The cost of political uncertainty

Economic pressures in the form of rising inflation and increased unemployment have exacerbated social desperation

The cost of political uncertainty


he ongoing political and economic crisis is not entirely new to Pakistan. The country has seen several cycles of such crises over the past. The alarming thing about the present crisis is that it has seeped malice into the social and economic organs of the state and society.

It is a result of this worst political polarisation that our economy appears to be on a ventilator, dependent on the IMF and that our social fabric is torn.

Economic strain, in the form of skyrocketing inflation and increased unemployment, has exacerbated social desperation among the masses. This has further deepened the political chasm. The chaos goes on. The worst thing in this scenario is that people’s trust in the political system is dwindling and an erosion of democratic norms and values has started.

Political scientist Lord Bryce has remarked that indolence and indifference on the part of citizens are two enemies of the democracy. Many Pakistanis have unfortunately developed apathy towards national politics. They have become disgruntled towards the politics and consider all politicians the peddlers of their vested interests, completely ignorant of people’s miseries resulting from the continuous wrangling.

This is the worst nightmare for democracy because democracy and the economy cannot function where people become too unruly and passive. French philosopher Montesquieu said, “The tyranny of a prince would hardly bring a state to ruin quicker than would indifference to the common welfare in public.” We see that Pakistan’s ruling elite have been unable to create that sense of life where rights are protected and opportunities are provided for a sustained better future.

In the present scenario, Pakistan is a textbook example for all the key indicators enumerated in the book, How Democracies Die, authored by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. If we put Pakistan’s case in the four behavioural warnings identified in the book then we see that (a) there has been a clear rejection among the leaders and masses to the democratic rules of the game, (b) the political opponents are being witch-hunted and there is a complete denial of the legitimacy of the political opponents, (c) toleration to violence or, in many instances, the incitement to violence both on the part of the state and the general masses have increased (d) the civil liberties of both the political opponents and dissenting voices, including the media, are being trampled.

Non-elective institutions are interfering in the political regime of the country from time to time. This crisis package has resulted in a growing disinterest towards the nascent democracy.

Both the government and the opposition should use legal and constitutional channels, instead of resorting to extra-legal means which will only generate an undesirable set of consequences for a strong democracy and national economy.

Apart from these endogenous factors, the geography of the country and its foreign policy wrongdoings in the past have come to haunt the democratic dispensation of the country and ruin its economic prospects. Pakistan is surrounded by countries that have no love lost for the Westminster democracy. India was the only exception to this; however, since Prime Minister Modi’s rise to power, the secular India has turned into a Hindu rashthra.

The geo-strategic interests of the great powers in the region have also encouraged undemocratic trends in the country because it was easier always to co-opt dictators.

Democracies are best suited to deal with crises that emerge within, most of all economic crises. As Benazir Bhutto once remarked, the cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy. The reversal of the present undemocratic trends and the derision of democratic culture are only possible once the state and the society resole to stick to the principles of tolerance and institutional forbearance.

The first principle refers to the acknowledgement of the legitimacy of one’s political opponents to compete for power through a democratic process, so long as they play within the constitutional rules. Mutual toleration excludes the use, or even encouragement, of threats and violence to bar political opponents from competing for office. This principle stands true for social and religious sphere of life as well.

As a nation, we need to learn to accept one another’s political and religious views and not resort to extreme means like hatred and violence in our opposition.

The second principle is closely related to the rule of law. Institutional forbearance means elected officials cannot take actions that intentionally privilege one group of individuals at the expense of another. The present constitutional and political tension over the polls in the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is a case study.

Will the Election Commission of Pakistan and the apex court, which earlier gave a ruling for elections within the constitutionally mandated ninety days, be able to uphold this principle, remains to be seen. Institutional meddling in the political process and the claims of being favourites or otherwise to the establishment are the markers of a lack of institutional forbearance in the country.

The takeaway for us is that in the present political polarisation in the country, the politicians, and people in general, have to save the democracy from itself. This means that the political parties should avoid the clutches of the establishment and rely only on the connstitutional channels in competing for power.

Both the government and the opposition should use legal and constitutional channels, instead of resorting to extra-legal means that will only generate an undesirable set of consequences for democracy and economy. This will not only increase political polarisation but also legitimise the erosion of the rule of law. Any opposition to authoritarian tendencies in a democratic set up seeks to preserve, rather than violate, democratic rules and norms.

The writer is a lecturer in political science

The cost of political uncertainty