The political discourse about democratisation in Pakistan is in the habit of hitting the target while entirely missing the point. It is your stereotypical forest for trees situation. Decades of conditioning has left our pundits and journalists programmed not to notice the systemic flaws in the plan. The battle lines are so drawn that each side seems convinced that all fault lies on the other side. But that is not how you improve the system. You need disruptions upon disruptions to weaken the stranglehold of vested interests. Institution building, societal rejuvenation, economic revival, and upward mobility all depend on it. But do we have time to pause and take stock of what is wrong with our own camp? Of course not.
Consequently, throughout my whole life, I have seen the same theatre of the absurd playing out over and over again.
Political parties that do not get along. Elections that consistently fail to gain widespread acceptance because in Pakistan only one party that wins accepts the result and the rest cry wolf. How many times will this happen before we realise something is fundamentally wrong with our political structures? We are so benighted that we cannot even seem to get our mission and purpose right. Notice this. Ask anybody from the two major parties of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) what is wrong with the system and they would invariably blame the country’s powerful security establishment for everything. Ask their rivals in the incumbent ruling party and you will hear only about graft and a sense of entitlement. Tempting as the two narratives are, they do not care much about nuances or for that matter even bigger animals like the elephants in the room. Let’s strip the debate to its bare bones and the real issues in Pakistani politics.
The first elephant in the room is money in politics. I am sure by now you have seen that fateful video where MPAs from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa sit quietly as money is stacked in front of them in an apparent bribe. But trust me that is only the tip of the dung heap. The biggest problem lies with the inability of political parties to raise funds. A decade and a half ago when I asked a leading light of the country’s then-largest party how they funded their operations the answer I got without a shred of irony was: by selling tickets of course. And therein lies the biggest problem. Political parties are not organic creatures that can feed themselves by grazing the naturally occurring food. They are supposed to have complex structures that need a constant infusion of cash. In most cases save major elections or any major financial scandal their coffers are almost always empty. How would they pay the professional staff or carry out the day to day business? A shortcut. Install rich people on every post or then find people who are ready to starve for the party’s cause. When the party comes into power this dedicated staff gets public posts to fill their pockets. Thus, the structure of any party is rigged against the middle and lower classes and the honest.
For a long time, many pundits have obsessed about religious political parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami. And if truth be told the JI gives a lot of opportunity to the men and the women of the working class. But here the organising ideology is not political but religious. No secular ideology can match the religious fervour despite having a better knowledge of how a country should run. So basically a model that cannot be replicated.
If you have voted in any of the established Western democracies and registered with a political party you must be aware of how often these parties reach out to their supporters to collect funds. If you vote for a party in Pakistan how often do you receive phone calls, emails, or text messages urging you to donate with the relevant information? Most likely never.
One personal frustration is watching election reform consultations that take place every few years. Political parties meet, debate, and finalise changes to the election bylaws without any focus on the campaign finance or party fund laws. When so little heed is paid to such a crucial detail how will you ever evolve criteria to separate legitimate funding from financial fraud? We haven’t even codified targeted laws to punish the offenses documented in the leaked videos.
Then another elephant in the room. The leader, the potentate, the almighty dictator. When parties do not have funds to choose their leaders they are bound to gravitate towards what works. In most cases, it is the cult of personality or dynasty. These leaders do not like dissent. Hence, if you have any radical solution in mind you will likely lose your walk-in privileges in a heartbeat. With this power come a posse of sycophants who always progress and a sense of entitlement. The leader was put on the planet to rule, your king, your owner, and proprietor. Kings, queens, princes, and princesses do not lose elections, so how could they?
Third elephant: lack of democracy within parties. Whenever the election commission asks you to hold elections you rubber stamp your way out of the requirement. The ECP is seldom bothered about the fine details. Otherwise, pray explain why no major party has held undisputed and transparent internal elections in a long while and why do the same faces keep returning to each prized position?
The final elephant: homework. Today the country’s opposition parties constantly accuse the ruling party of being inexperienced. It is indeed for the first time that the PTI has come to power at the centre. Every party has to start somewhere. But how about the so-called experienced parties. Do you think everything was hunky-dory during their rule? If yes, then the provinces of Punjab and Sindh should be rivalling the best regions in the developed world. Do they?
When it comes to preparedness and homework no party can boast of exceptionalism. At its core, each party exists with a terrible dysfunction. No professionally organised party think tanks, no shadow governments during a stint in the opposition, and no serious paperwork. Do you know what stops the creation of shadow governments in our parliaments? The fear of jealousy. If you give a shadow portfolio to one party member many other rich members are likely to walk out. Consequently, when the parties come into power they are led blindfolded around by the country’s bureaucracy. Why do I vote for a party if the unelected bureaucracy is supposed to decide what is good for me? But bureaucrats can do it because unlike the political class they come from the working class, are toughened by the challenges faced by their class, and are usually well informed and disciplined.
When you refuse to even acknowledge these elephants in the room what you say hardly amounts to anything.