Friday, 6 October 2017

Pakistan’s reform moment missed again

Pakistan is again in the news with the dismissal of the Prime Minister by the Supreme court. The international media is calling it a manipulation of the Pakistan army.

Yet experience shows that democratic governments reveal incompetence and corruption within a year of taking oath. The polity starts bubbling with rumors of misgovernance and corruption. The opposition which is always marginalized finds street protests preferable to parliament. Why?
Part of the answer lies in the fact that Pakistan hastily adopted the UK constitution, which is an unwritten set of norms and rules embedded in British history and culture. No serious attempts have been made to adapt it to local environment and culture

For example, election process and party system has never been properly defined. Every election is considered to be rigged and all parties are virtual personality cults with no internal process, management, policy development capacity or clear membership. 

Elections are mere selection of dynasties and democracy mere bickering among the few who have regarded the country as a fiefdom. 2 families—Bhuttos and Sharifs—have led politics for the last 40 years while evidence (Ali Cheema et al) has shown that about two thirds of legislators have come from about 400 families to make policies in a country of 200 million people.

The state is captured by dynasties. Dynastic politicians don’t even file a tax return and those that do have a life style way beyond the tax that they paid. Beyond taxes power is egregiously abused every day. Recently a minister (member of an important clan) ran over a policemen a in broad daylight and it remains to be seen if he faces any consequences. In the past, too often they have not.

Parliament is dysfunctional. The Chairman of the senate repeatedly complains of the lack of attendance and the continued absence of ministers and the PM. Budget discussions are among the shortest in the world and pass without any opposition. But then, parliament made itself redundant by making it mandatory to vote along party lines (14th amendment).  

Elected PMs operate through an ‘inner cabinet’ of favorites—family members, civil servants and unelected friends. Policy is merely PM’s whim. Policies and projects are put in place without due diligence; international agreements signed without analysis; and loans are signed with no transparency. Public disclosure is severely limited.

The executive retains many control devices (inherited from the raj) to corrupt all and weaken democracy. Like a medieval king, the PM can at his discretion award favorites—judges, officials and others-- government-owned mansions, cars, land grants and post retirement jobs.

The PM does not see himself as the first minister leading the process of changing policies through debate in Parliament cabinet and the public domain. We hear of Nawaz Sharif wanting better ties with India but on a personal level. Yet, no policy statement has been made by him, nor have we seen a cabinet or parliamentary process for making this happen.

Perhaps Fareed Zakaria’s book “Illiberal democracy” needs a follow-up to tell us how to fix this authoritarian, dynastic system. 

If he did, surely, he would point to needed constitutional changes to build checks and balances to arbitrary power. At a minimum, the PM needs to be fully engaged with a working, independent parliament and an engaged consultative full cabinet. No more whimsical policymaking without due process.

Several options are available to end dynastic politics. Election systems independent of the executive and beyond rigging are a must. Term limits, even family limits, systems other than mere first-past-the-post, formalized party systems that allow more in-party democracy and much more can be considered.

Perhaps the most important crucible of democracy local government, which dynastic politics has blocked for decades, could be developed to bring democracy closer to the community.

Government departments and agencies are an agency of restraint against willful government. The excessive centralization of inherited colonial systems must be reformed to allow more room for independent regulatory and watchdog agencies to provide more monitoring and evaluation to voters.

Pakistan polity needs reform. Talking conspiracies and personality politics will lose yet another reform moment.