Reforming Pakistani politics

Published: August 9, 2014
The writer is a defence analyst who retired as air-vice marshal in the Pakistan Air Force

The writer is a defence analyst who retired as air-vice marshal in the Pakistan Air Force

Politics in Pakistan is at a crossroads, yet again. Every few years that it gets an opportunity to resurrect, it begins its journey anew seeking an undisturbed run. Yet, at every such opportunity, it has stumbled: engendering a period of tenuousness in the political climate, making way for another order — mostly military. This alternation between politics and military is instructive in Pakistan’s historical experience.

On every rebound of the political system, it has always been the same set of political beliefs, structures, personalities and ethos (vile mostly, in common perception) that have reemerged, taking over from where the process had discontinued. What has been absent is the need to revamp and review the political structure itself to stem repeated failure, adding greater efficiency and resilience to it in the face of contemporary challenges. To the larger Pakistani mind, politics in its existing shape has not performed; and that remains a disturbing trend.

Traditionally, the need for such critical introspection is lost to an almost cliched characterisation of political fallibility as a battle between democracy and dictatorship. This has been politics’ most hurtful bane, since it obviates the need for it to examine itself from within. The PML-N, today, faces the consequence of a similar trend. Steeped in archaic political mindsets and methodologies, the performance of an entity as experienced as the PML-N, finds its performance grossly inadequate. This is when alternative forces begin to rear their heads.

Imran Khan (IK)’s and Dr Tahirul Qadri’s (TuQ) challenge to the system in place is a reflection of the malady that afflicts our politics. The remedy that each professes is another indicator of the misconception that stems from a less than adequate effort to seek wholesome resolution instead of immediate political returns. There is a need for some altruism if indeed the long-term interest of the people is the real intent. At the moment, both TuQ and IK betray something far short of that.

IK wants to ascend the throne. His lament on electoral malpractices is spot on, but is far short of the complete list of possibilities that must be included to update the political system to its current-day needs. He should instead work towards gaining a broad-spectrum treatment of our political ills, not merely fight to gain power. Such an approach will get him popular acceptability. His approach in the present effort must retain flexibility to negotiate for optimum advantage, not necessarily maximum advantage.

This, in short order then, is the malady: elections are historically rigged in various degrees and historically accepted as such, subsuming all associated ills — those who lose pledge to do better the next time in terms of their power and prowess and how they should manipulate the process more effectively in their favour. There is never a thought on how to eliminate fraud that renders the whole process non-credible.

Those who make it to the assemblies use the opportunity to extract their returns rather than spend effort towards achieving the common good. That appropriates corruption, giving it the informal acceptability of how the wheels of government are greased. Handouts to members, under the popular ruse of development, is the biggest ruckus that runs the town. The lack of debate in parliament on issues of national importance, too, smacks of incapacity of the chosen members and of their dubious antecedence. Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution stipulate the spiritual and moral qualifications of a prospective member, but fail hopelessly to address his/her professional or qualitative capacity to address and call to accountability, matters that relate to governance and policy formulation. As a consequence, the police, the judiciary and the bureaucracy, that administer day-to-day matters for the common people, remain unbridled and unaccountable.

Governments are judged on two basic criteria: governance and policy formulation. To most political set-ups, these remain the farthest in dispensation. When in positions of power, chosen legislators tend to work on policies, which perpetuate their hold over power and enrich their coffers. The Eighteenth, Nineteenth and Twentieth Amendments, ostensibly meant to democratise a tampered Constitution, have only strengthened the political establishment as an exclusive club. The culture of SROs is a known avenue of political governments to reward crony capitalism. The social contract in such political dispensations then becomes tenuous. It is under such conditions that sitting governments become vulnerable to disruptions from unrepresentative quarters; TuQ finds relevance under such existential inadequacies.

Political parties are the main stakeholders of any democracy, but in an ironic travesty, they are also the least democratic from the inside. Any election held within them is a sham and is meant to perpetuate the hold of a dynasty. Servility and henchmanship serves the route to success in such a political culture. These, then, are the people who will make legislators. Shorn of wider representation from an expanded base, which could ensure inclusion of specialists in policy areas, the output of these political parties in power remains hopelessly feeble and of a very poor quality. Democracy suffers when it is unable to give a good account of itself. There is a need to democratise political parties with wider representation through lateral inclusions of policy experts, who bring along intellect, experience and wisdom in the areas of policy and governance.

So then, what should IK do? He will not get the prime minister to resign, nor will he be able to dislodge the government. He should instead crown his valiant effort of organising mass agitation by seeking concessions and a formalised agreement through consensus from all political players of a new blueprint for a political system that should include remedial measures for known ills. A new political culture must include an unimpeachable electoral process, beginning with a full census at the national level. It must seek to legislate democratic principles within political parties and bind representation on a wider scale, going deep down to the local bodies level. A culture of good governance should be mandated with stricter retributions for deviations that render the democratic system a sham and self-serving. Structural changes, where needed, including increase of numbers of legislators in both houses, may also be considered. Downsizing provinces into smaller units is not only an administrative need, it is as much a democratic imperative; it should be a part of a larger understanding. Each of these should be timelined to ensure strict compliance. This fracas can only be resolved through negotiation; it is time to add value to it.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 9th, 2014.

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Reader Comments (22)

  • Toticalling
    Aug 9, 2014 - 1:28AM

    IK reminds me of a German leader in early 20th century who talked with confidence and had a mass appeal. He wanted a revolution and give honour to German pride. All very well but the guy wanted absolute power and we know how he destroyed the myth of superior race.
    I agree with IK that we need a better government. I agree with him that family ruling the country is too close to one family. But the solution is dislodging the government by vote and not disrupting the system. He should not forget that what he does in opposition can be used by others if and when he gets power.
    But i also condemn those who have time to march with for something they cannot identify. I say to these people: stay at home and vote for mr. right next time elections are held.


  • sabi
    Aug 9, 2014 - 1:54AM

    If democracy has to work we have to break powerful military-media-mullah nexus.Current turmoil is classic example of how this nexus work to defame politicians in the eyes of general public.Imran and Qadri are puppets of the nexus working together to slow down NS- express economic wonder train and virtually bring it to halt to the established narrative that politicians are corrupt and incapable.Pakistan tera Khuda hafiz.
    P.S.Rahil Sharif is doing wonderful job hope he will break this nexus God be with him.


  • Shahid Shah
    Aug 9, 2014 - 2:13AM

    Current parliament will never give change a chance nor status quo parliamentarians will every bring reform. The only solution is to kick them out. Letting them in for a long time will bring improvements but cause more wounds. This parliament came on rigged election and it is based on wrong foundation. If one hope the building over it will stay or become iconic is day-dreaming.

    Azadi March is chance for public to say good bye to corruption and family politics


  • Sami
    Aug 9, 2014 - 4:46AM

    I would say Mr. Shahzad’s memory is very poor, IK did twelve months campaign to demand justice and expose those who did rigging. Secondly Mr. Qadri’s stance could be wrong but who was behind killing in model town. Mr. Sharifs are politicians but they behave like dictators and did not listen to IK and did massacre in Lahore and N-League’s bureaucracy is now going to suppress and kill people. If you think that N-league government has right to kill and suppress people on difference of opinion and use departments for their black political motives on the name of democracy then nothing could convince you. You forget to mention attitude of PMLn that pushed opposition for mass mobilisation of public.


  • ani
    Aug 9, 2014 - 7:55AM

    IMHO people must be a patient for democracy to mature and work out. Surely, there will be mistakes made by people. But, over the course of time, people get educated and see through politician’s words – whether it is empty rhetoric or something substantial. The problem here, I think, has always been, as soon as some sense of dissatisfaction arises, a dictator pops up seizing the moment. Give democracy some time guys. Today people may be mesmerized and gung-ho about some leader. Morro, if they see he is failing on his promises. he should be booted out in the NEXT election,or, overthrown through some constitutional means – no confidence motion,etc. Constant overthrowing by “Revolution” or “coups” will simply mean this merry-go-round continues unabated, with no stability in the political climate of Pak, unless of course, there is some military dictator at the helm.


  • Xman
    Aug 9, 2014 - 9:44AM

    There is no difference between PTI and Talibans. Both want to destabilise the country through violence on the streets.


  • Aug 9, 2014 - 9:52AM

    Agreed with most brilliant points you put forward. God knows IK will change his mindset though he’s always changing it only seeking interval of times!


  • Ali. I
    Aug 9, 2014 - 10:16AM

    Bottom line is PMLN/PPP will never reform ECP and whoever struggle for this democratic cause ll be the saver of this nation.


  • Alvi Surfi Col
    Aug 9, 2014 - 12:28PM

    No need to change the system. The system is good. We need to change the mindset.


  • Rex Minor
    Aug 9, 2014 - 12:28PM

    If you suppress my comments, and no reforms are undertaken in Paksistan institutions, how do you reckon your readers will learn without the free flow of information on social media? Please print if you have no objection!
    You are ignorant of the German and the European history and in similar vein the air marshal author is ignorant of history of peoples democracies. There is no difference between the military and the civilians in an average Pakistani family who usualy send the bright one for education in a University and the one who is less intelligent and shows aggression to the military and the most useless one in police service. All kinds crave for power and reckon that this will assist them to amass wealth. education and development, the prime need of a homo sapien is missing in the psyche of Pakistanis who have been ruled and steered by the colonial imperial forces for two centuries in most Indian territories.

    Rex Minor


  • Anjum Arshi
    Aug 9, 2014 - 12:38PM

    “IK and TuQ challenge to the system in place is a reflection of the malady that afflicts our politics.” So true! The name of that malady is The Establishment. Initially, India suffered similar labour pains in institutionalising democracy. Today, India is a stronger democracy than Western countries. The ONLY difference between India and Pakistan is that their Army stayed in barracks, where it belongs.


  • Gp65
    Aug 9, 2014 - 1:51PM

    If you do not want the same people coming to power, one of two things have to occur, more parties come into existence so people have a choice or within The same party different leadership should be able to emerge.

    So why have so many parties emerged in India in last 30 years (TDP, BSP, TMC, AAP! SP, RJD) – eqch of which managed to come to power in at least one state while there is just one such party in Pakistan i.e PTI?

    more states
    only once in last 30 years ( or ever for that matter) has any government
    barriers to casting your vote.

    .More states allows a leader to emerge in a relatively small population without national appeal. They then have a chance to show their performance in a given state and get national recognition. Plus if a government completing its term becomes a norm then there is motivatio for doing the right things which get you re-elected. When you anyway have no expectation of completing a full term, the attitude becomes after me the deluge.

    In India and Pakistan, the demographic structure is somewhat similar in terms of young people being ineligible to vote and old people too sick to get to polling station. But in India 550 million out of 1250 million (1.25 billion) population or 44% actually voted. In Pakistan out of 200 million population around 25 million voted or 12.5% actually voted making the electoral mandate questionable.

    Similarly, how would a new leader emerge within a given party? Local self government. India has 3 million elected leaders at local self government level – this forms a nursery for developing leaders with a democratic tradition.


  • Salman Ahmed
    Aug 9, 2014 - 1:59PM

    I have a lot of respect for the author. However, totally disagree with him on some points.

    1) IK’s lust for power aspect is seriously exaggerated by some parties (he supported the govt when he agreed with them)
    2) People who cause rigging will never allow any system to come in which permits clean elections
    3) Leaving people who have not been honestly elected in parliament is totally wrong
    4) Why is no one punishing the people who were involved in the fraud?

    The only way that there will be reforms is when the government is forced…eg through demonstrations and mass movements. There is no other way.


  • Ranjha
    Aug 9, 2014 - 2:56PM

    @Alvi Surfi Col:

    No need to change the system. The system is good. We need to change the mindset.

    Sure. Let’s import the machine featured in the Wallace & Grommit’s movie, The Curse of Were Rabbit, that alters the brain matter of rabbits to make them eat cheese instead of destroying beds of freshly grown carrots! That ought to take care of things!!!

    Sab accha hai. No need to change anything.


  • Toticalling
    Aug 9, 2014 - 5:35PM

    @Rex Minor:
    “You are ignorant of the German and the European history “. Great I live in Germany for the last 45 years. If I am ignorant, those talking about it from far, probably more so.
    And then this: the civilians in an average Pakistani family who usualy send the bright one for education in a University and the one who is less intelligent and shows aggression to the military and the most useless one in police service.
    I suppose you are basing this phenomenon on a research or is that how your family decided the careers of boys. That may be so, but it is not typical of all families. What I have read is that the dull or handicap kids are sent to become Mullahs. It appears lately not only this category but others too.


  • Rex Minor
    Aug 9, 2014 - 6:46PM

    Must you always criticise or worship personalities? Why not deal with the substance? In a democracy your hero will be put on trial for causing death and destruction in KPK and Baluchistan territories and not claim martyrdom for soldiers who are involved in killling muslim believers. Think over it if you have the conscious.

    Rex Minor


  • I. Kamal
    Aug 9, 2014 - 8:50PM

    I am glad to see that the author has favored downsizing provincial units, on which I have been writing since several years, along with a tripartite system of government with autonomous and independent executive, legislative and judicial arms of government. The biggest problem with the parliamentary democratic system as practiced in the sub-continent is that it combines the legislative and executive arms of the government, which lays the seeds of corruption. The parliamentary system was blindly followed because this was the only thing learnt from their former masters. It works in the UK because it has been honed by 500 years of trial and error, a luxury Pakistan can not afford. There is a need for an outside the box thinking.


  • Rex Minor
    Aug 9, 2014 - 10:21PM

    Who do you reckon is communicating with you? The first military ruler of Pakistan comes from such a family whose brother was a political personality and the minister in the Provincial Government! The General thought that Pakistanis are not educated enough to choose the right leaders and later introduced Basic democracy in the country. The Marshal author after spending his useful life in military which rode roughshod on Pakisttan institutions, is suggesting now the course for political leaders when he says;
    “There is a need to democratise political parties with wider representation through lateral inclusions of policy experts, who bring along intellect, experience and wisdom in the areas of policy and governance” He means former military people like him. What about the people, the peasnts and the illitrates who are the majority and the backbone of a democracy?
    The German history did not start from the third reich! Its institutions are as strong as those in other countries of the world and has contributed a lot towards the world order.

    Rex Minor


  • Indian
    Aug 9, 2014 - 10:53PM

    I as Indian support IK that system has to be reformed. PMLN and PPP of Pakistan should support and reform the electoral system which has got loopholes and which allows some parties the advantage to rig the elections. I am sorry to see IK has taken such a decision of a march(Azadi March) to Islamabad, if Mr. Sharif would have brought the reforms in electoral system this march would have been stopped. God bless Pakistan and all its people and let Pakistan come out of this problem quickly. Best wishes from an Indian to express tribune and Pakistan.


  • Irtza Shahan
    Aug 10, 2014 - 11:32AM

    An excerpt from another tribune article Dedicated to these neo-Iiberal intellectuals
    “One can’t help but wonder what he might think of Pakistan’s own brand of neo-liberal intellectuals, who ask us to continuously place faith in a system that turns petty criminals, brownnosers and failed businessmen into oligarchs cum imperial toadies. They ask us to place faith in a system that empowers the very people who have the most to lose from the development of a pluralistic, democratic society. They discourage us from street protest, asking us instead to place our hopes for change in an electoral reform process that would be conducted by those who are responsible for undermining it in the first place. They tell us that even though court-mandated audits of selected constituencies have highlighted massive rigging, the results of the 2013 elections were, by and large, fair.”


  • Rex Minor
    Aug 10, 2014 - 1:59PM

    Both Pakistan military and Sharifs want a status quo which guarantees their amassed wealth and ownership of Peopl is why es wealh. The new comer Imran Khan cannot accept the staus quo and this is why democracy renews and stregnthens the will of its people through periodic change in political leadership.

    Rex Minor


  • nadeem
    Aug 10, 2014 - 2:01PM

    Good analysis and suggestions


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