Volume 22 Issue 6, June 2018


Will Pakistan emerge stronger after the elections of 2018? My answer is yes and why I believe that would be the case is the subject of this article. I have just returned from a visit to Pakistan and had the occasion to meet and talk to a number of senior serving and retired officials from both the civilian and military side of the government. I also conversed with several contributors to the opinion columns of major newspapers. These conversations left me with the impression that a fairly large segment of the thinking populace in the country has serious concerns about the direction in which Pakistan is moving. These concerns are not confined to politics; there are also worries about the developing economic situation and the country's relations with the outside world. The one area where there was some comfort was the security situation in the country. But that must also have been shaken by the assassination attempt on Ahsan Iqbal, the former Interior Minister on May 6.

After meandering aimlessly in the political field for decades, Pakistan seems to have finally embarked on the constitutional path. But conventional wisdom is a powerful force. It can produce the feared results. The attack on the minister will add to the negative view many hold in the country about its political future. The main impression I formed during the visit was that the major players in the political system -- politicians, people holding senior positions in the military, the Judiciary and the highly energized media have not found a way to work together within the constitutional framework. To these I would add a fifth player: the Pakistani youth.

In examining where we are today, how we have arrived at the current point, and where we might be headed, I will concern myself only with politics. I will do this even though I am not a political scientist by training nor am I involved in politics. I am an economist and that is the discipline I have been engaged with in my entire professional life. That said, it is worth pointing out that of late -- and by that I mean over the last decade or so -- economists have begun to realize that the main assumption on which they had structured their thinking was at best weak. Psychoanalysts invaded their domain and established that human beings don't always behave rationally. Most of the time they fashion their behaviour on the basis of biases and experience. Political scientists had already forced economists to recognize that the two disciplines in which they worked interacted with one another. Pakistan's economic future, therefore, would be determined by the way its political system develops. In viewing that development, most thinking people have concluded that our politics is headed towards prolonged instability. That impression has been created by past history as well as by a number of recent events.

For the past 70 years, Pakistan has adjusted its politics to deal with recurrent crises. The result was that the boundaries of the areas in which people should have worked were never clearly defined. The military should have focused on ensuring security but it interfered in politics in the belief that it could manage the crisis of the day better than its civilian counterparts. Four times it intervened directly and established itself as the unchallenged ruler. Even when it was not in charge, it continued to wield considerable influence. Politicians did not constrain their involvement in governance by clearly defining the rules they would follow. This would have meant taking the Constitution seriously. But the Constitution is a living and dynamic framework that evolves as circumstances change. This is where the Judiciary enters the picture. For decades, the Superior Court assigned a passive role to itself, hiding behind what it called the "doctrine of necessity." Under the doctrine, it justified actions by the executive and the military that were clearly unconstitutional. The media, the fourth leg in a well-functioning political system, was able to work without constraints after General Pervez Musharraf, the country's fourth military leader, freed it from government controls. The number of private channels soared and aggressively competed with one another. But the expanded electronic media did not always act responsibly.

What makes democracy the system that should produce positive results is its ability to correct the mistakes various groups within the citizenry often make in conducting themselves. Winston Churchill's famous conclusion was that democracy constituted the "worst form of government -- except for all those other forms that have been tried." As Boris Johnson, the current British Foreign Secretary wrote in an essay contributed to the editorial pages of The New York Times on the eve of his visit to Washington to convince the Trump administration not to scuttle the Iran nuclear deal, Churchill "was not succumbing to pessimism; on the contrary, faced with an array of unappetizing options, there is a deep wisdom in choosing the one with the smallest downside and then fixing its limitations."

This fixing comes through periodic elections in which the voters give their views about the people who are asking for their support. While the people of Pakistan have voted in elections nine times since the country achieved independence, real choice was exercised only three times: in 1970 and again in 2008 and 2013. In 1970, some of those who held the reins of power refused to accept the election's verdict. The obvious outcome should have been to transfer power to the Bengali leader Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and his political party, the Awami League. But that was not done. The Bengali leader and his party were the clear winners but Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party had won the majority in West Pakistan. His twisted political logic led to the civil war in East Pakistan and the breakup of original Pakistan. The two other times, the electorate voted to bring about decisive changes. This was not just in facilitating the transfer of power from one political party to another but in establishing the simple but important fact that the will of the people will prevail. Elections, therefore, serve to cleanse the political system. This will undoubtedly happen in 2018.

But when I write about the "people" I am not using an abstract notion. I am referring to those who the law of the land recognizes as legitimate voters; above the age of 18. Demographic movements bring about changes that are not always appreciated or comprehended by the political establishment. The most telling transformation that has come about in the five year period between 2013 and 2018 is the entry of some 20 to 22 million newcomers to the electorate. This is the youth who will want their aspirations to be recognized. Some years ago, Anatol Lieven, wrote a book titled Pakistan: A Hard Country, in which he suggested that the remarkable resilience of the people in the country was their reliance on local systems for support. The best known of these is the "baradari system." That may have been the case in the past but with the demographic tilt in favour of the youth, these old alliances are no longer at the center of political processes. Political parties have now established themselves at the heart of the system. Now some 105 million people are below the age of 24, the country's median age. In the large cities, 75 percent of the population is below that age. These people have political and economic aspirations; they want systems of governance that are inclusive, not exclusive. They will vote for those that can satisfy these demands.

The attempt on the life of the former Interior Minister points to one unfinished business in terms of placing the country under the rule of law. In spite of the successes achieved by the military to improve the security situation in the country, there are still people who believe that the use of violence is the right option to force their views on the rest of the citizenry. The 22-year young man who attempted to kill the minister belongs to a group that passionately believes in the doctrine of Khatam-e-Nabuwat, the finality of prophethood. "This menace of hatred will destroy everything," tweeted former foreign minister Khawaja Asif. "For God's sake, we have to work together for our country.” In another tweet, Afrasiab Khattak, a retired senator, warned, "Weaponizing religion is a path to horrible disaster."

"Rule of law" is a generic sounding term but the 2018 elections will provide an opportunity to reaffirm it. Under this form of governance, government actors are both limited by it and accountable to it. While the Constitution is the basic document that defines it, the courts interpret it, and the media watches the way it is operated. The way the system is developing, the military has assumed the role to ensure that these three actors stay the course.

Shahid Javed Burki is a professional economist who has served as a Vice President of the World Bank and as caretaker Finance Minister of Pakistan.
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