How to avoid political decay

Published: March 4, 2012

The writer is a former vice-president of the World Bank and a former caretaker finance minister of Pakistan

Studying Pakistan’s economic history from the perspective of crises — why they have occurred, what was done to deal with them, and how the crisis-solving solutions adopted by various administrations shaped the economy — leads to one important conclusion. For fifty years, crises came in the form of discrete events, often the result of the actions taken by foreign states. That is no longer the case. Now that the country is settling down in politics, it is dealing with what democracy invariably produces in the early stages: poor governance. For democracy to continue to win people’s favour and for the economy to be pulled from the edge of an abyss, those who are in positions of power at this time will have to improve the quality of governance.

Those who have studied the process of political development note that democracy’s progress in not linear, neither it is one-dimensional. Democracies do not necessarily go from bad democracies to good democracies. They can move in the reverse direction as well. Political development can result in political decay. This has occurred too often in Pakistan to assume that the country is set on a course that would inevitably produce good democracy and good governance. In the past, whenever people were unhappy with the current state of affairs, they allowed an alternate form of government to replace democratic governance.

To appreciate where Pakistan is today and where it could be, it would be useful to recall where it has been in the past. In that context we should note the several discontinuities in the country’s history. The first of these occurred in 1958. Then the military under General Ayub Khan took advantage of a deep political crisis and poorly-performing economy to change the system of governance. After installing himself as president, Ayub Khan dispensed with the parliamentary from of democracy and replaced it with a tightly controlled presidential system. The 1958 Constitution was abrogated and a new one was promulgated in 1962. The new political structure allowed very limited participation to the citizenry. Ayub Khan called the new system ‘basic democracy’. He also changed the economic system, permitting the state a much larger role; he also placed emphasis on growth rather than on poverty alleviation or income distribution. This brought political stability for a while and considerable economic progress but led to a perception that the only the well-to-do had benefitted from what Ayub Khan called the ‘decade of development’.

However, the first military ruler’s eleven-year reign was interrupted by another military intervention when it became clear that the people were happy neither with the structure of politics, nor with the content of economic development. The first, kept the people largely out; the second, it came to be believed, gave most of the rewards of growth to a small segment of the population. General Yahya Khan followed the Ayubian model of change; he threw out of the window both the political structure and the economic model he had inherited from his military predecessor.

The third military intervention came in 1977, the result once gain of popular discontent with the state of the economy. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s socialist ways had slowed the economy down to the point where the people had begun to get seriously hurt. The citizenry was not unhappy with the political system, only with the way it was managed. Bhutto’s autocratic disposition had over-powered the political system created by the Constitution of 1973. The Constitution had broad political support but not the way Bhutto had conducted himself in office. Accordingly, General Ziaul Haq, the new military ruler, did not attempt to alter the political structure; he just pushed it back to create space for himself. For several years the Constitution remained suspended. Later, when General Zia believed he needed to share power with elected representatives of the people, he exacted his price by inserting the eighth Amendment into the Constitution. This created a hybrid system of governance, in part presidential and in part parliamentary. At the same time the military opted for the bureaucratic (Ghulam Ishaq Khan) and expert (Mahbubul Haq) management of the economy.

The fourth military incursion into politics was once again the result of political and economic mismanagement. There were a number of important economic moves made by the civilians who governed for eleven years before the advent of another military era. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in his first term (1991-93) opened the economy while Benazir Bhutto, during her second term, invited private entrepreneurship into the vital sector of energy. But these moves were not good enough to enthuse the citizenry who became increasingly dissatisfied with the economic situation. Once again, the political system was not seen as the problem. General Pervez Musharraf, the new leader, followed General Zia’s approach in politics by keeping the 1973 system in place and inserting another amendment — the thirteenth this time — to give it a presidential twist. Good bureaucratic management and some economic expertise saved the economy from a crisis. In fact, for half-a-dozen years, the country enjoyed a robust period of growth.

A number of conclusions emerge from these discontinuities in Pakistan’s political and economic history. People have reacted to their environment whenever it turned difficult for them and demanded regime change. But since the political system in place did not have the means to bring about a change in government, the military stepped in to force it. There is palpable dissatisfaction today among the people with their situation but there is also confidence that it is possible to bring about regime change through political means. In the new media – both print and electronic – there are means available for people to express their unhappiness if change comes through unacceptable means.  The civil society is also active in reflecting people’s wishes. People are not prepared to accept any system in which they don’t have a say. This is the case not only in Pakistan but also in the Arab world which is going through a series of convulsions. This will keep the military at bay while people seek a democratic solution to their many problems. Democracy mercifully is here to stay.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 5th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (7)

  • Falcon
    Mar 5, 2012 - 1:30AM

    A good recap. Any system goes through a period of instability when shifting from one mode to another, which in this case refers to transition from military dictatorship to democracy. It is at that very time of instability, willingness of people to push through with change is measured. Thanks God, it seems that this time we were able to survive this tough phase with eyes on the ball. I think a lot of factors have contributed to it: judiciary, media, civil society, military (at least to some extent), Arab spring, results of Musharraf era in the form of terrorism, shifting views towards establishment, and rise of new political forces.

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  • Max
    Mar 5, 2012 - 3:14AM

    Mr. Burki analysis well taken, we need to dig deeper to understand Pakistani malaise, and I am not defending the successive military coups, civil or military bureaucratic over-lordships and resultant decay. But we need to look beyond macro developments. There is a lot that happens outside the corridors of power particularly when there is an absence of responsibility and sense of direction.
    There is a need for a pathological diagnosis of Pakistani disease since the cancer has spread through the body-politics. The best approach will be to understand the state-society relationship and how it has lead to decay than development. There are very serious issues at the societal level starting from over-population, poverty, corruption, weaker tax-structure, psychological reluctance to modernize, rentier nature of the state, and not to mention hip-hop religiosity.

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  • Sajida
    Mar 5, 2012 - 9:47AM

    Democracy also delivers poor governance in mature stages if it gets gamed.
    http://www.rasmussenreports.com/publiccontent/politicalcommentary/commentarybyscottrasmussen/whypoliticianscantconnectwiththemiddle_class
    Why Politicians Can’t Connect With the Middle Class
    http://www.governing.com/columns/smart-mgmt/government-we-dont-trust.html
    In Government We Don’t Trust

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  • Mar 5, 2012 - 10:00AM

    This article is a poor apology for military coups in Pakistan. Ayub, Zia and Musharraf did not grab power because they were concerned about people’s disenchatment with the government or the economic suffering of the common man. They committed coups against elected governments in their own selfish interest to prevent their own power from being diminished. To make excuses for these dictators is to be complicit in their subversion of democracy.

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  • Mar 5, 2012 - 10:35PM

    The writer did not answer his own question: how to avoid political decay? He has filled his article with the facts that are already known. Please give the solutions, not just explain the current and past events.Good things are already happening. We have independent Election Commission and Judiciary. All we need is independent and autonomous Accountability Commission.

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  • aatif ehsan
    Mar 5, 2012 - 10:37PM

    a very balanced analysis of politico_economic history of pakistan. Hats off to you Sir!

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  • Mar 7, 2012 - 8:11PM

    Pakistan is NOT a democracy! Until elected officials have oversight over the military and its intelligence agencies it remains a military junta with elected functionaries. Even if civilian oversight is achieved until freedom of speech is broadened and officials held accountable for their deeds Pakistan can not progress beyond being a corrupt oligarchic republic, as Venice was in Europe’s Middle Ages, or the speech-restricted states of the U.S. South were in the generation leading up to the American Civil War.

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