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October 29, 2017

Democracy versus Technocracy


October 29, 2017

Federal Minister of Interior, Planning, Development & Reform

There is a troika at play trying to encourage our Armed Forces to make an intervention against democracy. This troika is made of sections of the media, rental or expired politicians and some retired members of our institutions.

This troika aims to benefit from the intervention in the form of lucrative posts and advisers positions in their version of technocrat or dictorship set-up. Though the Pak Army has made it clear it will not trespass against democracy or break the constitution, the troika keeps encouraging it to take the step in the name of “national interest” and “doctrine of necessity”. Everyday on our TV screens and social media we can see this onslaught. What they do not talk about is how such an intervention will besides hurting country will weaken our armed forces as they get distracted in politics and governance and eventually get blamed for both. This distracts the armed forces from their main task of securing the nation from existential threats, internal and external. Some international forces want a weaker Pakistan.

Military intervention compels it to bid for international legitimacy which makes it far more vulnerable to pressures and accept things which may not be in Pakistan’s interest as we saw with Musharraf regime. Anything that damages our Armed Forces is like damaging the very backbone of the nation.  Many believe that some  international forces maybe conspiring  against Pakistan by encouraging such a misadventure and supporting this troika. Pakistan and especially our armed forces need to be aware of this conspiracy and threat and investigate this link in the form of those who are trying their best to manufacture a narrative in favor of dictatorship.

This troika argues that dictatorship is in the larger ‘national interest’ and the nation is not qualified to run democracy. They argue that economic performance of military governments has always been better than elected civilian governments and politicians are by default ‘corrupt’ and ‘incompetent’. On daily basis our TV screens, newspapers and social media platforms are bombarded with the message that government should be run by ‘technocrats’ --- a call for dictatorship.

We cannot be indifferent or complacent to this narrative, it must be rebutted by all democratic forces with full force. First things first, this should be made clear that continuation of democracy does not need an approval from any narrow vested interest. For people of Pakistan democracy represents self-governance and sovereignty of people over all affairs of the state. Democracy is not just a ‘mean’ to some other end (e.g. economic development etc.). It is also an ‘end’ in itself for which people of Pakistan have given numerous sacrifices.

Recently Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman who held a Ministerial portfolio in the Musharraf dictatorship is at the forefront of championing technocracy (a polite way to say dictatorship) in Pakistan. The gist of his argument is that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rates are on average higher in military governments as compared to elected civilian governments. I will deconstruct this argument and will show its deficiencies and embedded fallacies.

First of all, comparing democracy with dictatorship is like comparing apples with bananas because oranges are still round. Democracy is a process which evolves over the time. If it is disrupted every few years, it cannot yield the desired results. Moreover, each elected government had to live with the geo-strategic decisions taken by their predecessors (military dictators). Military dictators pushed Pakistan into geo-strategic theaters in the region which did not allow Pakistan to become an economic nation. Instead, Pakistan became reliant on large aid-inflows in return for geo-strategic role.

For example, Pakistan became member of SEATO and later on of CENTO under General Ayub’s government. It might have helped achieve high growth rates due to liberal foreign aid inflows but social and regional inequality increased manifold due to non-representative nature of development. Eventually these inequities resulted into disintegration of Pakistan in 1971 and rise of quasi-socialist populism which resulted into nationalization of industries rolling back all gains of industrialization in Pakistan. Under General Zia’s government Pakistan joined the US war against USSR in Afghanistan and again received liberal aid inflows. The return of democracy in 1988 coincided with USSR withdrawal from Afghanistan and later elected governments were subjected to US government Pressler sanctions cutting foreign inflows. Besides, Afghan war left deep shadows of religious extremism, drugs and guns in our homeland. History repeated itself again and another military dictator named General Musharraf pushed Pakistan into war on terror in return of recognition and hefty aid inflows which superficially jacked up GDP growth rates. No solid investment was made in endogenous capacity of nation. When the dictator left, the country plunged into wave of terrorism and severe energy and security crises. 

Economic policies unlike a quick-relief painkiller do not yield desired results instantaneously. Time lags in economic policy’s execution and its results is inevitable. Political stability and continuity of policies are necessary conditions for any economic policy to be effective. Not a single civilian elected Prime Minister has completed his/her constitutional term in the office is a fact which speaks volume of the level of political instability faced by elected governments. This had huge negative consequences on economic development. A study by International Monetary Fund economists shows that change in Prime Minister and/or 50 percent of cabinet members can reduce real GDP per capita growth rate by 2.39 percentage points (Aisen and Viega, 2011). Therefore, relatively slower growth rate under civilian governments in 1990s was due to political instability not due to ‘bad’ policy decisions. This fact should be a one more reason to ensure continuity of democracy in Pakistan rather than disrupting it.

It is interesting to note that Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman uses GDP growth rates rather than per-capita GDP growth rates to make the case of dictatorship. Absolute measure of GDP growth rates are quite misleading for comparison between two time periods as they do not incorporate population growth and demographic shifts in the population.

Let me give an example to illustrate my point. India is ranked 10th in terms of absolute GDP numbers but when we look at its GDP per capita it is ranked 133rd in the world. Singapore on the other hand is ranked 39th in the world in terms of GDP size but its GDP per capita ranking is 3rd in the world.

Therefore if we solely rely on absolute GDP numbers then we would make a fallacious inference that India is more developed than Singapore. Therefore, a more appropriate yardstick would be GDP per capita growth rates at constant prices. Based on GDP per capita growth rate, PML-N government under Nawaz Sharif (2013-2016) experienced a 2.7% growth rate as compared to Musharraf’s 2.4 % growth rate.

Moreover, GDP simply measures the total market production in an economy. It does not say anything about what is produced and how it is distributed. For example, if consumption of anti-depressants increases in a country over the period of a year, this would show an increase in GDP. Does this rise in GDP means that a country is doing better and the living standard of people have improved? Thus the use of GDP growth numbers alone as a proxy of better economic performance is highly problematic.

Therefore, a sectoral analysis of economy is necessary to derive welfare conclusions. If we do a sectoral analysis of economy, we will find out that Musharraf left economy with electricity and infrastructural crises which severely slowed down economic growth for coming years. On the other hand, in last four years PML-N government has made huge productive investments in electricity, road, railway and communication infrastructures. The dividends of these investments will be accrued by successive governments in medium to long term. The recent study by Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) shows that based on the current trajectory of economic growth, Pakistan is set to be among top 20 economies of the world by 2030. This validates Pakistan Vision 2025 goals of placing Pakistan in top economies of world by year 2025.

I am a firm believer that continuity of democracy and security of tenure of elected governments would yield better economic performance. Every country that has achieved success has developed stability of policy framework spread over at least two decades. This is not just wishful thinking, this optimism is based on empirical reality.

A recent study by leading development economists of the world (Acemoglu et al, 2015) shows that there is a positive correlation between democracy and GDP per capita. This study analyzes data from a panel of countries between 1960 and 2010 and their results show that continuation of democracy leads to more economic growth.

To be precise, this study shows that if a country transitions from non-democracy to democracy, it achieves about 20 percent higher GDP per capita in the next ‘twenty years’. Unfortunately, we have not allowed 20 years of continuous democracy in Pakistan, but history has to be made this time.

In a developing country like Pakistan, tough decisions are needed to steer the economy in a right direction. Politicians get into parliament after the strong vetting process at the grass-root levels. They have roots in the people and peoples trust behind their back. That is why politicians can take tough economic decisions like rationalization of subsidies and tariffs. On the other hand, so called technocrats can’t even convince their personal staff on any policy matter. Thus it is next to impossible that any technocratic setup would be able to take tough policy decisions in wake of popular backlash.

To discredit the democratic system in Pakistan, political parties in general and political leadership in particular are targeted and maligned in a concerted effort. Politicians are deemed corrupt and this is portrayed as the reason for economic troubles of the country without realizing that this creates disillusionment among a segment of our society with democratic system and it can be exploited by extremists/terrorists. First of all, it should be made clear that there is not a simple linear relationship between economic development (measured as per capita income) and ‘corruption’ (transparency international corruption index). Let me illustrate it with a simple example. The per capita incomes of Rwanda, Senegal, Russia and Pakistan are $700, $1100, $1600 and $15,000, respectively.

According to Transparency International Index of corruption their rankings are the following: 44th, 61st 113th and 119th, respectively.

This example illustrates the fact that economic development is a highly complex phenomenon and it cannot be reduced to a simplistic notion of ‘corruption’. Moreover, Bangladesh and India have similar if not higher level of corruption but both have done well as compared to Pakistan in last few decades on economic front due to political stability.

It is combination of political stability, peace and development-focus which are key ingredients for good governance and robust economy.

It is tantamount to state the obvious that democracy has served the interest of Pakistan better than any dictatorship. The Constitution of 1973 binds together all the federating units of the country. It ensures internal cohesion both on social and regional lines within Pakistan. The unanimously agreed Constitution of 1973 was provided by the political leadership of the time and not by any dictator or technocrat. In more recent times, a consensus is created by political parties in the parliament which yielded 18th amendment that accommodated the long due demand of provincial autonomy to all provinces.

The decisive victories against terrorism have been achieved under the elected democratic governments of PPP and PML-N, e.g. Swat operation, Zarb-e-Azab and Rad-ul-Fasaad.

The continuation and strengthening of constitutional democracy is not just the path towards sustainable economic development, internal harmony and peace in Pakistan but also a sure way to preserve our security by safeguarding dignity of our armed forces. The choice is very clear. Democracy or destruction.

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