Balancing the institutions

Institutional imbalance has been one of the major causes of setbacks to democracy

Rasul Bakhsh Rais September 12, 2018
The writer is a professor of political science at LUMS, Lahore. His recent book is Imagining Pakistan: Modernism, State and the Politics of Islamic Revival (Lexington Books, 2017)

Institutional imbalance has been one of the major causes of setbacks to democracy, political instability, and a reason for the worsening of civil-military relations, subordination of judiciary and politicisation of bureaucracy. When institutions function within their constitutional limits, and each keeps supremacy of the Constitution before personal or institutional interests, a formal systemic balance follows. The principle which defines the balance among institutions is the separation of powers. No democracy can function as a true democracy without separating powers—legislative, executive and the judicial. This has been a major challenge, a dilemma and the root cause of all problems that we confront.

It began with the executive bringing the superior judiciary under its sway. Having done this, it was able to dominate the legislature—parliament, which is assumed to be a sovereign institution. The executive authoritarianism of early years of independence and the four interventions, lasting for 30 years, controlled the legislature and the judiciary. The transition to democracy three times created elected political executives but the system turned out to be equally authoritarian with concentration of powers in the powerful office of the prime minister. Both the judiciary and the legislature remained heavily overshadowed by the power and influence of the prime ministers. Dynastic party structure and personalised control reduced space for dissent in the name of party discipline. The members of parliament have slavishly toed the line given to them by the party bosses from defending their corruption and dishonesty to singing praises for them, their dynastic successors and political positions.

Military’s intervention in politics, its subversion of the Constitution and rearranging of institutional powers to benefit the ruling generals has been a greater cause of institutional imbalance than any other. The legacies of military rule have lingered on, and security establishment’s control over security and critical foreign policy issues has often resulted in bouts of power struggles with some of the civilian regimes.

There are two reasons for it. First, there has been a distrust of the civilian politicians, particularly their tendency to move now and fast in claiming greater civilian space on security and foreign policy issues. Second, the continual crisis of performance legitimacy of the civilian leaders. Civilian supremacy needs to be established, but what can be the best strategy? Learning from successful post-military regime elsewhere, it requires two elements. First, mutual trust, consultation and consensus on critical national issues. Even in best of democracies, the political executives pursue an extensive deliberative process involving the military, intelligence agencies, foreign policy establishment and the political executive. Good politics is about finding a common ground, what is doable and what helps achieve a general agreement on the national objectives and best course of action for achieving them. Second, is the record of performance of a civilian government, which would give it deeper roots and acceptance within the population, and eventually greater influence to sell its argument to the security establishment.

With new government settling down, it is imperative for all institutions, the political executive and the military in particular to normalise the institutional balance. It is a simple process, reflective of good intentions on all sides, mutual trust and hammering out agreements on fundamental policy issues. Thankfully, there is a better climate for institutional balance now than one could expect to happen during the previous government that set itself on a confrontational path with the judiciary and the military, castigating and maligning them publicly. That is not what the art of statecraft, statesmanship and political maturity is.

Finally, the government appears to be working as a coherent whole after a decade of functioning in fragments and institutions battling for securing their turfs. That is a good beginning for stability, political order and politics of reforms.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 12th, 2018.

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