A crisis and a reset

July 03, 2022

There is nothing inevitable about the constitutional and economic crises that we are facing. These are a consequence of our civilian and military rulers’ reckless elite bargains, chopping and...

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There is nothing inevitable about the constitutional and economic crises that we are facing. These are a consequence of our civilian and military rulers’ reckless elite bargains, chopping and changing our governance systems over the last 75-plus years.

The PTI was, at best, a mere disruptor at the tail end of an abiding and deep leadership crisis that has effectively displaced the people (demos) from our democracy and governance and hollowed out our state and institutions. The result, as the global indices testify, is a slow meltdown of state and society. So where do we go from here?

The constitutional distribution of power, authority and purpose is clear: Pakistan shall be a “democratic” state, wherein the “people of Pakistan” are politically sovereign, exercising their authority through their “chosen representatives” so “that the people of Pakistan may prosper” (Preamble). But, in practice, there is an effective reversal in this fundamental constitutional relationship – an unspoken Constitutional crisis that perpetuates a democratic deficit and governance crisis.

At the heart of our crisis of governance is the nature and quality of our political leadership, which pertains to the design of our electoral system. When money and influence are key determinants to access the electoral contest, the natural outcome is rule by the rich and influential, a kleptocracy displacing the ‘demos’. As it is, our political system is designed to sustain a power grab by dynastic and elite interests, enabling concentration of political power and kleptocratic outcomes in forms of pro-elite policies.

The damage to the state and society has been incalculable. To survive, elites deliberately hollow out state institutions, maintaining weak rule of law and accountability to enable and sustain their rapacious grab for public power and resources with minimal risk of being caught and convicted. Impartial rules are displaced by elite deals as the recent NAB law amendments evidence. The financially and socially exorbitant costs of corruption and risks have been studied and reported by organizations such as the IMF (‘Does corruption affect income equality and poverty?’, 1998), Transparency International, Gan Integrity (Huma Yousaf, ‘Costs of corruption’, Dawn December 13, 2021) and others.

For society, the rich play whilst the poor pay! Tax specialists such as Dr Ikramul Haq have repeatedly highlighted the structural problems with our tax policy and machinery, which benefits the well-off at the expense of the poor. The rich are variously subsidized, which the ordinary person pays through indirect taxes to finance the state (‘Budget 2023: Bridging the huge tax gap’, Daily Narratives, June 3, 2022) and their lavish expenditures. “Instead of broadening the tax base”, he notes, “successive governments have been offering amnesties, immunities, tax-free perks/perquisites to powerful segments of society. As a result of this policy, mindset, ordinary citizens suffer”. Economic growth has served to enrich a narrow ruling class whilst poor people are not prospering.

The widely reported UNDP’s National Human Development Report (2022) estimated that elite privilege costs the economy $17.4 billion or six per cent of the economy.

Democracy is just a system and, like any system, we need to learn from our experience and reform it so that it is better designed to deliver prosperity to the ‘people of Pakistan’. The rules of the game, the electoral laws that control who enters the electoral contest and how the contest is determined render genuine political competition impossible. The electoral system needs to be redesigned so that there is greater equality of opportunity for ordinary citizens to enter the electoral contest.

We must remove the prohibitive barriers to wider access such as money and information and dismantle the concentrations of political power to return the demos to its constitutional role. We need a system that can provide socio-economically diverse leadership, new ideas and attract a reasonably talented and representative set of actors to the helm of affairs.

There are examples to learn from such as the Philippines’ proposed Anti-Political Dynasty Act 2016 that defines and prohibits ‘political dynasties’ and the concentration of political power.

Given the demands of the office, we need to consider the necessary qualifications to function as a reasonably competent representative. To ensure integrity in public life and the electoral process, transparency and related standards need to be defined. Overseas Pakistanis should be enabled to vote in their home constituencies where their families and properties are located to have a say in the policy and planning that affects them. The electoral system needs to ensure that political parties and candidates genuinely command a majority vote to represent the people. The imposition of term limits, intra-party elections etc all need to be examined afresh with a view of returning democracy to the people thereby providing the demos a real choice with the widest selection to choose from as their representative.

For its part, the Supreme Court needs to ensure that the constitutional representative principle is interpreted and applied meaningfully. This requires a critical appreciation of context, and effectively, outlining the normative contours for reform. Elite deals or political bargains must not displace rules. There is a benchmark: representation should broadly be in line with our national and local demographics (with necessary adjustments for competency and integrity criteria).

However, we must return to the obvious conundrum: the ruling elite and their rapacious mindset is a hindrance to reforms that would essentially mean losing their political hold over state governance, public resources and opportunities. There is no real incentive for them to implement pro-people reform. Other institutions are believed to be a part of this issue. This explains why a significant constitutional crisis at the heart of our governance that affects the very nature of our democracy and representation is never mentioned. A genuine reset can therefore only come from a much wider, open and inclusive public debate, beyond party politics, guided and determined by a fair cross-section of society. The question is: who will convene such a debate?

The writer is a former secretary, Law & Justice Commission of Pakistan.

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