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Opinion

Legal Eye

June 23, 2018

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Why the PTI must win

Let’s start with the easiest argument. We gave Zardari’s PPP five years and then Sharif’s PML-N another five. We are already in the pits. How will giving Imran a chance hurt? If he delivers what he says he will, we’ll be better off. If he doesn’t, can we be any worse off than we presently are?

We heard ‘the best amongst the bad options’ argument for supporting BB and NS when they were taking turns in the 90s. We heard it from those supporting Musharraf. It is now the turn of the PTI’s less starry-eyed supporters to resort to it.

Then there is the trickle-down argument. Zardari and the Sharifs are corrupt. Imran isn’t. He might be surrounded by many immersed in corruption scandals. But so long as he is at the top, anyone joining the PTI (whether belonging to the seasonal or the corrupt category) is going to be bound by Imran’s ethos. This is how IK had explained the rationale of accepting ‘electables’ prior to Election 2013. The ancient proverb ‘a fish rots from the head down’ is used to seal this argument. As the head is fine, the rotting body is of no consequence.

A more cogent explanation for employing electables is the power compulsion argument. In order to change the system you’ve got to rise to the top. And to rise to the top you have to climb the echelons of power using ropes that exist. Thus, the electables are the ropes that IK needs to climb to the top. But once he’s there, the existing rules of the game won’t constrain him as will be in a position to bring about transformational change. This argument recognises power compulsions at one end of the spectrum but disregards them at the other.

Did Khyber Pakhtunkhwa experience better governance under the PTI’s watch or did Punjab under the younger Sharif? The answer depends on who comprises the jury. But what we do know is that the KP cabinet and Parvaiz Khattak were no purveyors of idealism. In its determination and pursuit of policies, in its distribution of funds, in forming strategy for Senate elections and by-elections and in alliance building etc, the PTI’s KP setup was as worldly as it gets. The PTI argues that its worldliness was caused not due to compulsions of power but those of coalition governments.

But does IK’s past behaviour support the thesis that he won’t be guided by ground realities and pragmatism if voted to the top office? From support and opposition for Musharraf and support and opposition for Iftikhar Chaudhry to his approach to building his party past October 2011 (including the steady rise of migratables and electables within it) to speaking on populist state and societal issues and staying mum on others, IK’s choices seem well choreographed and best understood as part of his burning ambition to acquire political power and office.

If IK has been forced to make compromises on principles during his journey to becoming a serious contender for the top office, what will prevent him from making similar compromises to retain such office? One argument is that he won’t make compromises at the top because he won’t need to. Such argument is rooted in misunderstanding the compulsions of power. Those compulsions (to let sleeping dogs lie or not step over powerful toes) are most potent against those in power trying to poke the status quo.

But let’s give IK the benefit of the doubt and look at his policies and convictions instead. Some of the key fault lines in our polity include the following: civil versus military; moderation versus extremism; governance through systems versus governance through patronage. If you think Pakistan’s journey out of the woods depends on throwing one’s weight behind the right side of each fault line, IK is plain wrong on the first two and his record is questionable on the third.

Whether it is IK’s initial support for Musharraf, his reliance on the umpire during the dharna, his disdain for parliament and politicos or implicitly egging on the establishment to tame elected governments, it is patently clear where IK stands. Will he transform overnight if voted into power, and run his government so efficiently that he is able to reclaim space and authority for civilian rule as prescribed by our constitution? Let’s not hold our breath.

On the moderation-extremism divide, IK’s record is equally dismal: from being nominated as the TTP’s interlocutor to mourning Hakeemullah Mehsud’s killing in a drone attack (and generally ensuring that the polity stays confused over the need to fight the TTP – up until the APS attack) to having Samiul Haq’s outfit sponsored by public funds, to equivocation over controversial issues such as mistreatment of Ahmadis (remember his embrace and disavowal of the outstanding Atif Mian?) to jumping at the opportunity to employ the blasphemy card for political ends.

On the patronage versus systems divide, how does one judge IK? On the problem of corruption, his prescription is extremely opportunistic: Sharif and Zardari are the sources of the problem and if they are put away, corruption will disappear. He attempted to pursue the systems route in KP by setting up the Ehtesab Commission – until the watchdog locked horns with patronage politics and had to be rendered dysfunctional. And in the PTI’s internal organisation, intraparty elections or award of tickets, when push came to shove, patronage always trumped systems.

Fahd Husain described it best when he recently wrote that the PTI’s candidates in Punjab “pack quite a punch” but “have also changed the complexion of PTI from a party of change to the party of status quo”. So, if we are down to making a choice between two parties of the status quo in a system driven by personal patronage – but with at least one of them addressing the existing institutional imbalance (even if only due to its top leader’s political fortune being tied to it) – why must the PTI win?

Here’s why: we are in a gridlock. The solutions to our problems aren’t person-driven but systemic and structural. A reign of accountability won’t kick in merely because we live to see a former PM put behind bars for assets beyond means. The constables, traffic sergeants, readers, linemen, patwaris and all interfaces of the state that interact with the citizen will still have their hands in lucre and will still be protected by a patronage system the prime beneficiaries of which aren’t elected politicos but those comprising permanent state structures.

These incentive structures won’t change till holy cows remain. The system won’t get fixed as long as the domain of elected civilian institutions is allowed to be encroached in the name of necessity. If we hold public officials to account for bad policies, we’ll have to do so whether they fall within the civilian domain or the military’s province. If we call out mal-governance, we’ll need to do so whether the supervising institution is the executive or the judiciary.

If we wish to change the country’s direction, we need to change its outlook, its dependence on conspiracies to justify failure and its inability to introspect, and reconsider how it wishes to engage with its neighbours and the world. We need to house power and responsibility in one place. We need to commit ourselves to due processes and develop patience for incremental change. To make these systemic and behavioural changes, we will need a grand political alliance much more committed and honest than the one that produced the Charter of Democracy.

The PTI is the new kid on the block. It has its eyes fixed on power. It won’t get ready for a grand political alliance till it experiences how fleeting and fickle power can be, how restricted policy space is for an elected government and how political parties always get caught in traps they lay for foes. We need to cover a lot of ground. But the journey won’t start till the new mainstream party also gets to experience the sting. Thus, to kick off the cycle, the best thing that can happen in Election 2018 is for the PTI to win.

The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

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