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The link with governance

August 19, 2012

PREVIOUSLY, I have written about positive developments in terms of the evolution of Pakistan’s democratic process. We find ourselves in a situation that represents the beginnings of the process that ultimately leads to a consolidated democracy. The last four years have seen unparalleled legislative activity that has led to forward-looking constitutional amendments.

Moreover, a civilian government is about to complete a five-year term; there is no threat of a direct military coup; in the past year, political dynamics have evolved in a manner so that political parties can no longer rely solely on traditional patronage-based voting outcomes — the rise of the PTI has truly shaken up the system in this regard. Parties are therefore making all the right noises about greater responsiveness to public sentiment and more open political competition going into the elections, etc.

Conventional wisdom holds that the procedural aspect of democracy has to be allowed to continue for democratic consolidation and, indeed, for more mature policymaking. As processes become stronger, arbitrarily interrupting or undermining the system becomes that much more difficult as does maintaining shortsighted and self-serving politics.

This argument is correct, but incomplete without introducing the link between this procedural aspect and the substantive — more to do with performance — part of democracy which is always much nearer and dearer to the heart of a common citizen.

There is a danger in focusing solely on the process; political masters could conveniently take to a sequential argument, i.e. from good process flows good governance, as an excuse for poor governance outputs. The problem: it doesn’t work. To dismiss the importance of good performance is not only pushing it too far but, in some cases, attempting to thwart the very process which forms the basis of the optimism that good process will lead to good governance.

Where substantive output may be seen as subservient — although most would even find this questionable — is in cases where democracy is an already matured and consolidated enterprise. The argument there is that as long as the processes are functioning efficiently, governance will come as poorly performing governments would be certain to lose office when they go to the polls. In other words, governors have a strong incentive to focus on performance to remain politically viable actors.

For countries still way short of this ideal, this does not apply.

To be sure, not all countries make it through the initial phases of consolidation. Some remain caught up in a cyclical pattern of democratic and non-democratic regime changes while others fall completely into the authoritarian trap.

Performance of ruling governments is an important variable. It matters in two ways.

First, the chances of democratic processes continuing unabated in states with a troubled democratic history decrease significantly if governance — in its most basic form, it can be measured by service delivery, and in turn, socioeconomic trends — collapses. A minimum threshold of substantive outputs is all but necessary to keep the masses from questioning the merit of democracy in such environments.

Indeed, Pakistan’s own experience speaks of this: the military’s past interventions did not witness massive opposition on the streets as successive civilian governments were seen as having failed to deliver. In fact, this is the plea the establishment has always used to justify its interference. (Interestingly, poorly performing dictatorships have the opposite effect. They increase the longing for a return to democratic elections and civilian dispensations.)

Second, exceptionally poor governance almost inevitably has deeper anomalies associated with it. It is usually accompanied by ad hoc, personalised decision-making, a disregard for meritocracy, misplaced resource priorities, and policy confusion. And so, it is entirely possible to have stronger returns on the procedural aspects of democracy at the same time as you have rapid weakening of institutions and demoralisation of the personnel in charge of ensuring positive governance outputs. Some would argue that this is exactly what Pakistan has achieved over the past four years of civilian rule.

Theoretically, in the short run, poor governance can trump procedural gains and not allow a country to continue on the path to full democratic consolidation. The system could literally break down. One could see a chaotic end to the experiment in a number of ways.

Since poor governance often makes governments unpopular, especially in situations like Pakistan where the procedural successes are hardly ever communicated to the public in layman terms, mass protests can lead to a complete law and order breakdown. Else, if things continue to look south for a prolonged period, the street itself may start looking for ‘creative’ solutions; GHQ’s role may become permissible in some form at such a point.

In Pakistan, chaos can also result in an existential challenge to the state. In as far as grievances linked to governance failures underpin the ability of militants to rally people around an anti-state agenda and even recruit foot soldiers for their mission, continued indifference towards governance by the ruling elite could increase their appeal beyond manageable limits. Were sympathy for their view to permeate the state’s law-enforcement organs on a wide scale, it would be game over for the state of Pakistan as we know it.

To be sure, improved democratic processes and a more open political environment make it much harder for any arbitrary breakdown of the system. We are witnessing the beginnings of this positive trend in Pakistan. But in no way should this lead the rulers to become indifferent to governance. Yes, truly consociational politics will not come about overnight. But to consider governance demands to be subservient to procedural improvements in the early stages of the journey is asking for trouble.

Successful cases exhibit gradually improving processes, manageable, even if troubled, governance levels, and eventually a mature and farsighted policymaking apparatus.

While the citizens should not ignore the procedural improvements, lest they are unable to see through the apparent mess that mark the early stages of consolidation, a parallel plea must go out to the political elite not to lose sight of the importance of good governance as countries forge ahead.

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