A roadmap for political reform

April 24, 2022

The word ‘politics’ has a Greek origin. It means decision making in groups.

A roadmap for political reform

Long term reform may eventually help Pakistan achieve sustainable development

The word ‘politics’ has a Greek origin. It means decision making in groups. The most important aspect of practical politics is the need to build consensus on important decisions affecting the group of people involved. Political systems in Pakistan have seen many changes but the importance of consensus building remains paramount.

Major political parties in Pakistan range from centre-right and centrist ideologies to centre-left. Then there are fringe, extreme and radical parties. A landmark achievement for the political class was reaching a mature consensus on certain issues and subscribing to the so-called Charter of Democracy. The article aims to propose some basic political reforms that may result in long-term sustainable development.

The PTI government had a mixed political posture. It combined centrism with certain centre-left ideas and some centre-right tropes. Several policy decisions it took therefore have mixed long-term implications. For instance, the policy statements regarding import substitution in the first year of the government by the advisor on commerce impacted the economy adversely. So did the remarks aired by some cabinet members indicating that the government was not as keen on CPEC as its predecessor. The long-term implications of some of its initiatives like the Pakistan Single Window (PSW) and Pakistan Regulatory Modernisation Initiative (PRMI) may have a positive impact on national economy.

Another positive impact in the long run might result from the social protection schemes launched by the government. Social protection schemes initially involve net expenditure but in time can cause an increase in the overall output of the economy.

Its strong anti-corruption and accountability focus did not allow the government to build consensus even on issues that should have been bipartisan. The National Assembly had no standing committees for a long period of time in 2018. This lack of inclusivity in decision-making was one of the major factors causing frustration among its coalition allies who eventually sided against the government in the vote of no confidence against the prime minister.

This failure to create inclusive decision-making mechanisms in the government is not new either. Kitchen cabinets were known to have existed in the previous governments as well. Political decision-making became a major factor in some of the state institutions becoming active and revolting against those governments.

Based on international best practices, here are some recommendations for long-term political stability in Pakistan: setting up political boundaries, the conceptualisation of shadow cabinets, strengthening of the roles of parliamentary standing committees, rationalising the size of the cabinet, and empowering the local governments.

Setting up the political boundaries includes accepting that some components of decision-making require consensus. This, for instance, should include economic policymaking due to the nature of the current economic conditions. This will require considering the needs and advice of all stakeholders and building a consensus on all issues. The focus must be on creating an enabling environment where all stakeholders are involved in economic decision-making.

The next step should be to consider the role of shadow cabinets. Given an enabling environment, this can be a very strong mechanism for exchange of political wisdom on economic and other issues as a shadow cabinet works on important policy tasks, such as determining the federal and provincial budgets. The impact of this method will be significantly enhanced if the incumbent government is willing to share accurate data with the opposition.

This will require the relevant member of the cabinet to engage the opposition’s nominated member(s) in, for example, the budget-making process. This will, in turn, present an opportunity for the elected members to gain firsthand experience of the decision-making process. Additionally, the role of relevant standing committees will evolve with the shadow government concept. Members who have had the experience of the shadow portfolio may be made part of the standing committees. This will result in more effective accountability of the government and more meaningful and practical arguments.

The relevant power and authority should be devolved to the local government level in letter and spirit. The issue of the development budget seems to outperform the legislative capacity of the honourable members of National and Provincial Assemblies. In order for them to focus entirely on macro-level issues, there needs to be an effective system in place for micro issues at the local government level.

This will also ensure transparency in the electoral process and accessibility of basic amenities to all citizens irrespective of their political affiliation. Similarly, transparency and accountability in the approval mechanism of development projects shall also play a major role. The use of a socio-economic scorecard mechanism to provide funds for only the most important socio-economic projects can help growth and development.

This may be followed by a rationalization of the size of the cabinet. The shadow cabinets can give requisite experience to opposition members to prepare them for cabinet positions in the future.

Long term political reforms may eventually help Pakistan achieve sustainable development and transition towards a truly democratic system.

The writer heads the Centre for Private Sector Engagement at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute.

A roadmap for political reform