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October 27, 2019

Breakdown of institutions


October 27, 2019

In a column titled ‘Breakdown of morality’ published in these pages on September 18 this year, I had drawn attention to the tendency of some world leaders to cast aside morals while pursuing personal or partisan agendas.

We have to take into account next how the breakdown of morals and exclusivist trends are pulling down state institutions in this post-ideology world.

Looking around, the case of an old democracy like the UK is instructive and alarming at the same time. It started with the 2016 referendum on the country’s membership of the European Union. The main reason for the campaign to leave the EU was uncontrolled arrival of workers from the new EU member states, who then became automatically entitled to the British social security benefits which were arguably better than other member states.

Alternate solutions to a complete break were not given a chance because a small group of buccaneers exploited the situation. Greatly exaggerated claims about foreigners taking over the country had the desired effect and the ‘Leave’ voters won with a narrow majority, resulting in the resignation of David Cameron and assumption of premiership by Theresa May.

The referendum has been followed by a tale of personal ambitions of pro-Brexit politicians but also by the widespread desire that the UK should extract the maximum benefit while leaving the EU, a case of having your cake and eating it too. Consequently, the mother of parliaments has been facing unprecedented crises as successive plans for Brexit were rejected, plunging the country into an unending political drama.

The House of Commons met on a Saturday for the first time since the Falklands war in 1982, because prime minister Johnson wished for a fast track decision on his Brexit plan. The opposite happened. A resolution seeking another extension in the date of leaving the European Union was adopted instead.

The Brexit adventure has exposed the fissures deeply embedded in the UK on ethnic and sectarian basis, with Northern Ireland and Scotland unhappy with the English countryside’s anxiety to leave the Union. The city of London that has benefitted enormously from the EU links, too feels shortchanged. But there seems little possibility of going back on the decision, as the Brexit drive is spearheaded among others by the current prime minister, Boris Johnson.

The latest developments in the Brexit saga indicate that a third British prime minister may be heading for a defeat or a general election after his two predecessors had to quit over the crisis surrounding Britain’s exit from the European Union. Will another election resolve the crisis or push the oldest parliamentary democracy into further paralysis? Some are already pleading for a second referendum.

The situation on the other side of the Atlantic is not much better either. By a quirk of US election rules, Donald Trump, who polled two million fewer votes reached the White House while Hillary Clinton was left sulking. Ever since, Trump has proved to be a highly problematic chief executive who shoots from the hip and allows the results to take care of themselves. The ‘system’ is deeply impacted notably the judicial branch. No president in living memory has personalized state’s authority as Trump.

The tycoon president has a habit of defying the security establishment by taking knee-jerk steps like withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and Syria while pulling out from the nuclear deal with Iran and the climate accord of Paris. His unconditional support to Israel has diminished the prospects of a solution to the pending establishment of a Palestinian state, solemnly accepted by the state of Israel. Both countries have shown their contempt for international agreements and commitments.

The serious damage caused to the institutions by the wavering British attitude toward the EU and Trump’s penchant for rewriting everything from trade deals to defence policy is likely to have wider consequences as the Anglo-American tandem has led the Western alliance since WWII. After upholding the superiority of government through democratic means, be it parliamentary or presidential, the two are now traversing crises which raise doubts about that superiority.

The situation is even more precarious in Pakistan as doubts are being raised about the suitability and sustainability of the federal parliamentary system as being practised now. Parliament has been reduced to a forum for slander while legislation is being done through ordinances. It is no exaggeration to say that after eleven years of elected democracy, the country’s socio-economic indicators are in a deplorable state.

A quick fix constitutional change was made through the Eighteenth Amendment giving greater powers and resources to the federating units. Frankly, this change has left the centre on a limb as it does not have enough resources to pay debts, salaries and defence expenditure, resulting in heavy borrowing. The provincial governments neither have the capacity nor the will to use their resources for the benefit of the people. The long delay in Peshawar’s metro bus project becomes understandable in that context.

Karachi, the country’s economic hub has emerged as the biggest sufferer. The capital, Islamabad, is now going through similar neglect because as in the case of Karachi, the tussle between the elected mayor and the Capital Development Authority is leading to a massive deterioration of services in the city. A question can perhaps be raised whether an irresponsible democracy is better than an authoritarian system that delivers.

The federal and provincial governments must resolve the institutional crisis in Karachi and Islamabad to show their commitment to public service.

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