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Room for optimism

Published Jul 30, 2012 12:15am


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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.


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (10) Closed

shankar Jul 30, 2012 10:02am
So true! There is absolutely no need for despondency! Democracy needs time to mature! It needs investment and patience. All pillars of the system, the government, the military, the media and the judiciary should do all it can to hasten the process, instead working at cross purposes!
Shafi Jul 30, 2012 10:12am
I agree with most of what the write claims but there is a big hiatus. The election may be 'fair' but who are going to be the candidates? Would they be the same from the same dynasties? If that would be then there would be no progress towards a meaningful democracy. The change would come when dynastic leadership is thrown out by the people.
Syed Jul 30, 2012 10:12am
Moeed has probably over looked 1. The -ve economic situation vis-a-vis the 'gotten set in the right direction' view about Pakistan and 2. The downward spiral in the overall infrastructure of the country. Highlighting the '+ve attribute of the Army Chief's personality' - one of the most important dimension in country's power play - is another misnomer, which in fact is the epicenter of the core corruption in power wheeling dealing in Pakistan today. Cumulatively, Pakistan at the moment is on a very unpredictable course akin to the future of the teeming millions of average Pakistanis. Moeed if you are still in Pakistan or on your next trip, please do rub shoulders with the common man on the street, rather than purely academic discussions in power corridors.
Abdul Mujeeb Jul 30, 2012 05:51pm
The most disappointing factor in Pakistani politics is mentality of top leaders. In fact, they have been found doing nothing for the country. Moeed sahib,have you ever done analysis of their incoherent speeches which usually came from Ghari Khda Baksh, London 90, Bhatti Chowk, Nishtar park and liaqut bagh? If you could start doing analysis of their words, actions and thought for democracy, you would probably not be surprised to find that, they are actually big hurdle for progressive nation and democracy as well.
Tariq Azizuddin Jul 30, 2012 05:59pm
I agree with the author. In this period of transition, no single institution should be trying to cling on to or carve out a larger than its due share in the evolving equation. In the lives of nations, we are a young country with a large population of youth who need to be galvanised to drive the national engine towards stability and prosperity. This is the job of the leadership who will emerge out of the new election. It is my hope that this new leadership will indeed be new because most of the tried, tested and failed ones who want to return to power are nothing but power hungry spoilers and need to be clearly told through the ballot that they stand rejected. We want a rejuvenated and revived Pakistan!
Falcon Jul 30, 2012 03:26am
Moeed - Very well said. We look at developed countries from the perspective of their current state of governance without paying attention to the fact that it took them a long time in arriving at the current state of things. This is a journey that might be painful in the short-term but will be worth it in the long-term. From chaos emerges order and the faster is the pace of change, the higher is the level of uncertainty during this interim chaos.
Jim Jul 30, 2012 04:10am
I agree 100%. The prophets of doom need to take a chill pill. As should the people always carping "good governance good governance" 24/7.
Cyrus Howell Jul 30, 2012 05:55am
Democracy simple is the people. People have to deliver justice and principle for themselves. When a government is corrupted it must be removed. It is easy to see the many are removing themselves from the country for foreign shores. Doubt the author visited Karachi this trip. It is turning the corner in the wrong direction. The only hope for all is to demand the government fix the problems - one problem at a time. The shotgun approach is to make a halfhearted attempt to solve all of Pakistan's at once to trying to satisfy all of the people all of the time. It is true. You are right. Only Allah can do everything at once..
Tabs Jul 31, 2012 06:30pm
Tabassum Waqar Jul 31, 2012 06:31pm