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July 19, 2011

Politics of patronage


Ag Reuters
July 19, 2011

The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK.
Given the unprecedented challenges facing the country today, little serious attention is being paid by political parties and their leaders to how to address these. Fire fighting is the order of the day with fitful, ad hoc responses to the challenges at hand.
At a time when daunting problems of security, a weakening economy, crippling energy shortages, inadequate public services and an exploding population are blighting the country’s future, no policy thinking is going on within or among parties about appropriate strategies to deal with any of these.
Instead the preoccupation is with politicking, power plays and deal making for the campaign season ahead, which will start with the senate elections in March 2012. There is little or no focus on issues except in terms of vacuous platitudes or slogans, and virtually no debate on national policies even as parties gear up for another round of electoral politics.
Why is there such a disconnect between politics and policy, between challenge and response and between multiplying problems and the solutions needed to fix them?
The answer lies – in large part – in the persisting nature of Pakistan’s politics that has undergirded both civilian and military rule. The defining character of such politics is that it pivots around patronage and operates principally on the basis of patron-client structures that tie politics to a web of hierarchal relations and obligations rather than to a world of citizens, rights and policy.
This form of politics rests on working a spoils system rather than responding to the needs of the people. Political competition is about gaining access to the spoils of office and its distribution among supporters. Patronage not policy is the driving force.
What is known as clientelism has long been a hallmark of politics in Pakistan. This is often defined in social science literature as one

that involves the exchange of material favours for political support among actors of unequal status.
Certain types of social structures give rise to networks of relationships of obligation and patronage. The personalised nature of Pakistan’s politics is closely related to the dominant position enjoyed throughout its history by a narrowly based power elite that was feudal in origin and remained so in outlook even as it gradually came to share power with well to do urban groups. While different in social origin and background, members of the ‘newer’ power elite shared a similar ‘feudal-tribal’ style of conducting politics: personalised, based on working ‘biradari’ or clan networks, characterised by patronage-seeking activity and focused on protecting and advancing their economic interests and privileged status.
Seen from this perspective, ‘feudal’ attitudes reinforced by a social system of biradari and tribal alignments have long spilled into and influenced Pakistan’s urban politics. This has expressed itself in patron-client forms of representative politics.
Even urban members of many parties function much like their rural counterparts, in that their efforts at political mobilisation rests more on working lineage and biradari cleavages and alliances than representing wider urban interests.
Politics embedded in these structures are more oriented to patronage than to issues of policy. When parties become extensions of personalities, influential families, clans and biradaris, the focus is not issue-based politics, but what promotes or cements their ‘clientelist’ networks of support and bolsters their privileged positions.
Electoral competition becomes principally about gaining control of state patronage to cement patron-client relationships and reward supporters. Politics and governance becomes more about leveraging the spoils system than framing policies. Political contests are rarely about issues but reflect a tussle over the privileges and resources that power confers.
Such clientelist politics are geared to the ‘local’ or parochial and are at odds with fostering attitudes or thinking about larger national issues. The distribution of ‘public goods’ is particularistic (for the selected few) not universalistic (for all). This tends to keep politics organised around personalities and narrow issues. It also reduces the incentive for politicians to urge citizens to contribute their share to attain national objectives for example in paying taxes or the full cost of public services.
With the rare exception of the early 1970s – which saw great ideological debates during an intensely populist phase in Pakistan’s politics – much of politics over the decades have displayed clientelist features. In the struggle for power there has been no battle of ideas with clear-cut platforms and policy alternatives fashioned by the parties. Instead they have reflected the economic interests of their clientelist bases of support even as the PPP has retained some of its populist roots and rhetoric.
In the classic style of clientelism, governance is anchored in the notion of rewarding ‘clients’ rather than being responsive to the electorate as citizens. The preoccupation is with ‘rulership’, rather than public ‘service’. Parties seek to prolong their rule by using patronage, rather than devise policies to deal with wider issues.
This produces rule without governance and contributes to a constant stripping of state resources without creating the capacity to generate income to meet growing government expenditure. A grim testament to this is the insolvent state of Pakistan’s public sector enterprises – reduced to this by their (mis) use for political patronage.
Of course most parties do have representatives who are more oriented to providing services to constituents rather than catering to a select clientelist base. But they are not numerous or politically significant enough to change the overall reliance of their party on patronage.
The three periods of military rule brought little if any change to this politics. Military rulers learnt to conduct patronage politics much the same way as civilian leaders, forging alliances and creating ‘clientelist’ bases of support among networks of political influentials to reinforce politics-as-usual rather than break from it.
Pakistan’s chequered political past shows that patronage-dominated politics have failed to provide the governance that the country needs and that meets the basic needs of people as well as their aspirations. In fact this kind of representative politics is inherently unable to promote the welfare of the populace at large. Politics embedded in narrow transactional patterns and structures also lack the capacity to address the complex challenges Pakistan confronts today. It is not equipped to resolve issues of modern governance much less the structural economic problems that warrant urgent policy solutions.
There is no adequate explanation for the indifference shown in the past half century to the widespread poverty in the country, as also for the disastrous neglect of education, except by reference to a form of politics whose concern lies elsewhere.
It is true that in other countries too – especially but not only developing states – patronage plays a role. But there are three important differences why its deleterious impact is more pronounced and pervasive here. One, almost all politics seems to revolve around this. Two, institutions here are not strong enough to mitigate, check or limit its pernicious effects on governance. Three, the confluence of challenges in Pakistan today requires the professionalization of decision-making and reforms that are resisted by this form of politics, leaving the country exposed to a dangerous void in governance.
For democracy to have greater meaning and for Pakistan to govern itself better, its politics must change and move away from the overwhelming concern with patronage to that which is responsive to the needs of all citizens.
If effective governance is what makes the difference between successful and unsuccessful states, improving its quality is pivotal to any effort to surmount Pakistan’s grave challenges.
This cannot happen without a fundamental change in the way politics works. A well functioning democratic polity, able to tap the resilience of Pakistan’s people, can only be achieved by instituting electoral, political and economic reforms that open up the potential for change.
To align governance to public purpose, the basis of politics must change – away from patronage and towards policy and professionalism in managing the country’s affairs.

A more detailed exposition of this argument can be found in the chapter written by the author in the book she has edited, Pakistan: Beyond the Crisis State (OUP, 2011).

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