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Thursday June 30, 2022

Change in politics

January 31, 2022

Pakistan-origin academics based abroad have carefully studied the workings of the political parties here. However, work on the political parties and the consolidation of democracy has largely been done in Pakistan as well, especially in the years 1998, 2008, 2012, and 2013. Later, it stopped all of a sudden.

Have the political parties become stronger or weaker over time? How has the relationship of the political parties with extra-parliamentary forces evolved over the years? Haris Gazdar (EPW, February 2008), Saeed Shafqat (The Pakistan Development Review, Winter 1998), Kaiser Bengali and Haris Gazdar (Pakistan Horizon, July 2013), and Mohammad Waseem (EPW, July 2012) have produced enough literature on the consolidation of democracy and its relationship with the state.

There are at least two visible contradictory trends in domestically produced literature on political parties: one suggests that political parties have not significantly strengthened democracy, but the other is complimentary of the success political parties have achieved so far in promoting democracy.

Saeed Shafqat is of the view that political parties have failed to become modus of ‘interest representation’ and that they dwell on street mobilisation and patronage. On the other hand, Haris Gazdar states that parties have “relatively well-defined ideological markets, support basis, and ways of conducting business”. Kaiser Bengali and Haris Gazdar also present this pro-political parties analysis.

My analysis suggests that the relationship of the old civilian guard – the PPP and the PML-N – and extra-parliamentary forces has gone through a paradigm shift since the Panama Papers verdict in 2017, which has changed the nature of this 28-year-old relationship (from 1988 to 2017).

There have been four different phases of democratic consolidation since 1988. The 1988-1999 period was of immature political disequilibrium for the old civilian in the first phase; then there was authoritarian rule rupture from 1999-2008 in the second phase; the 2008-2017 period was of mature political equilibrium for the old civilian guard in the third phase; from 2018 onwards there is hybrid rule that is imbalanced but has stable equilibrium for the old (PPP, PML-N) and the new (PTI) civilian guard in the fourth phase.

In the first phase of ‘controlled democracy’ from 1988 to 1999; the PPP and the PML-N kept destabilising each other’s governments for short periods. In this phase, the obvious target of extra-parliamentary forces was the PPP, and considerable efforts were made to weaken the PPP. Yet, the same forces also moved against the PML-N when it tried to assert independence. One can call this a phase of immature political disequilibrium. The second phase was authoritarian rule from 1999 to 2008.

In the third phase of the return of democracy from 2008 to 2017; both the PPP and the PML-N showed maturity. There was a strong feeling that democracy would get strengthened and change of power would only take place through elections. Governmental performance was considered the yardstick to continue to rule. With the passage of the 18th Amendment and the Seventh NFC award; some irreversible developments took place to consolidate performance-based democracy.

Then the Panama case happened in 2016 and concluded in 2017. It was a watershed moment that changed the nature of the relationship between the old civilian guard and extra-parliamentary forces. Rhetoric aside, there is no more tussle or conflict between the old civilian guard (PML-N and PPP) and extra-parliamentary forces. The 28-year-old battle has been won by the hegemony of the extra-parliamentary forces. While the Panama case was primarily against the PML-N, serious corruption cases were also initiated against the PPP in the post-Panama phase.

Now the old civilian guard of the PML-N and PPP toe the line. As evident with all-important voting in parliament, including in the Senate where the opposition has the majority, both the PML-N and the PPP have not created any serious obstacles for the government in legislation.

Yet, it would be a fallacy to assume that the judiciary is not independent. Many political commentators have concluded that the judiciary has a complex relationship with coercive institutions; and it has certainly acted independent of the influence of other extra-parliamentary forces in the past on occasion.

This is also evident from some of the recent IHC judgments. However, for now the conflict between the old civilian guard and extra-parliamentary forces has been resolved and there is an imbalanced but stable political equilibrium in the country. The old civilian guard of the PML-N and the PPP has been considerably weakened due to the plethora of corruption cases against both these parties.

However, politics is the art of the possible, and if the PTI cannot deliver on governance in the leftover time before the next general elections and if it leads to the old civilian guard taking power in the whole country, the rules of the game could change again. Keeping rhetoric aside, after the paradigm shift in the civil-extra parliamentary forces relationship post the Panama verdict, it will continue being a more harmonious equation than a conflictual one.

This is good news in the long run. Pakistan needs political stability to develop and move forward to deliver on the political, economic, and social fronts. If the energies of the elite are not spent on resolving conflicts among themselves and if that precious social capital is spent on delivering for the people, this political stability will certainly augur well for the country.

The writer is an Islamabad-based social scientist. She can be reached at: fskcolumns@gmail.com

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