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May 19, 2016

Legitimacy undermined


May 19, 2016

Once again, Pakistan is at a turning point in its political history. Yet again the institutional structure of politics is threatened by the pursuit of power by individuals unconstrained by democratic norms.

The present crisis has been sparked by allegations of corruption amongst Pakistan’s political elite arising from the dramatic exposures of the Panama Papers. The phenomenon of corruption that has now entered the public discourse is eroding the system of representative governance, the functioning of state organisations – and hence rule of law. The manifestation of this process of institutional as well as organisational decay is a growing public anger. A sense of outrage is emerging at the spectacle of corruption by leaders at the expense of the people in whose name they are supposed to govern.

Essentially this outrage has a positive feature: it signifies a sense of potential nationhood and the associated apprehension of shared values. As Barrington Moore has argued, outrage occurs when a value the people hold dear has been violated (Moore, ‘Social Bases of Obedience and Revolt’). Whether the present incipient sense of outrage explodes into anarchy or fuels a process of change towards a better future is an open question.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in his speech before the National Assembly earlier this week, attempted to defend himself and his immediate family against charges of corruption emanating from the Panama leaks. The eloquence of the prime minister’s speech notwithstanding, a number of television channels promptly cast doubts on the veracity of his claims of innocence.

The Panama leaks have also made revelations which have created similar suspicions of wrongdoing by a number of leaders both in the PPP and the PTI, in contrast to their claims of financial probity. There is a veil of rhetoric that conceals the truth in the present political battle. But as Oscar Wilde once wittily observed, “truth has an uncomfortable habit of being discovered”.

In such a situation – where allegations are being made against politicians on both sides of the fence – it is necessary for an independent authority, adequately empowered and within a precisely defined scope and timescale of work, to determine the question of innocence or guilt of particular political leaders. In this regard, the prime minister’s proposal to form a parliamentary committee to arrive at a consensus about the ToRs and the law-making necessary for a judicial commission to investigate the matter sounds reasonable enough.

The parliamentary committee could of course be rendered dysfunctional if politicians on both sides have something to hide. However, those who take comfort from their belief that this issue will die down through procrastination in resolving it suffer from an illusion. The Panama leaks have lit the fuse of seething resentment amongst the suffering majority of Pakistan. The same emotion is now sweeping three continents – Asia, Africa and Latin America. People are not even willing to support corrupt leaders who claim to deliver ‘development’. The political leaders in Nigeria, Brazil and Guatemala were examples of this sense of ‘enough is enough’ of a citizenry battered by corruption.

Beyond the issue of holding a particular set of politicians accountable is the broader question of how widespread corruption within all tiers of government in Pakistan is undermining the legitimacy of the democratic system within which the state is supposed to function.

It can be argued that corruption undermines the economy, the polity and the social norms on which both are based. To the extent that this is true we can posit that corruption leads to a loss of the legitimacy of the state itself. Now legitimacy of the state means the right to rule. Rousseau has argued in his Geneva Manuscripts that a people grant the right to rule to the state on the basis of a ‘social contract’, whereby the state commits to ensuring certain rights to the people. In the contemporary period these could include liberty, equality of opportunity, protection of life and livelihood. When the people regard the provision of such rights to be the necessary condition for granting legitimacy, it signifies their apprehension of the core values that constitute their nationhood. Thus in the very act of granting legitimacy to the state, a people become a nation.

Corruption undermines the economy and the ‘social contract’ in three ways: first, it reduces the amount of revenues to the state and thereby weakens its ability to provide basic services such as education, health, social protection, and prevention of violence against citizens. Second, corruption increases the cost of investment and thereby reduces the growth of output and employment for given rates of investment.

Third, corruption obliges the state to take foreign loans by reducing the resources available to it domestically. Since corruption reduces the efficiency of use of these loans, the stock of debt builds up. In Pakistan debt servicing is largely financed through indirect taxes which place a relatively greater burden on the poor. These three economic consequences mean that the poor pay the cost of corruption that is enriching both politicians and government functionaries.

Endemic corruption forces citizens to pay bribes each time they come into contact with a state functionary: from getting a contract for a government development project to getting an identity card made. Ordinary citizens, who can neither pay bribes nor bring to bear the influence of the powerful, are humiliated in the process of getting their basic rights as citizens.

Thus corruption fundamentally undermines both the legitimacy of the political system and the state. Those with power are seen to be enriching themselves by impoverishing the powerless and depriving them of their very dignity.

The writer is a professor of economics at the Forman Christian College University, Lahore.

Email: [email protected]


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