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Institutions and democratic dynamism

Political institutionalisation in Pakistan has always been neglected — not because of ignorance but due to sheer lack of political astuteness!

Institutions and democratic dynamism

Democracies — new or old, strong or weak — require fully functional formal institutions such as elections, political parties, representative legislatures and judicial agencies. These institutions enable citizens to endure the political experience. Undoubtedly, these institutions are banisters to democracy’s foundation.

It is Constitution that is the demiurge.

Constitution devises the rules of political game; it draws scope, duties and responsibilities of all other political institution(s). Constitution is supreme — yes, but it is so only if all the subordinate political institutions lend unremitting commitment for sustainment of the Constitution. The support of subordinate political institutions is crucial for democracy to function.

These very fundamental institutional postulates fault Pakistan for its performance. In contrast, however, the case of India, and especially its very strong Election Commission and Supreme Court, picture an enduring case of strength of its Constitution in a highly volatile and heterogeneous society.

The one commonality between India and Pakistan is that while the former have experienced executive takeovers, the latter has been susceptible to military takeovers. India, however, managed to transcend a federal regulatory state. In Pakistan, to this day, institutional progress is rendered regressive. We have a Constitution with a federal framework layout, but due to the inefficiency of other subordinate institutions, its application has always been susceptible to unconstitutional ruptures.

There are two things from the Indian case that must not go unnoticed: first is its federalism that enables all political actors to participate and contest in political processes. The federal system of Indian democracy decentralises power among the regions and between the political institutions, thus keeping a check on (abusive) executive and/or legislature. Second is the activism of its political parties; they remain a mobilising force, drawing support from electorate and reaching out to new vote bank. Electoral performance of the BJP is one such illustration of vibrancy of India’s political dynamism.

For the BJP to cement its place in political landscape, it had to move away from an insular identity-based local movement to issue-driven broad-based political party. The ascendency of the BJP on the political landscape is a derivative of India’s institutional dynamism vis-à-vis its complex cultural, social and religious mix. The BJP’s performance shows that as being a responsive political institution, it had to transcend its ideological rhetoric to remain in the political game. It will be an oversight, if one does not acknowledge the fact that the effect of this transcendence now can be seen when one looks at the geo-political arena.

One might wonder what India’s example have to do with the situation that we face in contemporary Pakistan? The answer to which is that we need to internalise the fact that political institutionalisation in Pakistan has always been neglected — not because of the ignorance but due to sheer lack of political astuteness!

Though the political elite behaves in a Machiavellian manner, they overlook the fact that even Niccolò Machiavelli insisted on strengthening the political institutions. In the universe of Machiavellian politics, The Prince was the demiurge, whereas in the contemporary period, Constitution personifies The Prince. It is not denied that the time when Machiavelli wrote the controversial treatise, the one subordinate institution was the military. Machiavelli therefore advised The Prince to effect the norms in society, command the military, weary of his contemporaries and strive for common interests.

Pakistan, however, fails Machiavelli’s advice. Why is it so?

One of the answers is, it is the political elite and the powers to be that personify The Prince and not the Constitution. Ruling elite prefers to engage in shenanigans to strengthen themselves than the Constitution.

In contemporary Pakistan, the political elite plays out the rhetoric on issues such as procedural fairness in election, democratic governance to insure competitive electoral system. But, across the board, action on this rhetoric is absent. In legislature the ungainly filibusters stagnate institutional dynamism.

The political elite should expend energy on strengthening the subordinate institutions. Efforts should be made in enabling subordinate institutions to pass the accountability test on two of its key dimensions: horizontal and vertical.

Horizontal accountability pertains to the balance of power between the institutions. The upshot is that there will then be less chances of capture by any one institution and/or of praetorian controls. Pakistan’s performance on this dimension has been consistently dismal.

If one exhumes the actions of political institutions (executive, political parties, legislature, judiciary), we see a clear pattern of machinations of praetorian tendencies. One must not overlook the fact that military takeovers were rendered in cahoots with either one or all of these political institutions. Rather to manage institutional conflicts, the ruling elite, on the contrary, try to circumvent and flout the very constitutional rules they claim to hold dear. Thus, when we are reminded by (self-proclaimed) political pundits that there is the third umpire, it is because they fundamentally believe that history shall repeat itself. Our ruling elite is rather keen to dwell on the scheme to invite the mystic messianic third umpire, than to address institutional conflicts.

Vertical accountability concerns electoral competition that ensues between the political elite to reach the corridors of power; the consequence of which is the political participation of the masses. This dimension of accountability demands that the incumbent government and oppositional political forces engage with the society. Surprisingly enough, in the recent past, Pakistan’s performance on this dimension of accountability has shown comparable improvement. The current scenario from contemporary Pakistan exhibits an intriguing burgeoning case of vertical accountability made possible due to active electronic media.

For example, we now see that political parties in the centre and in provinces, partisan or adversary, all are aware that they must keep close to their vote bank to maintain their momentum of competitive political mobilisation. This realisation on the part of political parties is not because electorate are fickle, but because the action and speech of political elite is now promptly captured by the media, thus making ruling elites more cautious of their actions against the standards of accountability. Who would have thought that the premier would address the nation in the wake of Panama leaks? In the past, elected governments faced corruption charges but they never felt any obligation towards the society, despite being elected by the public.

It will not be unremarkable to opine that the current activism of political parties reflects an undeniable fact that now electoral arena is not the only platform where issues are to be contested quinquennially. The media has an unprecedented effect on how political contests emerge in the public sphere incessantly.

In terms of standards of institutional accountability, Pakistan may score a little better on the test of vertical accountability, however the road that Pakistan has to cover in meeting the standards of horizontal accountability is long, and remains to be tumultuous.

Beenish Kulsoom

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