An establishmentarian democracy

January 22, 2023

An establishmentarian democracy

Prof Mohammad Waseem, the veteran political theorist, has coined and introduced a new term, establishmentarian democracy, in the context of Pakistan, in his recently published book, Political Conflict in Pakistan. Prof Waseem is an academic with international acclaim. Through his teachings and writings he has inspired more than one generations of scholars.

Listening to him in a seminar is a pleasure. He frames his arguments in novel ways. As a result he is adept at coining new expressions and phrases. Waseem always has something novel to say; something that stirs debate.

The Political Conflict in Pakistan is a 570-page book, rich in substance, provocative and theoretically profound. As such, trying to cover the whole book in a single article will not be gratifying. Here, my sole focus is on the fourth chapter, which deals with a concept that appears at first to be a contradiction in terms, but is linked to a tangible reality.

The reality itself contains contradictory processes and substances like dialectics. The establishment — shorthand for the military-bureaucracy nexus — is a permanent feature of the way political parties define their goals and means. Thus, Pakistan is an “establishmentarian” democracy with little hope of attaining maturity, as the prevailing circumstances demonstrate.

The rise and fall of political parties and popularly elected governments have therefore to be analysed with reference to the establishment, which has long dominated the political system, manipulated political parties, engineered elections and, more recently, persecuted dissident political voices.

Political engineering is done by shaping a particular narrative through the media and controlling other manifestations of a free democratic order. Demonising politicians as corrupt, incompetent and ill-intentioned is a frequent tactic used since the days of Malik Ghulam Muhammad and Iskander Mirza.

Bizarrely, it is implied that all wisdom necessary to govern the country emanates from the apolitical institutions that are projected as the guardians of Pakistan’s geographical as well as ideological frontiers. Hence, principal decision-making and the execution of those decisions has to be at their behest.

Therefore, Prof Waseem asserts, “while the illiberal hybrid regime model has become the conventional wisdom about countries, such as Pakistan…”, he goes on to explain, “such categorisation groups together all countries that are not ‘liberal’ (in contrast to mature democracies) and which are, therefore, hybrid (that is, mixed with some undefined nondemocratic elements).”

He says, “the determinants of hybrid democracy are insufficiently analysed in terms of bringing out the potential – or lack of it – to transform to a mature democracy.”

To put the debate on establishmentarian democracy in perspective, let’s get down to defining establishment. There may be some repetition in the process. The establishment is a term used to describe a dominant group or elite that controls a polity or an organisation. In specific situations, it may comprise a closed social group that selects its members or entrenched elite structures.

Such a group of powerful people exists in almost every country (and every organisation, for that matter). What distinguishes one political dispensation from another is the extent of domination the establishment exercises. To put it differently, the quantum of power and authority to make decisions and their subsequent execution is conceded to the civilian (democratically elected) leadership is the point of differentiation.

The establishment is generally understood in terms of its bid to preserve the status quo in the name of conventions, rules and regulations. People’s will, reflected in the civilian, popularly elected dispensation, reflects change: a transition that at times controverts the established and entrenched conventions.

People’s aspirations never stagnate; therefore, those representing the status quo are always wary of its fluidity. The establishment in Pakistan includes the key decision-makers in the country’s military and intelligence services, national security, as well as its foreign and domestic policies.

The establishment is notable for its covert interventions and organisation of military coups against civilian governments. It was reportedly behind the 1953–54 constitutional coup in the Dominion of Pakistan. Needless to state here that it organised the coups in 1958, 1977 and 1999.

Waseem traces the establishment’s hegemony over the civilian institutions constituting the governance structure to Mohammad Ayub Khan’s martial law (imposed in 1958) that subordinated “bureaucracy, judiciary and parliament to the security apparatus and turned the political class into its client.”

He highlights 1971-1977 as a period when civilian supremacy over the armed forces was restored when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto led Pakistan Peoples Party ruled Pakistan. However, the gains secured by the political leadership were lost during the eleven years of Zia-ul Haq’s rule. I will trace the overriding influence of the establishment over the democratic forces from the moment when Khawaja Nazim-ud Din was sacked rather unceremoniously by a bureaucrat in cahoots with others of his ilk and an army general.

The establishment’s hold was further entrenched when the constituent assembly was dissolved by the same bureaucrat turned governor-general and there was no adequate push back. The judiciary joined the establishment by invoking the doctrine of necessity, thus legitimating the travesties of anti-democratic forces, i.e., the establishment.

The mantra in wide circulation those days was that democracy was inconsistent with the genius of Pakistani populace. In support of such bizarre notions and concepts, every trick in the book of fascism was deployed to keep a lid on the expression of people’s will. At best, the dictators restored local governments and tried to use them as an instrument of political control.

For serious students of history and politics, this book is a must read.

The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

An establishmentarian democracy