Friday June 21, 2024

Opposition and the prisoners’ dilemma

By Hussain H Zaidi
February 24, 2022

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.

Anyone living during the 1990s would for sure have scoffed at the idea of the PPP and PML-N joining hands with a view to pulling the incumbent government down. For one thing, the two parties remained at daggers drawn during that period of remarkable political turbulence.

For another, it was virtually inconceivable to have a civilian political dispensation in which neither party was in power. But time changes and politics evolve. Now these two political heavyweights, with the help of some parties of a lesser stature, are set upon throwing the PTI government out. If he has done nothing else, Imran Khan has at least changed Pakistan’s political landscape from a duopoly to an oligopoly.

The terms ‘duopoly’ and ‘oligopoly’ are widely used as business models. An industry characterised by a duopoly has only two major suppliers. There may be some, or even several, other enterprises but their combined share in the total output is too small to be significant. It is the two principal players that lead the market by the nose.

Such a model offers a narrow range of choices to the customers, most of them having to go for one of the suppliers. In real life, if it isn’t Boeing, it must be Airbus; if it isn’t Visa, it has to be MasterCard; if it isn’t Pepsi Cola, it must be Coca-Cola. By the same token, a duopolistic political market – or the bi-party system - which is ruled by two mega players, leaves the stakeholders – voters and other influencers – with a limited choice. If it isn’t one party, it must be the other. Yes, they can choose to vote for a third party, but their choice will not bear upon the political outcome.

Hence, during the 1990s, in a game of musical chairs the PPP and the PML-N took turns in the exercise of power. In 1990, the PPP government, voted to power in 1988, was sacked only to bring the PML-N in the saddle. In 1993, the PML-N government was shown the door only to induct the PPP in power. In 1996, the PPP government was dismissed for a second time to make way for the PML-N. But for the coup that was staged in October 1999, the game of musical chairs would have continued into the new millennium.

In the singular context of Pakistani politics, the duopoly meant the stakeholders couldn’t afford to throw overboard both the parties at the same time. They were compelled to put their money on one of them, even if they trusted neither. Another implication of the duopolistic political structure was that the PPP and the PML-N would remain at each other’s throat, as both competed fiercely for the scarce resource – political power. A pact like the Charter of Democracy (CoD), which committed both parties to making a common cause against a common adversary, could not see the light of the day. Such were the rules of the game, which were obvious to all and binding on all regardless of how powerful they were.

The duopolistic structure gives the stakeholders a clear-cut choice. At the same time, it constrains their choices, as they have to choose one of the two players, even if they don’t have any preference.

The entry of the third player in the political market upends the simple duopolistic model. Now the stakeholders have more strings to their bow. Instead of being constrained to choose ‘A’ or ‘B,’ they can turn their back on both and fix on ‘C.’ They can also afford to direct their guns towards both ‘A’ and ‘B’ at the same time without having to upset the existing applecart.

The political façade that was put in place by the Musharraf regime from 2002-2007 represented a transition from a duopoly to an oligopoly. The third player, besides the PPP and the PML-N, was the PML-Q. The PML-Q was the king’s party comprising largely PML-N dissidents and later some PPP dissidents as well. It was during that period that the top leadership of the PPP and the PML-N, banished from the country, met in London and inked the CoD. The CoD was another indication that national politics had moved from a duopoly to an oligopoly.

However, the new oligopolistic structure turned out to be more of a contrivance than genuine political evolution. In the last couple of years of his rule, an increasingly unpopular Gen Musharraf had made up his mind to throw the PML-Q on the scrapheap and curry favour with the PPP, which ushered in the promulgation of the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO). Having been left on its own, the PML-Q took a pounding in the 2008 national elections. The PPP formed the government at the centre, while the PML-N took the largest province of Punjab.

It seemed that breaking the political duopoly was a tall order. But that turned out to be an error of judgment. The PTI, which until then had been a political non-entity shunned by the movers and shakers, suddenly began to draw political heavyweights one after the other to its folds. From being the head of virtually a one-man party, Imran Khan became one of the most sought-after political leaders. For a second time, the political duopoly was showing signs of giving place to an oligopoly.

The 2013 elections represented a triangular fight. Although the PTI finished third, well behind the PML-N and closely behind the PPP, cards had been stacked in its favour. The most significant implication of the rise of the PTI was that in the event that the PML-N fell out of favour with the stakeholders, the PPP wouldn’t necessarily be the principal beneficiary. Hence in the wake of former PM Nawaz Sharif’s fall in 2017, despite the PPP’s desperate attempts to suck up to the stakeholders, luck smiled on the PTI. The party went on to win the 2018 national elections.

In a political oligopoly, the two of the major parties may join hands to form a ruling coalition; alternately, the parties in the opposition may set up an alliance. In both cases, the coalition is inherently unstable. Although cooperation is in the mutual interest of the coalition partners, each member of the coalition has an incentive to cheat – the prisoners’ dilemma. The reason: each party thinks that if it honours its commitments, while the other defects, the defecting party may gain. That happened during 2007-08 when despite signing the CoD, the PPP negotiated and signed a deal with the then regime, leaving the PML-N high and dry.

With Prime Minister Imran Khan categorically stating that he would have no truck with either the PPP or the PML-N, because of their alleged corruption, a PPP-PML-N alliance was the logical outcome. However, during the past three and a half years, their alliance has suffered one setback after the other, because of the prisoner’s dilemma.

The opposition’s planned no-confidence motion against the prime minister suffers from the same prisoners’ dilemma. Granted that the opposition has the numbers required to vote out the prime minister, the key question is: who will head the new government? Would the new government last only a few months and the National Assembly dissolved prematurely, leading to snap polls? Or will the National Assembly be allowed to complete its five-year constitutional-term?

In the event of the success of the no-trust motion, each party would like to benefit more than the other and thus would like to shape the new set-up in a way that best suits its perceived interests. It is very likely that the final outcome is a situation in which the gains made by one party are at the expense of the other. Besides, who would guarantee that both the PPP and the PML-N, each one of which has in the past accused the other of stabbing it in the back, play by the agreed rules? Probably Maulana Fazlur Rehman can underwrite that guarantee. But does he have the power to enforce the agreement? Probably not.

As philosopher Thomas Hobbes once stated, covenants, without the power to enforce them, are but a piece of paper. Apart from the game of numbers, the opposition’s success in voting the government out will depend on its ability to overcome the prisoners’ dilemma.


Twitter: @hussainhzaidi