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Room for optimism

July 30, 2012


EVERY time I have visited Pakistan over the past two years, I have found the Pakistani street growing more despondent about the future of the country.

More and more people find faults with the system — read the democratic dispensation — and question whether democracy will ever deliver.

Indeed, it is hard not to notice that our decision-makers are hostage to power struggles with nary a focus on issues linked to governance.

For the people, at least taking a short-term view, despondence seems a natural corollary to the situation. One can also start believing, as many do now, that things will probably never improve. Courtesy our new prophets of doom, the TV anchors, this sense is now becoming a conviction.

Has our democratic experiment really failed? Or are we ignoring what are initial signs that we may finally be turning the corner?

To appreciate this, we necessarily have to take a long-term view. Pakistan is not the first country to lack a philosophical commitment to democracy or to be impatient with flailing governance. And yet, it is critical to communicate to the public that all countries that have managed to go through the process of democratic evolution and come out on top have done so by remaining patient — by recognising that democratic evolution, leading to better governance, follows a ‘J’ curve of sorts: political instability may increase (and thus governance may deteriorate) as entrenched political forces try to maintain the status quo and new entrants act as catalysts for change.

This interim is confrontational and messy but it is also the period where the foundations of more mature political processes are laid down. Only after this interim period does a consociational [a political system formed by the cooperation of different, especially antagonistic, social groups on the basis of shared power] model of politics emerge which has a mix of old and new actors but ones that are now forced to play by relatively more far-sighted norms and rules.

The challenge for the state, intelligentsia and the messengers (the media) is to keep emphasising the underlying positive developments in terms of democratic processes rather than being consumed by the apparent mess that politics often seems to be during this period.

Pakistan is witnessing a remarkable transformation, with all the markings of the classic interim leading, ultimately, to democratic consolidation.

For starters, the most obvious reality: a military coup is out of the question. Some would attribute this to the military’s overwhelming counter-terrorism challenge, others to the media, judicial activism or even the personality of the present army chief. Irrespective, what is clear is that the military has lost its near-veto authority over regime-change. This change may well be irreversible.

Developments such as the constitutional tussle between the executive and the judiciary or the media’s alleged overreach also ought to be seen from the lens of institutional evolution. Anytime long-held institutional equilibria are disturbed, all the relevant institutions should be expected to stake a claim to as much additional share of the pie for themselves as possible. This is the process Pakistani institutions are undergoing: the military is losing space and the judiciary, executive and even new powerbrokers such as the media are attempting to usurp maximum space before a new equilibrium is achieved.

Virtually every time in such processes, the initial rush to win in the rebalancing tends to self-correct and the final equilibrium is a fairly moderated. This is to say that the judiciary, executive and the media can be expected to pull back from their present activist mode at some point and accept a more workable compromise arrangement in terms of their respective boundaries.

As for political parties, the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf’s ‘tsunami’ must be credited for jolting the system — in a positive way. Over the past eight months, Imran Khan has forced the status quo political powers to reconsider electioneering in Pakistan. The PPP and the PML-N have had to deal with threats of or actual desertions at an unprecedented rate; they can no longer be as oblivious to their working cadres’ demands as before; murmurs of internal party democracy are growing; they have had to take to technology to reach out to the now politicised under-30 population; and gradually, one is seeing parties being pushed to talk more about substantive issues of corruption, social justice, etc.

On the political process itself, I have had very optimistic discussions with politicians from across parties over the past month. Each of the three frontrunners — the PPP, PML-N and PTI — acknowledge that Pakistan is headed for its most unpredictable election. Each believes it has a fair chance of winning and their respective calculations are based on fairly divergent assumptions about the sentiment on the street, changes in voting behaviour and voter turnout.

Encouragingly, each party is convinced that the upcoming election is not going to be all about patronage. The uncertainty and divergent assumptions represent a fundamental shift in Pakistani politics: the average voter counts more for the parties since they are not sure how the street will react; no longer can parties take traditional voting patterns for granted and ignore the burgeoning under-30 population’s demands for substantive change.

To add, as worried as I have found the political parties to be about this, all are ultimately expecting a relatively free and fair election. Indeed, the discourse on election fairness has been constructive this time round. We are no longer talking about blatant rigging and ballot-stuffing but about ensuring the credibility of electoral rolls, the voter-registration drive, getting political parties to publicly accept a code of conduct, maximum media monitoring, etc.

Finally, public posturing notwithstanding, senior members of all major parties are quite open about the fact that they will accept election results and move on.

Of course, it would be absurd to suggest that we should only focus on these signs of a maturing democratic process at the cost of pressing governance issues in the country. But the plea is to avoid the opposite: to neglect the responsibility of continuing to remind Pakistanis that we finally seem set on a course — however disappointing it may seem on the surface — that could potentially lead us to a consolidated democracy. Let the process continue and more substantive discussion about governance will inevitably emerge as this evolutionary process forces more mature thinking and greater responsiveness among our political masters.

The writer is South Asia adviser at the US Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C.