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As institutions mature

April 19, 2013

EXCEPT for some rollback of Taliban territorial gains, performance on immediate issues during 2008-2013 was largely poor even after accounting for the tough external environment and past legacies.

Immediate issues are obviously paramount. However, even worse than poor immediate performance is when the future appears equally bleak. Many people are too overwhelmed by present worries to worry about the future. But for those interested in evaluating both, the remaining question is about the impact the post-2008 democratic era had on future governance prospects.

History shows that national progress requires strong governance institutions but it cautions that such institutions develop gradually. The French Revolution is presented as a short cut to democracy’s leisurely, meandering gait. However, governance in post-revolution France did not improve immediately but decades later once democracy produced strong institutions.

Such institutions will mature and produce tangible results gradually in Pakistan too. Governance institutions include immediate service-delivery ministries and government enterprises. The performance of many such institutions actually deteriorated post-2008.

Governance institutions also include more strategic legislative and watchdog institutions — eg the judiciary and the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) — some of which can gradually force improvements within service-delivery institutions. Fortunately, one sees positive signs here if one defines progress as not only achieving the ideal but also improving incrementally over the past.

Take the case of interim set-ups. The current set-up is not ideal. But earlier, presidents blatantly appointed interim prime ministers from favoured parties. So, Ghulam Ishaq Khan handpicked Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi in 1990 while Musharraf handpicked Mohammedmian Soomro. The current set-up, selected by the government, opposition and the ECP, is more neutral, so much so that it is almost invisible and the ECP appears to be running Pakistan.

Consequently, the parties that boycotted the 2008 elections, eg, the Baloch nationalists and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), are now participating. The current ECP’s performance itself is not ideal, but is an improvement over its predecessors.

Finally, the Supreme Court has been able to function more freely than ever before, despite repeatedly challenging the government, including firing its prime minister.

Contrast the PPPs resigned acceptance with Musharraf’s ferocious reaction twice to far smaller Supreme Court challenges. While the PPP did drag its feet before the Supreme Court, democratic pressures did not allow it to trample it with its feet like military dictators did.

People complain that the Supreme Court and the ECP have allowed major culprits to contest the 2013 elections. The counter argument is that while angry voters may demand instant, Taliban-style street justice without due process, institutions must follow constitutional provisions.

Pakistan’s constitution mandates (rightly) that, except for government defaulters and violators of ECP electoral guidelines, candidates can only be barred after court convictions, whether the charges relate to committing crimes or violating Islamic and Pakistani ideology.

Unfortunately, Pakistan’s justice system lacks the capacity to prosecute major crimes speedily. Thus, fake degrees are being largely targeted as these can be investigated quickly.

Given continued democracy, the Supreme Court and the ECP can eventually help strengthen the justice system so that major culprits get barred from future elections. However, even the present situation is an improvement over 2008 where Musharraf’s National Reconciliation Ordinance allowed even convicted persons to contest elections.

Another post-2008 positive has been the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s (PTI) rapid rise. Parties can be evaluated based on their ideology, policy, management capacity, internal democracy and integrity.

Ideological differences bar me from supporting the PTI (and even other major parties). However, one must acknowledge the objectively verifiable fact that the PTI represents an improvement over existing major parties along the last three dimensions. Its rise undermines the argument that the current democratic trajectory will merely perpetuate corrupt politics.

Interestingly, the PTI floundered under Musharraf even though he was supposedly encouraging new politicians. But Musharraf actually supported status quo politicians in the PML-Q and Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal and persecuted the PPP and PML-N. Their persecution allowed the latter to present themselves as victims once Musharraf’s ‘miracles’ floundered by 2007, upending the PTI.

Thus, the PTI was the biggest loser under Musharraf. However, having governed unhindered but poorly for five years now, these parties cannot present themselves as victims. Consequently many people are eyeing alternatives.

So, while they are well short of the ideal, promising strategic institutional developments have occurred under post-2008 democracy.

How much stronger would governance have been today had Pakistan had unfettered democracy instead of four military dictators and the subtler manipulations of bureaucrat-presidents during the 1950s and 1990s? Perhaps, parties capable of solving immediate issues and possessing sounder ideologies may have emerged and be winning elections by now.

While the post-2008 improvements may seem inadequate to some, these 50 years produced less strategic institutional development than five years of even highly imperfect democracy.

Democracy’s beauty is that it forces tainted politicians to introduce greater institutionalisation than supposedly well-meaning dictators claiming to inculcate ‘genuine’ democracy. Dictators strengthen themselves and weaken institutions, not realising that the strong democracy that they promise emerges from the reverse.

However, democracy is an investment offering future pay-offs. As economists argue, investments involve foregoing some immediate consumption (performance). Thus, the correct criterion for judging democratic developments is not whether they improve immediate but future performance. History’s answer to that question is a resounding yes.

This does not mean that voters should ignore immediate performance. Electoral fates get largely determined by immediate performances. Moreover, the improvements highlighted above largely represent inexorable results of democratic development rather than deliberate incumbent intent. Thus, this article preaches persisting with democracy, not incumbents.

The writer is a political economist at the University of California, Berkeley.