Novice behaviour

Published May 16, 2022
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.

ON arriving in London to seek Nawaz Sharif’s guidance, Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal tweeted a picture of his paratha and lassi breakfast. This provoked ire among Twitter followers left to endure a heatwave and an economic meltdown. The dissonance is a reminder that the ruling coalition is clueless as to what to do now that they’ve achieved their goal of ousting Imran Khan.

The lack of political planning is evident in the PML-N’s scramble to London to weigh tough choices: hold early elections or hike fuel prices? We all knew these decisions awaited the government; why didn’t they have a plan?

The failure to plan is not unique to our parties. In the US, the Democrats are facing a backlash for failing to have actionable legislation ready to protect abortion rights. The Republicans have sought to repeal abortion laws for decades, and stacked the supreme court in order to do so. Why aren’t the Democrats ready with a counter strategy?

Poor forward planning partly explains the lessening appeal of democracy. Parties come to power with ill-formed notions, only to realise after engaging with the bureaucracy that their ideas are unfeasible. The situation is made worse by the recent trend of individuals who aren’t career politicians running countries. From cricketers to comedians, we’ve seen poor service delivery from individuals tasked with ministerial responsibilities yet little knowledge of how to spin the wheels of the political and bureaucratic machine they are meant to operate.

PML-N should have prepared a plan.

In mature democracies there are some checks that help parties plan, so that they can hit the ground running to introduce policies and legislation. Detailed party manifestos are required, politicians are trained on how the civil service works, and opposition parties are granted access to the bureaucracy to test the feasibility of campaign promises.

In Pakistan, the bureaucracy operates as independent fiefdoms, failing to respond to directives from on high as the merry-go-round of politicians whirls past. For years, the disconnect between politics and bureaucracy in Pakistan was celebrated as a source of stability, the key reason why the country functioned while the coup-election-coup cycle played out. But the legacy of this supposed stability is a bloated, inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy that does not serve the people.

Here’s the thing. The ruling coalition parties — and the PML-N in particular — know this, and should have prepared anyway. The advantage of seasoned politicians is their knowledge of the system and their relationships with bureaucratic power brokers who can be stirred into service delivery. Why are they flailing about like novices?

The PML-N’s and PDM’s crisis can be linked to the global decline of political parties. We are living in an age when public grievance is articulated through street movements rather than political engagement. The 2010s have experienced more mass mobilisations than any decade since World War II, according to research by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan. Without genuine grassroots engagement, political parties cannot predict what these grievances will be, or serve as legitimate conduits. And once street movements take up an issue, they direct their scorn at political parties, who in turn do not engage with the issue through policy planning for fear of seeming reactive and being held hostage to public outrage or failing to address the challenge.

Policy planning is also difficult in an era of elite politics, in which most parties are beholden to a business elite who props them up in exchange for having their interests protected. Such elite capture hampers planning efforts, which are distorted by the need to serve vested interests rather than the nation.

In a compelling essay What Can be Done About the Prob­lem of Political Part­ies?, Patrick Liddiard quotes Oesch’s and Rennwald’s argument that culture wars have entered the political terrain, throwing off the traditional left-right economic axis along which voters aligned. It is difficult to engage in sensible policy planning on issues such as infrastructure and healthcare delivery, when the political narratives are focused on Riyasat-i-Medina, and anti-Americanism.

Liddiard emphasises the destructive impact of populist politics on the functioning of political parties. He writes: “Once populists are in government, domestic and international actors have much more limited options in dealing with populists and checking any threats they might pose to democratic governance, and such efforts can reinforce populists’ messaging that they are battling a cartel of corrupt domestic and international elites.” Sound familiar?

The only way for our established political parties to face off these challenges is by offering an alternative national vision backed by deliverable policies. Let’s hope that after enjoying parathas in London, the PML-N and its allies have a plan to do just that.

The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.

Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, May 16th, 2022

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