Politics in the New Year

January 3, 2021

Why 2021 entails continued political instability and insecurity

Globally, across all spheres of life, a ‘new normal’ has been spawned by Covid-19. In lifestyles, politics, language, science and technology, culture, work and learning, the pandemic has fundamentally shifted thought and practice. Pakistani politics in 2020 too had its own strain of a ‘new normal’. The shift is slighter, perhaps, but it’s worth understanding why it means continued political instability and insecurity running into 2021.

The acknowledgement, even celebration in some quarters, that Pakistan is not a fully-functioning democracy or even a flawed democracy, but a hybrid regime should not be normalised. For years, the more common term used was a ‘transitioning’ democracy: the idea that post-dictatorship, despite imbalances of power, the country was inching towards some semblance of constitutional democratic order, however flawed. Essentially, the ‘new normal’ in Pakistani politics is that de facto is acceptable, and the outrage against it is traitorous. The numerous sedition cases against opposition leaders and journalists who called out the acceptability of the hybrid is proof enough. This year alone, cases have been registered against 27 journalists under various laws, including cybercrime laws, that broadly use the definition of ‘anti-state’.

But what is being celebrated? A hybrid regime, according to The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index is marked by “substantial irregularities” in the electoral process. Pressure on opposition parties and candidates “may be common”, while there are “serious weaknesses” in “political culture, functioning of government and political participation.” The powerful continue to be largely unaccountable because the media, civil society or an independent judiciary are feeble.

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index ranks Pakistan as a hybrid regime, 108 out of 167 countries. This is not something to celebrate, since the index notes that democracy is in retreat globally, having had its worst year in 2019 (the assessment is from a year ago) since 2006. While the index notes that the regression is reflected in the declining averages in the US and Europe, the signs and symptoms of an ailing democracy have manifested particularly in the Pakistan of 2020. It is worth quoting them in full.

“1. An increasing emphasis on elite/expert governance rather than popular participatory democracy.”

Think of the multiple special assistants to the prime minister and advisors leading the cabinet; until the resignation of Dr Zafar Mirza and Tania Aidrus, their numbers were highest in Pakistan’s 73-year-old history in proportion to elected representatives. Consider also that the opposition is meant to play a key role in shaping policy through parliament. Since August and the final rupture between the opposition parties and the ruling party since the passage of the FATF laws and launch of the Pakistan Democratic Movement, the parliament has been rendered dysfunctional, even titular.

“2. A growing influence of unelected, unaccountable institutions and expert bodies;

3. The removal of substantive issues of national importance from the political arena to be decided by politicians, experts or supranational bodies behind closed doors.”

Concurrent with the breakdown of parliament’s functionality has been the rise of the National Command and Control Centre (NCOC) as the primary coordinating body on Covid-19. Given the nature of the pandemic and the kind of responsiveness and coordination required, in and of itself, the establishment of the NCOC may have been a need of the time, but, yet again, parliamentary oversight and input has not kept pace. The NCOC meets every day, while the parliamentary committee on Covid-19 has met just five times. On the other hand, whether it has been the crisis in the economy, India’s annexation of Kashmir, Covid-19, the legal status of Gilgit-Baltistan, the breakdown in the dialogue between the elected representatives of the people has led to the breakdown of politics itself.

This breakdown has manifested itself in point number four, “a widening gap between political elites and parties on the one hand and national electorates on the other.” On the last day of 2020, doctors from the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS) hospital were protesting a few miles from parliament, near D-Chowk. Protests and rallies of all forms, student unions, women’s rights activists, farmers, lady health workers, the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan, the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement and opposition parties through the latter half of the year signify a deep divide and dissatisfaction with how things are being governed.

Finally, according the Democracy Index, “a decline in civil liberties, including media freedom and freedom of speech” is another indicator of a retreat in democracy. The new social media rules plowed through by the government despite objections from all affected quarters, cybercrime cases against journalists, and Pakistan’s continuing slide down internationally recognised media freedom indices tell the story of an anaemic media.

The argument in favour of a hybrid regime has been that ten years of a ‘transitioning’ democracy failed to deliver to the people, due to corruption and dynastic politics. But what has been introduced to replace that is not producing the stability and institutionalised democracy needed to deliver better governance. In his piece in the Financial Times, Martin Wolf argues that liberal democracy is a fading light because “demagogic authoritarian capitalism is a hybrid… power is personal, not institutionalised. This is corrupt gangster politics. It rests on the personal loyalty of sycophants and cronies.”

So, what’s changed really? From dynastic politics to cult politics; where politics is performative rather than productive?

The year ends with questions about the unity and purpose of the opposition alliance. The year ends with crisis after crisis with no legal, punitive or parliamentary solutions in sight: gas, sugar, wheat, LNG, petrol, inflation, and aviation, to name a few. The year ends with the feel of an election campaign - whether it’s by the opposition parties or the rulin­– without a climax. The year ends with the acceptance of the hybrid; to use a car analogy, without the fuel to keep it in motion.

The writer is a multimedia journalist, and host of the show Sawaal with Amber. She tweets at @AmberRShamsi

Pakistani politics in the New Year