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Opinion

June 3, 2018

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The end of transition?

Have we turned a corner, or at least taken another decisive step on democracy’s ladder? Should we pat ourselves on the back and celebrate the new milestones achieved by our forever emerging democracy?

We seem to have good reasons to feel happy. For the second time in our history, a democratic period has lasted for more than a decade. For the first time in our history, two democratic governments completed their tenures in succession, though the tenures of two prime ministers were cut short through judicial action.

The feel-good factor is based on the assumption that democracy works like an escalator. Once we get on it, it goes up and up. In democracy studies, it is called the transition paradigm. At one time, this framework was so popular that some termed it ‘transitology’. Transitology is based on the belief that “any country moving away from dictatorial rule can be considered a country in transition toward democracy.”

For more than a decade, many leading political scientist have raised serious doubts about the transition paradigm. This is how Larry Diamond, a leading scholar in democracy studies and his colleagues argued in a journal article: “If a country is not yet democratic, we cannot be sure that it will become such; therefore it is not right to say it is ‘in transition to’ democracy. If it has already become democratic, then of course it is no longer in transition. Therefore, transition can only be known ex post facto. Until we know the end result, it is safer to speak simply of open-ended political change.”

Going by the transition paradigm, we should be in the phase of consolidation. Consolidation is defined as “a slow but purposeful process in which democratic forms are transformed into democratic substance through the reform of state institutions, the regularisation of elections, the strengthening of civil society, and the overall habituation of the society to the new democratic rules of the game.”

For the last five years at least, we have hardly been going through any purposeful process in which democratic forms could be turned into democratic substance. Institutional reform has been stalled and the conflict between elected and non-elected institutions has created a logjam in the system, not only stalling our democratic progress but also creating a wider instability that is pulling down economic development. Civil society is shrinking into oblivion, facing an onslaught from the uncivil society. Rather than consolidating the democratic rules of the game, parties have reneged on earlier agreements made for the purpose.

Elections have a central place in the transition paradigm and the main reason for many people to rejoice. “Elections in their opinion, bestow legitimacy on the new post-dictatorial governments…broaden and deepen political participation and the democratic accountability of the state to its citizens.” This is how Thomas Carothers, another renowned political scientist summarises the position: “In other words, it has been assumed that in attempted transitions to democracy, elections will be not just be a foundation stone but a key generator over time of further democratic reforms.”

The election may or may not be held on time but the events spanning over the last year have put the credibility of election processes into doubt. This week, Pildat, a leading civil society organisation, issued a report titled ‘Score Card on Perception of Pre-Poll Fairness’. The report reminds us that: “Electoral history in Pakistan shows that pre-poll rigging has had the most decisive impact on the fairness of Pakistan’s various elections. Polling day rigging, unlike the general public perception, is extremely difficult to carry out given the mobilisation of citizens and competing parties, and now with an active news and social media.”

The report also notes the harm done and problems posed to the prospects of a free and fair election in a prevalent environment of surreptitious muzzling of the news media and by the perceptions of non-neutrality of the establishment and partisanship in the process of judicial and political accountability.

It appears we have come full circle once again. Blame for much of the damage this time can be laid at the door of Imran Khan. Imran Khan’s narrative is almost indistinguishable from the narrative of three military dictators, who held elected political leaders responsible for the rot in the country and claimed that all problems were linked to their corruption. It is for the first time that this narrative has been peddled from the platform of a popular political party and found resonance with a large number of followers.

The educated urban middle classes that support Imran Khan have been the main beneficiaries and supporters of dictatorial regimes – and for good reasons. They have benefitted from state policies that serve their interests at the cost of the poor. Historically, they used to adopt a sullen silence during democratic period. Not any longer. They have been mobilised by their Messiah who promises change, which actually means continuity of the anti-democratic setup that perpetuates the rule of the middle-class salariat in the country, directly or indirectly.

This new form of mobilisation can be linked to Imran Khan’s brand of politics which can be termed authoritarian populism; it is the same kind of politics that is giving democrats nightmares everywhere in the world. He has tried to use institutions as weapons against his political opponents even when he is out of power. By doing this, he has played on a seventy-year-old divide between the peoples’ desire for public representation and the salariat’s unwavering resolve to rule the country single-handedly. No need to explain where he stands on this divide. We know that he was tutored into politics by General Hameed Gul and finds a great hero in Ayub Khan.

Demographics have a tendency to work in funny ways. Democracy in most countries remained unstable as long as the middle class was in a minority. In such situations, the middle classes saw their interest in authoritarianism rather than democracy. Imran Khan’s narrative helps him get the allegiance of a middle class that feels threatened by democracy. However, it also sets a limit on his popularity. His popularity, according to scientific surveys, has barely moved from 17 to 23 percent. In the meanwhile, the popularity of his arch-rival, the PML-N, has gone up from 33 to 38 percent. He is chasing a moving target. Though the stars have aligned for him, earthlings are not responding to the nudge. And, though a herd of thoroughbred horses has been driven to his stable in reward for his services, it is unlikely that he will get the required numbers in the forthcoming elections.

But that does not mean he loses the capacity to erode democracy further. It is the opportunism of other political forces that opens the gates for authoritarian populists. Neither Hitler, nor Mussolini had numbers when they scrambled to power in Germany and Italy. If the democratic experiment fails once again, the PPP’s opportunism will be the main culprit. The party may think of building a mausoleum for democracy this time.

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @zaighamkhan

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