A crisis of trust?

Published August 8, 2022
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

THE most damaging fallout of the constant demonisation of opponents by political leaders is erosion of public trust in politicians.

The PTI and parties in the coalition government accuse each other all the time of being venal, dishonest and corrupt. Their leaders and spokespersons expend more energy in hurling such allegations than explaining their own policies and how they aim to serve the public. The words ‘daku’ and ‘chor’ are now so commonly used that they are firmly embedded in the narratives of all political parties.

Non-stop smearing of political rivals may be the new normal but it has serious consequences. The entire political class is brought into disrepute by rhetoric, amplified by the media, associating it with scandal and financial malfeasance.

It is claimed that some leaders have a Teflon quality as nothing negative sticks to them in the eyes of their supporters, who are willing to discard facts even when confronted with them. That happens to be true. But it overlooks the impact on the general populace and on those who have no partisan loyalties.

They account for at least half the country’s adult population, if turnout in general elections is any guide.

In the 2018 polls, almost 50 per cent of the electorate were non-voters. Most can be assumed to have no party allegiance. People listening to allegations that sully the reputation of political rivals and accuse them of being ‘traitors’ are left with the impression that the entire political elite is self-serving and short on probity.

Read: The trust crisis

Political polarisation today has reached a record level with the government and opposition locked in unremitting confrontation. This affects the public’s view of leaders, especially when their focus and priority should be on pressing economic challenges and alleviating the hardship people are going through. This does more than cause public disaffection with politicians.

It impacts trust in political institutions as they are seen to be little more than vehicles in a power struggle, disconnected from issues of public concern. Alienation from the political system follows. This is corrosive of democracy which needs an engaged and ‘trusting’ citizenry.

When political engagement is disincentivised by people’s perception that politics is shorn of public purpose, the democratic system is undermined. Confidence erodes in governments if they are seen to be driven by narrow political interests and lack competence.

Trust is a crucial element to make any system work. Low public esteem for political elites and governments can even create a legitimacy deficit.

Pakistan is not alone in experiencing declining public confidence in the political system and governments, irrespective of their political complexion. This now appears to be widespread and is reflected in opinion polls across the world.

A body of literature has evolved that examines this phenomenon, which has different factors to explain it in various countries. But it also has commonalities.

Among the general reasons identified are rising and unmet expectations, a growing gap between political elites and the public, conduct of leaders, governments’ remoteness from citizens, economic performance being critical in people’s evaluation of competence and the information revolution that has empowered people in unprecedented ways.

A key factor that emerges in the discussion are the negative repercussions of political polarisation in countries, both in the East and West. This is widely viewed as a cause of waning public confidence in political institutions and those in charge of them.

Non-stop smearing of political rivals may be the new normal but it has serious consequences.

Turning to Pakistan, the conduct of state institutions also influences public trust. Again, perceptions shape reality.

Institutions like the judiciary are questioned when they are perceived to provide uneven and selected justice. It is not a cliché that justice must also be seen to be done. This is an immutable principle of any justice system.

Editorial: Supreme discontent

When people perceive double standards or unfairness in the application of justice it involves reputational damage. A history of controversial judgements, from the judicial assassination of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to repeated legitimisation of military coups, have bred public cynicism over time about the higher judiciary. Exclusivist interpretations of who is ‘sadiq’ and who is ‘amin’ has not helped to dispel scepticism.

Moreover, when institutions are seen to overstep their role and intervene in domains beyond what is constitutionally permitted it provokes controversy and also diminishes public trust. At times parliaments and the executive have acted in ways that exceeded their constitutionally sanctioned powers.

But according to legal experts, so has the higher judiciary on occasion. The most recent illustration was the view of a significant section of the legal community that the Supreme Court’s interpretation of Article 63-A of the Constitution was tantamount to “rewriting the Constitution”.

Opinion polls show public confidence in the army is much higher than in other institutions. Even so, the history of military coups and the more recent experience of what is called ‘hybrid’ rule — in which the military involved itself in several aspects of civilian governance — have taken a toll on its public image.

Read: ‘Hybrid regimes’ and their discontents

There is more public questioning now of the military’s role in politics and engagements in areas beyond its professional remit — real or perceived. Concern has long been voiced about the implications for democracy of the power asymmetry between elected and unelected institutions. Such is the burden of history that even when the establishment insists it is steering clear of politics and is apolitical, doubts are expressed about these claims. At times criticism is clearly politically motivated coming from political leaders who want the establishment to take their side rather than stay out of politics.

Does all of this add up to a crisis of trust in political leaders and institutions? To some extent, yes. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Trust can be rebuilt if political leaders learn to rise above themselves and give primacy to public concerns over partisan interests. If they also accept that opponents are not enemies to be vilified and vanquished but rivals in political competition. Confidence in institutions too can be built if constitutional restraints and rules are observed in deeds, not just words.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

Published in Dawn, August 8th, 2022

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