Pakistan Politics: The unelectables

By Afiya Shehrbano

THERE is something unique about Pakistan, where non-electable individuals can continue to be president, run ministries, architect legislative and constitutional packages and get embedded as governors — all this, under a supposedly democratic government.

One rung lower on the ethics hierarchy reside their advisers, who hold no delusions of being representatives of the people. Instead, they convince themselves that theirs is a job for which they are accountable only to their benefactors — many of whom, as it stands, are technically not accountable to anyone.

Last year, the revived debate on transitional vs transformational democracy ended with a seeming victory for the pragmatists who wished for a trickle-down democracy rather than the uncompromised return to civilian democratic rule. They even defended the call for reform rather than the restitution of the constitution or judiciary. Today the institutional crisis has inevitably moved from a deposed judiciary to the much more rooted institutions that are the intelligence agencies. Those who repeatedly lament that the former has become too politicised will only too soon learn about the more meaningful nexus that is the military, the intelligence agencies, religion and politics. One wonders what constitutional reform package is being dreamt up to transitionally cross this little hurdle towards democratic change.

There were two central points that surfaced in the debate cited above and are pertinent as they play themselves out today. One of the points raised against the transformation argument was the need for transition through elections rather than a principled boycott. This was based on realpolitik, the understanding that political mobilisation had its limitations and a negotiation with Gen Musharraf was the only viable guarantee against future military intervention and a safeguard against abandonment by the Americans. The second was a more convoluted justification for the NRO deal which suggested this should not be analysed on its merits for individual benefits; rather it should be judged for its political moral ends — or something like that.

Within this argument, however, what got lost were the democratic goals we thought we were struggling for. Restoring the constitution and judiciary seemed like rational starting points but instead, it seems that unresolved individual motivations did in fact seep right into the political morality framework after all. Any good feminist could have told you, the personal is political and they overlap without warning.

The botched attempt to bring a military agency within a democratic framework is merely symptomatic of the broader constitutional crisis that lingers on. The juxtaposition of military and civilian rule is a ridiculous and unworkable competitive process, which will only serve to dilute an already precarious democracy characterised by paralyses rather than transition. So accommodating Musharraf may theoretically prevent the military from directly taking over the political reigns but, as we’ve seen, it certainly will not tolerate any civilian attempt to democratise the role of the military or its agencies.

Are we in transition or in a trance then? Since when did pragmatic politics depend on hope, prayer and patience to bring self-corrective change? The clash of institutional purposes is inevitable and, for their survival, political parties ought to retain the trust and faith reposed in them on Feb 18 so that the people support political democracy rather than succumb to despair from the parochialism and failed sense of purpose demonstrated by the government today.

One of the exemplars of the transition process is the current special adviser on economic affairs to the PM, Hina Rabbani Khar. Apparently, economic advice has no ideology. Rabbani Khar used to be the poster girl from amongst the yuppie ivy-leaguers employed by the Musharraf-Aziz PML-Q government, only to be unceremoniously denied a ticket due to her apparent unelectability just prior to the elections. However, the PPP, for all its scathing criticism of the previous government’s economic policies, has seen it fit for her to advise their PM on future economic policy. Is this continuity, contradiction or just plain confused principles?

It should be clarified here that the objection is not about qualification or the process of becoming elected. The women’s movement has always insisted on reserved seats for women and minorities as a corrective process. While this does not mean that these members of the government are any less credible, neither does it mean it’s a free lunch and they are therefore any less accountable.

The role of advisers to government is interesting because it is not as transparent or traceable as that of an elected legislator. For example, much social policy advice is drawn from an elite force that elusively refers to itself as ‘consultants’ and are often multi-disciplinary in their talents. If pressed, an experienced consultant can advise on economics, health, women’s issues, labour policy and the environment all by himself. They have long resumes, publications to their names and research findings which may not have been derived from any consensual, critical or democratic process.

But nonetheless, they lend acquired expertise to the unassuming and often disinterested minister, bureaucrat or parliamentarian. Further advantages are that consultants are not accountable to any party, voter or institution and they certainly do not have to worry about being re-elected.

Going by the current trends of political decision-making in Islamabad, it seems this government is not too concerned about re-election or accountability either. More importantly, advice, no matter how informed, is no substitute for peoples’ support, goodwill and votes. It is obvious that institutional reform forget change, is a difficult task. But that the very obstacles to change are accommodated for personal ends disguised as political necessity is a morality no voter will accept in the future.

Perhaps the best free advice for the government today would be to avoid decision-making by the unelected and focus more on collective decisions towards enforcing hard-core institutional changes. The unelectable are merely buffers who are delaying institutional resolution and making challenges more insurmountable than they already were.

Source: daily Dawn, 4/8/2008

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