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Why our democracy is prone to reversals

Umair Javed

Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification to hold public office has generated a great deal of analysis over its implications for Pakistan’s democracy. As another prime minister goes home without seeing out their term, the concerns about democracy’s future sound eminently familiar: attempts to formalise even a procedural democracy, let alone a substantial one, over the last 70 years have met with little success.

Developments that can potentially destabilise the political system, such as the Supreme Court’s July 28 disqualification of Sharif, are, thus, immediately seen as the next roadblock on a pathway that appears to be stretching out indefinitely.

It is both understandable and justifiable to worry about democracy’s future, given the context in which democratic institutions have been trying to exist and evolve since 1947 — unelected institutions have repeatedly held sway over the elected ones. These worries, however, often confuse form for content and miss out on the structural shortcomings of the political system. These deserve careful consideration. What happened to Sharif is the combined impact of several forces.

The first, naturally, is an assertive judiciary. A Supreme Court cognisant of its reputation and its place in public opinion could have only made the decision it has made. To understand the dynamics behind the court’s behaviour, one has to go back to the Lawyers’ Movement and the judiciary-centred politics engendered and promoted by former chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.

Since that fateful period back in 2007-09, the superior judiciary has moved from being an oft-ignored and submissive institution to one that attracts a great deal of public attention. And it has done that fairly well: since 2008, the higher judiciary has retained high public approval ratings, often approaching the military in popular appeal. A Gallup Pakistan survey carried out across Pakistan in July 2017 showed the courts score a 79 per cent approval rating.

The reputational and material interests of the judges who are part of the higher judiciary have helped reinforce the court’s activist behaviour over time. From a sociological perspective, the higher judiciary draws its constituents from the upper and upper-middle class strata of urban society.

These are individuals whose world views and ideational perspectives are shaped by their socialisation in elite social networks, elite educational institutions and as members of the legal elite. It is, thus, fair to suggest that their application of law is partly, if not entirely, shaped by the social, educational and professional experiences they bring to the court. It is also fair to suggest that a mistrust of democratic politics is part of the social experience among our urban elite — hence the urge among our urban-based intelligentsia, technocrats and serving and retired bureaucrats, generals and judges to ‘cleanse’ the system of a ‘venal’ political class.

This desire to cleanse politics – whether through the military or the judiciary – is constrained by its complete failure to understand the problem it seeks to address. At the heart of the analysis made by the intelligentsia, the judges, the bureaucrats and the generals is the idea that corruption remains a moral failing rather than an institutional one.

A moral problem will logically have a moral solution — make an example out of a few and the rest will fall in line. After having applied this approach for 70 years, it should be quite apparent to us that it does not work. Politicians, the only part of the ruling elite that has been subjected to it, draw popular legitimacy not from their spotless character or moral fortitude but from the political economy of their politics.

Their supporters maintain transactional relations with them which are ultimately sustained through corruption. This explains why military dictators, and now judges, who attempt to carry out accountability fail to understand the popular appeal of the politicians and its underlying dynamics.

The superior judiciary and the class it represents, however, remain only one part of the democratic puzzle that every now and then fails to come together as a defined, stable whole. There are other, sometimes entirely unexpected, factors involved.

Here it is pertinent to remember that Sharif’s ouster was triggered by an exogenous event — the papers leaked from a Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca which specialises in handling the corporate affairs of offshore companies set up by the rich and mighty from across the globe. The leak and the revelations therein about the offshore companies owned by Sharif’s children proved to be a godsend for Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) at a time when the Sharif-led federal government was moving from strength to strength. The way the PTI and the rest of the opposition took up the issue, often with great gusto and brinkmanship, also contributed to how it has eventually culminated.

Some observers view this development as the manifestation of an organic opposition that is emerging as a bulwark against the alleged wrongdoings and corruption by the political class in general and the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) and its leadership – that is, Sharif and his family – in particular.

This argument is encapsulated in the notion that Pakistan’s urban-based middle and upper classes have gained critical democratic mass and are now able to mobilise for their ideational goals which include cleansing the polity of corruption. While this perspective is persuasive, especially in the light of PTI’s popularity over the last five years, it fails to take into account the dynamics of inter-party competition in politics.

For all its rhetorical commitment to ideational causes, PTI remains a fairly conventional elite party. Its candidate base and its strategy for mobilisation are predicated upon elite leadership. Its upper and middle-tier leadership consists of politicians belonging to landed gentry and business elite. Many of them have served in other parties and in various governments. Their core support bases are the same patronage-driven constituencies that work on the logic of reciprocity of favours and targeted delivery of services and benefits.

The only new characteristic that they have acquired is that over time they have become weaker in competition to their counterparts in the PMLN. Now they are looking for a seat at the table of power once again through a party that may help them regain an upper hand in electoral competitions. Even at its smoothest, Pakistan’s democracy remains a plutocracy driven by an elaborate system of distributing the state’s largess and the spoils of power.

It is, therefore, possible to view Sharif’s ouster as the intensification of the political competition between two sets of elites, with the state’s power and its attendant resources at stake. On its own, it is not a particularly unique situation. Democratic politics the world over is essentially a form of competition between different elites, often representing different societal groups and classes.

The missing ingredient in our case is a basic agreement on the rules of the game. There is no consensus between political actors and their backers on what constitutes justified exercise of power and there is no consensus on how to resolve political conflicts as and when they emerge. This is a structural weakness in our democracy, one that makes it prone to episodes of systemic collapse every now and then.

This weakness is a consequence of two major cleavages in Pakistan’s political economy. The first is the institutional tussle between unelected state institutions and political representatives. It is as much a tussle between competing visions of the country’s political system as it is an assertion of power of an urban elite over the political process.

The second fracture lies within the domain of electoral politics wherein representatives of different factions of the elite fight it out in a free-for-all, winner-takes-all scramble to obtain or retain influence and power in a space already severely constrained by the unelected power players.

The outcome of these fractures is periodic instability and a democratic process muddling along with bare minimum agreement between its participants. For the country as a whole, this is highly disappointing. Over time, democracy is expected, at least theoretically, to result in more responsive and accountable political parties that promote stable social coalitions and maintain an issue-based response to the demands of the electorate.

With frequent lapses into instability, however, the time frame in which this can happen is reduced considerably. The need to go back to the start line every time the democratic process is resumed after a non-democratic hiatus has severely limited the space for political institutions, including political parties, to evolve organically.

When this instability does not lead to a total breakdown of the political system, it results in detours and distractions in the democratic and electoral processes. If, for instance, the Panama Papers scandal had not taken place, Sharif and his PMLN would have been heading into the 2018 elections seeking to retain power on the basis of their ability to keep their vote bank intact and satisfied. What is now likely to happen is a messier leadership transition, defection of power-seeking elected representatives and a possible split in the PMLN over time.

All that will set the clock back on institutional evolution even as the chances of a comprehensive, across-the-board accountability taking root in the polity remain negligible.

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