Technocrats or politicians? Nay, both

Neither technocrats nor politicians alone can solve the problems faced by the country

Technocrats or politicians? Nay, both


he failure of the government led by the Pakistan Democratic Movement to find a satisfactory solution to the recent economic crisis/ recession has generated a debate regarding the installation of a technocratic government in Pakistan, where major governance decisions are left to the experts, including scientists and engineers, rather than politicians. Its proponents refer to Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s handwritten note dated July 10, 1947, which states: “Dangers of Parliamentary Form of Government: 1) Parliamentary form of government — it has worked satisfactorily so far in England and nowhere else; 2) Presidential form of government (more suited to Pakistan)”. They say the early demise of Jinnah followed by Liaquat Ali Khan’s assassination created a gap of quality leadership resulting in a system of governance where major governance decisions were not made by experts. They argue that a government of experts is the only viable solution to pull the country out of the current economic whirlpool.

Their opponents hold that this system suits only dictators — for it guards their vested interests rather than promoting democracy where social justice and public welfare are preferred and promoted. They substantiate their argument by pointing out that the country has been ruled by military dictators for more than three decades. The military preferred technocratic setups over parliamentary democratic governments. However, they failed miserably in addressing the chronic problems, particularly the economic ones, the country had been facing. Ultimately, they either had to turn towards parliamentary democracy under their own aegis or give up in favour of politicians. Had the technocratic setups performed well the country would have been among the better performing economies and the generals would have been ruling it directly, to this day.

The history of the first technocratic setup dates back to the Great Depression that hit the Western world in 1929 and continued well into the 1930s. As a result of this economic crisis, the West almost lost hope of recovery when the idea of governance of technocrats was floated. The technocrats took some bold decisions to successfully steer the North American continent out of this quagmire. Thus, the masses were delighted to see the results of the New Deal Initiatives to ease the economic recession. Government by technocrats thus became an attractive idea, particularly in societies where politicians were judged to be doing too poorly by the people. It also became a favourite with dictators, who could not trust popular wisdom.

Turning to Asia, the Chinese political system led by a politburo – a group of nine people – and Singapore’s regime are deemed close to being technocratic setups. In China’s case, eight out of nine incumbent members of politburo hold engineering degrees. Their decisions affect the lives of billions of people. In Singapore’s case, major decisions are made by the experts. The systems, despite being different, are working well in both the countries particularly in the context of service delivery and public welfare.

However, we have yet to agree on the most appropriate form of government in the interest of the state and its people because parliamentary democracy too is performing really well in many countries.

Pakistan has been a laboratory where almost all the systems of governance including bureaucratic regime, technocratic setup, military dictatorship, parliamentary democracy, presidential government and a combination of two or more of these have been tested.

Beginning with an era of bureaucratic regime, as it is termed most often since major decision makers were bureaucrats, Pakistan fell prey to dictatorial regimes of Gen Muhammad Ayub Khan and Gen Yahya Khan. Both the generals went for a presidential system of governance preferring technocrats over politicians as their major decision makers — though they had retained the politicians along with the technocrats. After a brief interval of a parliamentary democracy under the leadership of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the country was again in the clutches of another dictator, Gen Zia-ul Haq. Zia also went for a presidential system where he pitched the technocrats against the politicians. Zia’s dictatorship followed a decade of parliamentary democracy with four successive governments failing to complete their terms. Then, another dictatorship knocked out the elected government in 1999. Following in the footsteps of his predecessors, Gen Pervez Musharraf also pitched the technocrats against the politicians in a presidential system. Musharraf’s ouster paved the way for the return of the parliamentary system.

Despite failures of successive regimes and multiple systems that have been tried out till now, only politicians are blamed for the mess. They are ridiculed for being less educated than a houseful of civil servants or other technocrats. Allegations of corruption and nepotism abound: it is alleged that there is a terrible lack of transparency; governments are unable to deliver the services they promise the public; development projects are seen as a ruse for stealing from the exchequer; bribery is alleged in key appointments and rule of law is challenged with great regularity. Parliamentary democracy is frequently blamed for the problems.

Historical analysis reveals that the technocrats have been pitched against the politicians by calling the latter uneducated, unskilled and corrupt. Both technocrats and bureaucrats have worked in tandem with the latter staying there while the former vanish after a while. Technocrats, mainly due to their volatile position, have been manipulated by the civil-military bureaucratic oligarchy to knock out the politicians. This way, in turn, technocratic setups have served their vested interests but not those of the public.

In my humble opinion, neither technocrats nor politicians alone can solve the chronic problems, chiefly economic, the country has been facing. However, a combination of both may steer the sinking ship to the shore. Technocrats should be pitched against traditional bureaucrats to do away with the latter’s hold over the levers of the state. In other words, the real problem lies with the bureaucrats. A viable solution therefore lies in a combination of technocrats and politicians: the technocrats can provide the skills and politicians the legitimacy for their decisions.

The writer has a PhD in history from Shanghai University. He is a lecturer at GCU, Faisalabad, and a research fellow at PIDE, Islamabad. He can be contacted at He tweets at @MazharGondal87

Technocrats or politicians? Nay, both