Elite politics

Published December 5, 2022
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

UNREMITTING political confrontations have left the country exhausted and emaciated. Political tensions show no sign of abating. Political leaders often claim the next round of battle will be decisive but their war rages on. The war paradigm guides their political behaviour. Opponents are seen as enemies, not competitors. Politics is about vanquishing the enemy and eliminating them from the political scene in a terminal conflict.

This of course is not new. This pattern of behaviour has resonated throughout Pakistan’s history and is part of an unedifying political tradition characterised by intolerance and lack of respect for democratic norms.

Those in power have rarely accepted the need to engage with the opposition, while those in opposition have often sought to destabilise the government of the day. There have been moments of rare cooperation, as for example, in the consensus that led to adoption of the 18th Constitutional Amendment. But for the most part, Pakistan’s fractious politics has seen fierce government-opposition conflict and mutual efforts to upend each other.

These endless political feuds opened space for the military’s manipulation of politics and frequent return to the political stage.

There was another cost to the country. The lack of a stable and predictable environment proved a huge hurdle to solving the country’s daunting problems, which were either left to fester or met by imprudent short-term policy responses. Pakistan’s economic troubles are in no small measure a consequence of this.

Since 2008, the country has seen a period of uninterrupted civilian rule, despite the so-called ‘hybrid experiment’ of recent years that gave the army an informal but extensive role in national affairs. This period should nonetheless have involved a strengthening of democracy. It should have seen efforts by political parties to create a democratic culture. But this didn’t happen.

An opportunity was also lost to rebalance and reset power among state institutions as well as realign politics with the economic and social changes sweeping the country. These changes included greater urbanisation, expansion of a more assertive middle class, emergence of a diverse and vibrant civil society and a more ‘connected’ and informed citizenry, thanks to the spread of technology.

Instead of a new form of politics emerging, it remained in a mostly old mould.

The rise of PTI, which came to represent the aspirations of the middle class and youth and also tapped into public resentment against the elite, promised a departure from politics-as-usual. But it became a cult following rather than a modern political party that could act ‘independently’ of its establishment benefactors once it assumed power. Like other parties it included members of the old political elite, local influentials and habitual turncoats — prominent figures who were previously part of the two traditional parties that the PTI condemned as corrupt and bankrupt. Expediency denuded it from the chance to chart a new political course for the country. The primacy of personality over party organisation also made the new party resemble older ones.

Bereft of ideas intra-elite conflict offers no escape from the quagmire Pakistan is trapped in.

As a result, there has been little break from the past in the way politics functions, the narrow social base of party leaders and what status quo-oriented parties have to offer the public in whose name they play the power game.

It also means there is no significant change in the relationship between the state and citizens, despite the transformed social and political environment. Politics remains a competition between and among political elites. It is sadly bereft of ideas or a vision — other than platitudes — about where opposing parties want to take the country. There are barely any significant policy differences between rival parties who nonetheless declare each other unfit to govern.

Pakistan’s disappointing economic record illustrates this.

Governments, even when run by different political parties, have adopted a similar economic stance, despite their claims to the contrary. Rather than undertake reform and raise domestic resources to address the country’s widening budget and balance of payments deficits, they all resorted to excessive borrowing.

The availability of external resources as a result of Pakistan’s foreign policy alignments during the Cold War and beyond created a habit of dependence on ‘outside help’. This habit urged successive governments — representing rural and urban elites — to avoid economic reform, mobilise adequate revenue or tax its network of influential supporters. Aid-fuelled or ‘borrowed’ economic growth may not necessarily have been a bad thing if the fiscal space it provided was used to launch reforms to solve the underlying structural problems of the economy: broadening the tax net, documenting the economy, diversifying the export base, and encouraging savings to finance a level of investment that could sustain an economic growth rate higher than the rise in population. But none of this happened. The availability of external resources along with high levels of remittances from overseas Pakistanis simply enabled ruling elites to paper over the structural problems of the economy. Every government sought IMF bailouts to avert insolvency.

Economic management that relied on someone else’s money permitted the country’s rulers — both civilian and military — to postpone much-needed structural reforms, including tax reform, that could have placed the economy on a viable, self-sustaining path. Successive governments borrowed heavily to finance development as well as consumption. In the process, the country accumulated unsustainable debt both by borrowing abroad and at home. This burden continues to cripple the economy today and fuel record levels of inflation.

With few if any exceptions, governments formed by different political parties preferred to pursue ‘pain-free’ ways to manage public finances. This has left the country lurching from one financial crisis to another. While playing to populist constituencies their policies perpetuated the status quo.

This can be only explained in terms of a political elite or ‘privilegentsia’ averse to measures it saw as eroding its political position or undermining its class interests. Their economic policies testify that elite capture of public resources is an abiding reality.

This intra-elite conflict is hardly obscured by the highfalutin rhetoric which it is wrapped in. Its most troubling aspect is that it offers no escape from the quagmire the country is trapped in — of dysfunctional politics, mounting governance challenges, visionless economic management and crumbling public faith in state institutions.

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

Published in Dawn, December 5th, 2022

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