Tuesday July 23, 2024

[ Book review] A process without a product

By Khalid Saeed
March 24, 2024
Men line up as election officials check their ballot papers during voting in general election at a polling station in Lahore on July 25, 2018. — AFP
Men line up as election officials check their ballot papers during voting in general election at a polling station in Lahore on July 25, 2018. — AFP

I enjoy reading political treatises by Pakistani authors. They are insightful and describe what is behind the scenes. Many are also well researched but are often based on secondary sources. All seem to be opinionated and focused on conspiracy theories. On the other hand, treatises about Pakistan created by overseas research groups, often university based, seem to be analytical and objective but are often biased by theoretical rather than empirical premises.

Dr Gilani’s book, ‘The ritual of elections in Pakistan (1970-2018), a process without product’, published just before the country’s 12th election is different. Based on empirical information that the organizations he founded – Gallup Pakistan and Gilani Research – collected and analyzed for decades and augmented by the author’s well-honed participant observation over an extended period of time, it delicately combines data-based inference with experiential information creating propositions that are neither tainted by opinion-related a priories nor by reductionist theories.

The book describes 11 rounds of an elaborate election process conducted since 1970. Each round goes through motions that awaken public interest and draw people into participation, but the elections have no impact on the composition and functions of an elitist governance system, comprising elected and unelected actors, that continues to work in its own interest. Hence, the process does not deliver any product.

The composition of the voter banks, together with articulated party mandates, however, provide a view into the prevalent public sentiment, irrespective of the election outcomes that are ubiquitously engineered to maintain the upper hand of the unelected establishment. Over time, the elected and unelected segments of governance develop differences that threaten the status quo; the friction between them precipitates removal of the elected actors, which happened in the first few cycles through invoking martial laws, but later started being implemented through party alliances and a complicit judiciary.

While describing the 11 elections cycles, the author identifies two disruptive movements: the PPP’s condescending mandate for the poor and the PTI’s similar mandate for inclusion, both of which appealed to the underdog. The underdog were the poor in the first disruption and the educated middle classes in the second. Whether these disruptive movements really empowered their targeted cross-sections is questionable, but their popularity certainly benefitted their leaders in becoming a part of the ruling junta.

The system indeed continues to be run by the power elite consisting of appointed actors we have recently begun to call the establishment and elected actors with little representation from the underdog. The status quo is perpetuated by a collaboration between the establishment and the elected actors, and the underdog is kept happy by periodic elections that allow them to vent their feelings and give them the semblance of participation.

Real change will be created by empowering the underdog, but while both disruptive movements claim to bring about such a change, in the end their proponents must acquiesce into the status quo to maintain the dominance of the power elite or leave the bandwagon. It is either this way or the highway. The length of the tenure of the elected elite depends on the degree of their acquiescence into the status quo.

The author predicts the voting pattern of the 12th election on the basis of the composition of the vote banks that reflect public sentiment. The election outcomes must however maintain the power elite, which have been borne out. Given its guile leadership, the 12th elected government might be able to maintain the power status quo for some time. On the other hand, propelled by social media and infiltration of its underdog into leadership ranks, the second disruption also has the potential to propel a change.

The author does briefly outline a process for peaceful change in his concluding reflections in which he suggests that a more inclusive governance process can possibly be created by decentralizing the governance structure and providing decentralized units greater autonomy. Other than those reflections, the book does not present any opinions but presents data to form your own.

In this reviewer’s opinion, this decentralization cannot be initiated without discord in the governance system that may invoke another election cycle way before any steps are taken towards decentralization. Back in the 1970s, Western development economists often credited so-called benign dictators that the Pakistani establishment professes to be with spearheading economic development.

Such leaders could create quick changes without discord. Sukarno, Reza Shah, Marcos and their likes were often viewed as personifications of such benign roles, but all of them turned out be vested in self-interest. Indeed, the influential modern philosopher Karl Popper cautioned us against abdicating our rights to a power that promised to deliver us welfare, because when our rights are gone, our right to welfare is gone too. An authoritarian establishment would view any reformist movement as a threat and suppress it (1-3). The term ‘benign dictator’ is thus a true oxymoron.

The data banks the author uses can be accessed through the live links in the electronic version of the book and through QR codes in the printed version, which allows the reader to perform their own experiments with data. This is an innovation that creates a means for building on the author’s research and moving the ball forward.

Hopefully, someone will attempt to understand what drives the power elite roles and how can they be aligned with public interest. Professor Keynes light-heartedly proposed that human behaviour is driven by animal spirits. It will indeed be intriguing to explore what spirits motivate the appointed and elected actors into a parasitic collaboration that has rendered elections into a process without a product. And what possible paths might exist to break out of this unfortunate situation for transforming the country into a progressive welfare state.

The book is available in both English and Urdu editions. I personally found the English version easier to read, perhaps because having lived outside Pakistan for over 50 years, my own Urdu has become a bit rusty, but I am sure the Urdu version will reach a wide cross section of readers in Pakistan. I must add, this is not a casual read but a scholarly research piece that should provide a springboard for further research.


1. Saeed K. Government support for economic agendas in developing countries: A behavioral model. World Development. 1990;18(6):785-801.

2. Saeed K. The dynamics ofeconomic growth and political instability in developing countries. System Dynamics Review. 1986;2(1):20-35.

3. Saeed K, Pavlov OV, Skorinko J, Smith A Farmers, bandits and soldiers: a generic system foraddressing peace agendas. System Dynamics Review. 2013;29(4):237-52.

The reviewer is professor of economics and system dynamics at the Social Science and Policy Studies Department of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute Massachusetts, USA.