties secured reasonable political victories. Their politics was kept afloat in by-elections and in local government elections across the country. Sections of the public clearly communicated apathy or a mistrust of the ruling party’s narrative. Yet this was not deemed sufficient to keep the faith for another 15 months.

It is this lack of faith that we have seen repeatedly in the past as well, most notably in the reliance on local influentials/ ‘electables’ to gather support for or kick down a government. The logic of pursuing electables is that they are resourceful individuals who have captive voters, which a party leader can’t possibly gain in a short period of time. They offer a shortcut to a coveted office in exchange for a price.

The price is frequently a sacrificing of reforms for patronage, ministries to incompetent individuals, and dole-outs. And the long-term cost is the undoing of every government since at least the 1980s. In the run-up to an election, roving politicians switch allegiances on the basis of establishment nudges and enticements by political leaders. In office, they extract whatever they can, and then assess their relative position towards the end of term.

Read more: PML-Q wants CM Punjab office for Parvez Elahi ahead of NA session

The role of the establishment in nurturing and deploying these politicians cannot be understated, and the cynical weaponisation to get rid of out-of-favour governments is the primary disease in Pakistan’s political system. However, what can also not be ignored is the wilful abdication of responsibility by political parties in repeatedly relying on this crutch.

The alternative to the crutch is not easy. It requires setting up party infrastructure at the village and neighbourhood level, creating defined roles and hierarchies, providing resources to a permanent party bureaucracy, and most of all, allowing party-based local government elections to flourish. This last bit is the missing piece of the puzzle that has repeatedly shown how it can help parties create a direct link with voters, thus reducing the power of local influentials. This is precisely why the current Punjab government saw so much internal dissent against the 2019 iteration of the local government act, to the point that it had to do away with it altogether.

The reality is that urban areas across Pakistan offer a glimpse of this phenomenon, with some degree of party identification already taking root. Voters can relate to party messaging and party leaders and the identity of the candidate is relatively less important. The most recent example is how the PML-N was able to shift cantonment board candidates around constituencies and still secure comfortable wins, and what PTI was able to do in Karachi in both 2013 and 2018.

The unfortunate reality is that till there is greater trust put in the electorate and in elections by party leaders, this cycle is likely to continue. The ruling party — having mistakenly outsourced all of its political management to the establishment and its public management to an assortment of cartoons — now stands vulnerable.

And the opposition that could’ve ideally waited out for an actual street fight at the polls has chosen to move for an immediate incremental gain on the back of some murky deal-making. In the process, it risks curtailing the life of parliament itself for the ill-thought-out fantasy of a national government.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, March 21st, 2022

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