Self-serving politics

Published July 25, 2022
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.

THINGS fall apart, the centre cannot hold. W.B. Yeats’s poem is oft-quoted, usually histrionically. Yeats wrote the poem about impending anarchy at the end of World War I, when the Irish independence war was starting, and his wife was battling flu during the last century’s pandemic. But the shenanigans last week in the Punjab Assembly have emboldened me to make the reference.

There could be no more blatant demonstration of self-serving politics than the machinations and back-stabbing that led to Hamza Sharif’s pyrrhic victory. Clearly, our elected representatives care for little beyond retaining power. The circle of those they serve — never broad — has inexcusably narrowed to immediate family members, power brokers and alleged criminals that help retain their power.

Recent events have discredited mainstream political parties, derailing Pakistan’s wobbly democratic journey. Worryingly, all other major institutions are equally tarnished. The Supreme Court’s reinterpretation of Article 63A is attracting as much critique as our politicians’ wiles. Further rulings are likely to exacerbate confusion about the role of political party heads vis-à-vis parliamentary representatives, compromising the functioning of electoral politics.

As the chaos intensifies, Pakistan is running out of options for how it is governed. We have tried it all — from fragile democratic dispensations to martial law, wobbly coalitions, hybridity, frothing populists, veiled autocrats. In all scenarios, a tiny, self-serving elite has engaged in much extraction and collusion and very little public service.

Pakistan is running out of governance options.

The timing of this political meltdown could not be worse. Pakistan urgently needs stable, consensus rule. The country is on the verge of an economic meltdown, hurtling between bailouts from the IMF and erstwhile allies. Though few will admit it, the climate crisis has overtaken all other events; this year’s floods and heatwaves foreshadow mass hunger, health crises, and resulting conflict. The global world order is upended, and old allegiances from east to west require revitalisation. Nero fiddled while Rome burned, and our politicians have schemed while Pakistan flirts with collapse.

Ongoing talks with the TTP suggest that rather than much-needed consensus, Pakistan is headed towards de facto collapse. A key TTP demand is the de-merger of Fata. It is preparing for this by assassinating local leaders and setting the stage of regional control. Obsessed with power and profit at the centre, our power brokers appear to be considering the demand of, in effect, ceding the northwest peripheries to a parallel dispensation, in the name of national security. This each-man-for-himself approach means everyone loses.

This cannot be Pakistan’s trajectory, its people — particularly its burgeoning youth — deserve more. We need to think more boldly about how we will be governed in the future.

Following Donald Trump’s election in the US and the Brexit vote in the UK a few years ago, the recognition that Western democracy had failed led to radical calls for rethinking the system. Provocative recommendations — for example, from Paul Evans — included the idea of abolishing the vote, ie electoral politics, to shift the decision-making power back to the people. Evans argued that democracy had been captured by elected representatives who were incentivised by financial flows and the hunger for re-election, and pushed policies that attracted money or cynical votes even if they were not in the public interest. Evans called for the use of technology and clever marketing techniques to gauge what people really want, using public consensus to drive policy priorities.

One cannot suggest anything this dramatic in Pakistan. Any call to review electoral politics here is quickly misinterpreted as a yearning for authoritarian rule (usually the booted kind). But we must find a way to revive consensus politics in the public interest — without it we can only envision fragmentation, conflict and desperation.

Writing in these pages last week, Aasim Sajjad Akhtar eloquently argued that Pakistan needs a new social contract that acknowledges the country’s ethnic diversity and fosters more inclusive politics. He believes there are enough Pakistanis committed to this positive alternative to offer hope.

After the Punjab Assembly farce, I wonder if that optimism is misplaced. Our politicians have shown the only thing they agree on is their sense of entitlement to power. Our public — easily swayed by conspiracy theories and populist chest-thumping — has shown itself incapable of a people’s movement for inclusion and consensus politics (remember the McDonald’s brigade?). Sections of our media are co-opted, our policymakers and academics sidelined and silenced, our school curriculums made increasingly regressive, our progressive politicians unlawfully incarcerated. Who will build the consensus that Pakistan needs?

The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.

Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, July 25th, 2022

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