Making our democracy “antifragile”

Published: July 2, 2012
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The writer is a partner at Bhandari, Naqvi & Riaz and an advocate of the Supreme Court. The writer can be reached on Twitter @laalshah. The views presented in the article above are not those of his firm

The writer is a partner at Bhandari, Naqvi & Riaz and an advocate of the Supreme Court. The writer can be reached on Twitter @laalshah. The views presented in the article above are not those of his firm

It is received wisdom amongst Pakistan’s elite that democracy can never work here because our people are stupid. Actually, the only real reason why democracy has consistently failed in Pakistan is that our elites are stupid.

Democracy is not just the ability to vote for people every five years. Instead, democracy is a political process in which people have the ability to hold their leaders accountable by voting them out. The greater the ability of the people to hold people accountable, the more responsive and democratic the system. This, in turn, requires that decision-making be decentralised to the maximum extent possible so that the people’s accountability can operate on as fine a scale as possible.

Unfortunately, what we find in Pakistan is the exact opposite. What we find is that all opportunities for popular accountability are systematically eliminated except those which are constitutionally unavoidable. What we find is that all decision-making is concentrated into the least possible set of hands so that everybody else becomes merely a conduit for power.

The best illustration of the castration of democracy in Pakistan is the elimination of the local government system bequeathed by General (retd) Pervez Musharraf. Yes, it was complicated. But lest we forget, it was also a system in which people were represented through elected assemblies at the union level, at the tehsil level and at the district level, with each level having serious money to play with.

Let me put this in number terms. Today, there are a total of seven popularly elected assemblies (six, if you count out the Senate). In 2007, there were 6,628 more (102 district councils, eight city district councils, 332 tehsil councils, 62 town councils, and 6,125 union councils — minus the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly, which did not exist earlier). In 2012, there are a total of 1,207 members of the Senate and the National and the Provincial Assemblies. In 2007, there were 85,210 more people representing Pakistanis in elected assemblies.

The failure to hold local body elections is, in true words, a conspiracy. Every single political party in power in any province of Pakistan has conspired in this murder of democracy. Not one single province has held local body elections for four years and while the courts have recently started to push back, they too must share part of the blame.

In his latest book, Nassim Nicholas Taleb introduces the concept of  “Antifragility” as a property of systems. Taleb’s point is that nobody really knows what goes on in big systems and how things interact. The important thing, therefore, is to hedge your bets the way organic systems do so that even a “black swan event” doesn’t wipe out everything. As he points out, it is more harmful to jump once from a 100 metres than to jump 100 times from one metre.

Let me put this in simpler terms. If, God forbid, bird flu was to hit Pakistan, it is likely that the vast majority of Pakistan’s poultry industry would be wiped out. This is because the poultry industry, like many modern agro-businesses, deals in monocultures, one particular breed of one particular chicken. Nature, on the other hand, is always experimenting so that at any given time, there are literally millions of different genes competing for survival. Modern poultry breeding is a fragile system. Nature is antifragile.

The problem with democracy in Pakistan is that our leaders insist on making it “fragile” (in the Talebian sense). They insist that all other rival centres of popular authority are annihilated and they then insist further that all decision-making power gets further concentrated in their hands.

The absurdity of this approach can be seen most clearly in Punjab where a province of 86 million people — one that by itself would be the 15th largest country in the world — is being governed in effect by one person. At one time, Mian Shahbaz Sharif held 18 portfolios in his own cabinet (though, I believe, the number now has diminished).

This is madness. It is also unfair to the people of the Punjab.

Another example of how power becomes not just centralised but concentrated in one person can be seen in the recent elevation of Raja Pervaiz Ashraf to the office of the prime minister. The decision as to who to nominate should have been a consensus one because the PPP needed the support of the PML-Q and the MQM. However, both coalition parties said that they would leave the decision to the PPP. The PPP said that the decision would be made by the Central Executive Committee (CEC). And the CEC decided to repose its entire confidence and decision-making powers in the hands of the co-chairman of the PPP, Mr Asif Ali Zardari.

The desire to centralise power is not one which afflicts executive officials alone. The unanimity with which the Supreme Court now speaks is such that, according to one commentator, “not one judge in these four years [since the restoration of the CJP in 2008] has disagreed on a single point of law in a major constitutional case”. I agree entirely that this is a disturbing sign. Common law courts form a resilient, antifragile judicial system precisely because they allow for a multiplicity of views to exist before being slowly resolved over time. Views thus get thrashed out amongst different judges with different viewpoints. Good points and bad points both get slowly identified. And only the concentrated common sense of the judiciary eventually survives.

By contrast, what one sees quite often is a multiplicity of issues getting decided directly in the Supreme Court, and that, too, without dissent. This is not a healthy development. Dissent is a good thing because it is a sign of life, a sign of independent thinking, and more importantly, because today’s dissent can become tomorrow’s orthodoxy. More importantly, we need to give appropriate time for these issues to be examined in detail rather than simply seeking to address all aspects in one go.

Our democracy is weak today because its burden is shared too narrowly. Let that burden be shared across persons and institutions in the way that the burdens of democracy are meant to be shared. And we will then see how antifragile democracy in Pakistan can be.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 3rd, 2012.

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Reader Comments (15)

  • faraz
    Jul 2, 2012 - 10:41PM

    Constituency politics depends on control over local bureaucracy and judiciary. Members of national and provincial assemblies arrange development works for their constituencies and get votes in return. This entire patron client relationship would collapse if local bodies are given these powers.

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  • [email protected]
    Jul 2, 2012 - 11:15PM

    Very well-written. I found myself nodding along.

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  • Kaka
    Jul 2, 2012 - 11:33PM

    Mr. Naqvi, are you suggesting that the Supreme Court’s power has become centralized within the office of the CJP? gasp

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  • elementary
    Jul 2, 2012 - 11:36PM

    Fantastic read.Power concentrated, invariably becomes evil.Devolution of power to the grass root level is the need of the hour.Diversity is the strength of nature and difference of opinion that of democracy.
    No single institution of the state should be able to weild an unbridled concentrated power.
    Let’s find unity in diversity and strength in devolution. Devolution both horizonatally and vertically.

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  • Lala Gee
    Jul 3, 2012 - 12:20AM

    “The failure to hold local body elections is, in true words, a conspiracy. Every single political party in power in any province of Pakistan has conspired in this murder of democracy.”

    The same thing I have been saying all along in my comments. In fact, the democracy in Pakistan is any thing but democracy and is a “revenge” being taken from the people for their stupidity.

    Excellent article.

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  • ayesha_khan
    Jul 3, 2012 - 2:06AM

    @faraz: “Constituency politics depends on control over local bureaucracy and judiciary. Members of national and provincial assemblies arrange development works for their constituencies and get votes in return. This entire patron client relationship would collapse if local bodies are given these powers.”

    Look across to your eastern neighbour. There are many things we haven’t got right but this is one thing we HAVE got right. We always had local self governments but Empowered Local Self-governments is probably a phenomenon of last 20 years. And no – this has not led to a collapse of the system.

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  • faraz
    Jul 3, 2012 - 6:39AM

    @ayesha_khan

    I am talking about collapse of patron client politics which is a good thing! A power patron offers protection and resources to weaker clients in exchange for their votes. Patronage politics is prevalent in rural and semi urban areas, and it’s a source of corruption and exploitation. Patrons who are landlords or clan/tribe elders become members of national or provincial assembly and negotiate development funds for their constituencies. They control the appointments of local bureaucracy and judiciary, and prevent emergence of new democratic leadership. So people have to vote for these powerful patrons to obtain basic facilities like clean water, school etc. That’s why in rural areas, the same powerful politicians get elected each time. Local bodies could weaken their stranglehold, so they didn’t conduct local body elections in past 5 years.

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  • ayesha_khan
    Jul 3, 2012 - 7:59AM

    @faraz: Ok. So if I understand you correctly, you are saying that an empowered local self government system will disrupt an entrenched oligarchich status quo. While it is desirable to do so, it generates strong resistance from people who currently benefit from status quo. Hence the forces of change have to be strong enough to overcome this resistance.

    If this is your position, I certainly agree with that.

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  • Mirza
    Jul 3, 2012 - 8:07AM

    I agree the cure for nascent and imperfect democracy is more democracy at grassroots level. It is like the remedy for imperfect education is not abolishing the schools but better education. The more people are involved the better they would feel about themselves and become positive members of the society.
    The culture of brown nosing must be changed and the party leaders must tell the truth to their superiors. Pakistan has a lot more talent than a few people who have concentrated powers in their hands. We should come out of the illusion that one man would descend and change our plight. It is not going to happen and we would have to earn our future the hard way. Recommend

  • Usman
    Jul 3, 2012 - 9:04AM

    Completely agree. When Nawaz was in power, he did the same thing by making constitutional ammendments. Then Musharraf by default did the same. And now the PPP is following suit. PPP/PML-N/MQM are the biggest threat to democracy. Not the Judiciary or the Army.

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  • Usman
    Jul 3, 2012 - 9:08AM

    @Kaka: Quite the opposite. Other civilian institutions like NAB/PAC/ECP and Police need to start functioning properly (or at least take the first step like the judiciary) and stop being influenced by politicians. They need to follow the Supreme Court’s lead.

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  • Jul 3, 2012 - 5:36PM

    We need more articles like this. Problem is the governing elite don’t read.

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  • jamil janjua
    Jul 3, 2012 - 11:21PM

    It is obvious that if everyone is thinking and agreeing alike… nobody is thinking!

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  • Parvez
    Jul 4, 2012 - 12:00AM

    Brilliant read.
    I have to disagree with you for saying that democracy failed because the elite are stupid.
    They are anything but stupid as they have created a facade behind which anything but democratic norms exist. I would call them intelligent, self-serving and cunning.

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  • Jul 6, 2012 - 2:33AM

    @Walayat Malik:

    “We need more articles like this. Problem is the governing elite don’t read.”
    With so many being exposed as holders of fake “degrees”, a more suitable description would be, “Problem is the governing elite can’t read.
    .
    However, they are anything but stupid, silly definitely.

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