What electables mean for our democracy

January 10, 2021

Client politics has proved a hurdle in the development of a viable political system and culture

The term, ‘electables’ might be a recent coinage but the phenomenon goes back to the colonial days when the British relied on the mediation of the rural elite for establishment of an effective rule.

The factors affecting electability differ from country to country, depending mostly on the socio-economic backgrounds and the socio-institutional dynamics. For instance, in the United States the historical winning records instill and reinforce a bias that favours a white male as compared to the opposite gender or other ethnicities. Barack Obama is considered an exception, a miracle, or a deviation from the normal trend and his success story is tracked back to winning the Iowa caucus.

The role of the media cannot be discounted as it pitches a front-runner. Many voters then come to identify themselves as supporters of the prospective winner. The factors at play in hybrid democracies like Pakistan are, however, very different from those in well institutionalised liberal democracies like the US.

The first and foremost factor contributing to the electability of a candidate is the amount of funds they can pour directly or indirectly into financing their election campaign to mobilise the masses. In extreme cases this comes down to buying votes of the majority castes in a constituency. Realistically, the amount of money the candidates are willing to spend, can determine the outcome in a large number of constituencies. The cost of running an effective election campaign in such constituencies excludes the average citizen from the league of feasible candidates. This makes campaign spending an enterprise for the moneyed elite. They spend money on their election campaigns and look for dividends when they are in power. This places a huge question mark on the proclaimed democratic principles and has translated into the trust deficit between the political government thus formed and the people. The legitimacy of such an elected government is always questionable.

Legitimacy, says Lipset, is the acceptance of a political system by the people. It is vital for a regime to survive and thrive. Regime legitimacy is detrimental to any government’s smooth functioning; the degree of legitimacy can range from moral to pragmatic. Moral legitimacy indicates the conscious and active support of the masses based on the normative principles a government embodies. On the contrary, the pragmatic legitimacy is characterised by a tacit compliance or passive approval to the government’s practices based on a set of instrumental or “pragmatic” reasons.

The type of legitimacy that a government enjoys has obvious implications for the participation of the masses in the political process. The modern development theorists who preach the dependence of economic development on the political development view the ‘electables’ as a huge impediment to the economic wellbeing of their countries.

The tradition of client politics, a colonial legacy that allowed the British Raj to fortify and strengthen its rule, has proved a hurdle in the development of a viable political system and culture in ex-colonial states like Pakistan. Most of the candidature that enjoys the prospects of winning elections is concentrated within the feudal elites with a slight amalgamation of industrialists and remnants or byproducts of bureaucratic structures who derive their acceptance among masses from their economic status or the client links ready to invest in their election campaigns in return for their own interests. Hence, the electoral politics degrades to a game of the rich, funded by the rich and played at the expense of ‘free’ choice of the masses, particularly the poor.

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Strategies relying on support of the electables have weakened the political parties that have been taking turns at governing the country without enjoying a regular voter support on the basis of their policies. This makes the political parties dependent on the electables to come to power. Therefore they have to accommodate the interests of a particular bunch or class of people at the cost of popularity among the masses.

In Pakistan where caste, sectarian and tribal affiliations often dictate the voters’ choice for the legislature tasked with framing the policies for the country, the electables enjoy an advantageous position. This makes buying loyalties of certain castes at constituency levels easy. Such practices render the political institutions ineffective and vulnerable and adversely affect the decision making process as the policy making bodies are dominated by a single class of people. Those benefitting from these policies predictably constitute an exclusive stratum.

The distorted institutional dynamics create an extreme parity among the ruling elite and the masses. Power and influence are concentrated and passed around among certain families and individuals who constantly hold the government hostage. This is a classic case of the principle-agent problem where the individuals elected by the masses have interests conflicting with the interests and wellbeing of the masses.

A notable aspect of the phenomenon is that this electability is independent of political affiliation. It depends mostly on personal influence or clout an individual, family or enterprise enjoys in a particular area. It is safe to say that every political party that ends up ruling has managed to get these electables on board to bag the majority. It is not the candidates who depend on the political parties and their manifestos, it’s the other way around. It is the personal influence and family background owing to their socio-economic standing in the society that lands the candidates in the power corridors.

The current government that came to the office with the slogans of “change”, “accountability” and “egalitarianism”, too managed to form majorities in the National and Provincial Assemblies through an active recruitment of electables in its ranks. In doing so it lost the support of many of its old members who were opposed to this selection of electables to represent them.

The tradition of client politics in Pakistan goes back to the movement that led to the independence of Pakistan. Muslim League was not adequately institutionalised at the time of elections. Its leadership compromised by accommodating the opportunist members of the Unionist Party to win a telling majority. The precedent hence set was furthered along the caste and tribal lines, receiving support from the existing power structure.

This compromise Muslim League made in endorsing and accommodating client politics with a blend of opportunism, factionalism and corruption proved a trend setter for the coming generations.

Today’s electables are the remnants of this tradition of client politics. They come from an exclusive class deriving influence and clout from factionalism and the socio-economic standing of their families. The political parties’ dependence on the electables places them on a lower level of legitimacy. In countries like Pakistan, where people can’t afford to be apolitical, this leads to a worrying dilemma.

The writer is a student of master’s in development studies at the School of Social Sciences and Humanities (S3H), at NUST in the Peace, Conflict and Development stream

What electables mean for Pakistan's democracy