Posts Tagged ‘Patronage’

Governance Trap

July 18, 2018

By Anjum Altaf

It was back in the time of one of the dictators who was giving the Pakistani political system one of its fresh starts. He had given a message to the people to take advantage of new elections and replace dishonest incumbents by voting for “good” people. At the time I was doing fieldwork in rural Sindh in a constituency where the incumbent was a known criminal and I put the proposition to a peasant asking him if he would vote for a “good” candidate. The illiterate peasant took all of three seconds, looked me in the eye, and replied: “Saeen, will the good man get my son out of prison?”

Therein lies the insight that goes to the heart of the Pakistani political system. It is obvious to illiterate voters but escapes many a sophisticated analyst. In our deeply hierarchical society, most people are dependent on patrons who can act as intermediaries with the state — both to negotiate legitimate claims of the powerless and to protect them from exploitation. In such a context, there is no place for “good” representatives — the more powerful and connected the patron, the better. Not surprisingly, voters are indifferent to the criminality of the patron, nor are they concerned when their political representative hops from one party to another. In fact, it is considered a quality of a powerful patron that he is always aligned with the winning side in order to better leverage the organs of the state.

Analysts who use terms like ‘alas,’ ‘if only,’ and ‘unfortunately’ in their expositions of Pakistani politics and bemoan voter indifference to party-hopping miss the point entirely. It is not that but for a few favourable turns of fortune Pakistan would have been in a much more healthy political state. The problem is deeply structural. Pakistan has been enmeshed from the very beginning in a governance trap and there are no prospects of escape without structural interventions. The proof of the first part of this assertion is that no matter how many times in the past the system of governance has been given a so-called fresh start it has ended up not just exactly in the same dysfunctional state but in a worse one.

Anyone who doubts this claim needs only to look beyond his or her nose. Observe what is happening to Imran Khan’s party. The leader who promised to eliminate corruption in hundred days with a hundred honest people is furiously surrounding himself with the same old characters he was decrying a few months ago. One can infer how the structural imperatives of the electoral system are squeezing out the “good” candidates.

In this structural scenario, it is incredibly naive to hear the opinion that Imran Khan deserves a chance because he is an untainted newcomer while everyone else has had a turn and that once he has had his stint the political system would attain a higher equilibrium. What is there to guarantee that after another messy round of misgovernance there would not be another newcomer claiming the right to have his or her turn at the wheel? Repeating the same process based on nothing more than hopes and prayers is not a sign of wisdom.

The governance trap described above is immune to the personality of the leader because the problem is structural. Neither the upright Ayub, the cosmopolitan Bhutto, the pious Zia, the liberal Musharraf, nor the pragmatic Sharif could effect any sustainable reform in governance that made a meaningful difference in the lives of the majority.

The major structural determinant of Pakistan’s governance system that is responsible for its pathological circularity is the reality that the protection of citizens is ensured by the same person who is meant to represent their electoral preferences. Only when these two functions are separated, rights being ensured by neutral and effective institutions and political preferences being channeled by elected representatives, can a semblance of the democratic ideal emerge. A democratic political system rests on a foundation of law and order, impersonal entitlement to rights, and recourse to a fair system of justice. As long as citizens need to appeal to their political representatives to get their sons out of jail, their mothers admitted to hospitals, or find their nephews a job in a state-owned enterprise, we will continue to recreate the same dispensation no matter how many times the process is repeated.

Of course, it should be obvious that the above-mentioned institutional transformation is very far in the future in Pakistan and cannot be hurried beyond a point. These transformations occurred in Europe over centuries of democratic struggle. They cannot be expected in countries without a tradition of mass struggle and where the system of governance is a legacy of a departing colonial power.

In our socioeconomic context, the only recourse is to lobby for changes in constitutional and electoral rules that can be leveraged to minimize the negative attributes of the present system. For example, what is there to prevent introducing a rule that any candidate who switches political parties a year before a forthcoming election would have to sit out the election cycle? Why should parties be allowed to indulge in horse-trading in nominating candidates instead of instituting party primaries in which voters also have a say? Why do we have constituency delimitations in which the urban vote is under-represented? Why should we be stuck with the first-past-the-post system in which spoiler parties can be introduced to fracture the vote? Why do we need a parliamentary system in which even a very competent leader cannot survive without a large number of local strongmen?

It is not really a surprise that very little attention has been devoted to discussing the set of electoral rules that can lead to distinct improvements in political representation. Rather, it is much easier and much more entertaining to focus on a horse-race speculating about odds and handicaps and the shenanigans of the linesmen and the referees. It is such short-termism that portends a bleak future in which all we can hope for is more of the same if we are lucky.   

This opinion was published in Dawn on July 16, 2018, and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Why are Political Parties Not Issue Oriented?

October 7, 2008

The implication in an earlier post (Who Wants Peace in the Subcontinent?) was that the non-existence of political parties advocating peace was evidence that voters did not want peace with neighboring countries.

Here we immediately fall into the trap of taking foreign concepts and applying them uncritically to alien situations. Are political parties in Pakistan really ‘political’ parties or are they something different?

When one thinks about it, there are no major political parties in Pakistan today that advocate anything specific in terms of policy. One would be hard pressed to unambiguously associate a party with big or small government, free trade or autarky, protection or competition, privatization or public sector dominance. What one does find are parties associated with various personalities all of whom promise to do the same things better than anyone else.

This observation calls for a closer look at the nature of democratic systems and the place of our own variant of democracy in that scheme. It seems reasonable to argue that an ideally functioning democratic order requires the existence of a sufficiently large number of undecided voters open to being persuaded to switch party affiliations. It is this pool of undecided voters that creates the possibility of a political party transforming itself from a representative of the minority to a representative of the majority. It is this possibility that motivates a political party to present an agenda that is most responsive to the preferences of the voting population. And this requires it to spell out its positions on issues of foreign and domestic policy like war, health care, land reform, minimum wage, etc.

The essential requirement of this system is the existence of a sufficiently large number of voters open to being persuaded to change their voting preference in response to a more attractive policy agenda. It is not necessary that all voters be in this category. The majority of voters in all democratic systems are lifelong supporters of one party or the other based on their agreement with the broad philosophies of the contending parties. But without the large pool of undecided voters such a system would cease to function because there would be no possibility of a minority party gaining enough marginal votes to win an election.

This brings us to the most critical aspect of such a system that remains neglected in discussions of democracy in Pakistan. What are the conditions that govern the behavior of undecided voters? First, the issues of policy must figure reasonably prominently in their hierarchy of needs and, second, they must have the confidence that their representatives would honestly and consistently represent the political preferences of the voters.

Now contrast this scenario with the reality in Pakistan. Here the calculus of the majority of voters is quite different because their basic physiological needs and rights remain unfulfilled and dominate their concerns. They look upon their representatives as potential lifelines to social protection, livelihoods, and access to basic entitlements; the political representation of their policy is a secondary concern at this stage of economic development.

In the absence of the rule of law, all political systems tend towards a system of patronage and the rational voter seeks to be on the side of the strongest patron. It is of little importance whether the moral or policy positions of the voter are in harmony with those of the representative. Voter behavior bears this out. Voters regularly elect representatives who they know to be dishonest and a constituency is much more likely to reject a representative in a subsequent election if he has proved to be without influence than if he has changed his political position or loyalty by 180 degrees.

It is no surprise therefore that the same people or families get elected time after time and freely change parties or swing from one policy position to another. And it is also no surprise that the primary objective of political parties is not to put together policy agendas (because they can take voter behavior for granted) but to try and win over as many of the strong patrons as they can to their side. The party with the greater number of patrons wins and then has to reward the patrons. The size of political cabinets is an indicator of this phenomenon.

This is not something aberrant. All social systems reflect their history and are shaped by them; change comes slowly at best. The mistake is to take a concept or institutional arrangement from a system at a different level of development and apply it to one where it is not relevant. The lens through which we examine reality has to be the right one for the task.

It is important therefore to understand the evolution of the democratic order in Europe. One would realize the important role of the options that opened out to commoners in Europe by the spread of the rule of law. The rule of law allowed the separation of the functions of political representation and social and economic protection. The voters were not dependent any more upon one representative for both. They could now vote their true political preferences and still be assured that their basic rights and entitlements would be protected. This milestone marked the emergence of ‘political’ parties in the real sense of the term.

Without equality under the law and access to impartial justice, Pakistan is not yet at a similar level of development. We may choose to call our system democratic but it is a uniquely peculiar democracy embedded in a hierarchical society operating without the rule of law. In such conditions, what we call political parties are really patronage groups. It is not surprising that these groups are owned by families, have dynastic transitions, and have no loyalties to any political positions or principles.

In the event of disagreements within groups, they give rise to splinter groups that are exactly similar except for the office-bearers. Hence the alphabet soup nomenclature of the groups. It is not something you can envisage in the UK; the existence of Labor (N), Labor (Q), and Labor (P) would be inconceivable.

This is a long explanation for why the absence of a political party in Pakistan advocating peace with neighbors might not actually signal the existence of a population that really believes in the virtue of confrontation with India.

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