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“The malaise of political uncertainty: A way forward through public policy advocacy”

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The political uncertainty in Pakistan has put its moribund economy in touch-and-go condition. Failure to compromise among political elites in the recent past virtually converted the country into a ‘deadlocked democracy.’ However, post-9th May events have further dwindled the chances of political consolidation.  One might argue that mitigating aberrant political behaviors among actors has unlocked new vistas for a tradeoff. Still, it might be terminal to be oblivious to the factors of the widening gap between the elites and the citizens and the response from international actors about recent political developments in Pakistan.  

Recent erudite discussions published in a few national dailies have portrayed a rather pessimistic picture of elite capture in the country and offered an idealistic solution to redress the quagmire. This article aims at finding pragmatic policy options to thwart imminent perils to democratic consolidation. World Development Report, 2017, about “Governance and The Law,” believes that power asymmetry shapes the policy arena, and there is a need to enhance the role of law in the countries being mindful of the power of the actors in the policy arena. The report advocates a functioning policy cycle instead of the traditional six-stage cycle of public policy. Hence, we cannot deny or exclude apolitical actors from the policy-making process. 

Hitherto, it has been advocated that the political policy arena can neither divorce bargain, and compromise nor the existence of apolitical actors having the power to influence the policy-making process. However, the dismal dubbing of Pakistan as a case of abject state capture also needs to be addressed here. Elite capture is a necessary evil in the developing democracies and Pakistan is no exception to it. 

The theory of consociationalism developed in the late 1960s and refined by Arend Lijphart and others proposes a top-down two staged process for political consolidation. In the first stage, government by the elite cartel with a fragmented political culture should be transformed into a stable democracy by maximizing the number of stakeholders and inducing bargains and compromise among them. In the second stage, the leaders promote conciliation among their supporters and followers to create a social balance. 

Events of 9th May, 2023 aimed at upsetting the political applecart, resulted in tumult in the policy arena. The events however broke the impasse in the deadlocked democracy. Precarious macroeconomic conditions coupled with the ending tenure of the 15th National Assembly of Pakistan have left Pakistan with few policy options to proceed further.  

Some voices in the power corridors seem to support lingering on the elections to the 16th National Assembly for economic consolidation before democratic consolidation. Robert Dahl, Martin Lipset, and Dankwart Rustow seemingly support the idea that wealthy nations have greater chances to sustain democracy. It has been argued that though poverty alleviation and democracy both are important for public policy yet development should be given preference over democracy. Pippa Norris’s statistical analysis of available data also supports the argument that richer economies have better chances for political consolidation. 

 Political turmoil in Pakistan is being observed with caution by international stakeholders and is a hiccup to investment in Pakistan. A recent survey by Gallup has revealed that 27 percent of the firms believe that political instability in Pakistan is their biggest obstacle. Hence, lingering on general elections for the sake of economic stability may further aggravate the economic woes of the country. Persson and Tabellini, and Halperin Siegle and Weinstein believe that political stability and democratic consolidation lead to social welfare and macroeconomic stability.   

Conducting elections during ongoing political and economic instability has its perils and prospects too. It might be argued that significant adjustments of political power in the policy arena have deterred the impact of antagonism among political elites but there seems to be a wide gap between the preferences of the citizens and the elites. Albeit the fact that there is little data-driven research or political think tanks in Pakistan that keep on collecting and interpreting data regarding changes in electoral behaviors and preferences of the voters yet it may be presumed that the impact of change in power asymmetry apropos of the voting pattern is highly uncertain. 

The elections, if conducted on time under the ongoing status quo, may result in any of the three policy scenarios. If the ongoing political equilibrium remains unchanged, the elections would be considered without democratic consolidation because electoral managers have been under scathing criticism in the recent past, and their public perception is shady. The post-election crisis of governability could not be addressed if cosmic changes are made for improving the election atmosphere without permitting all political actors into the field. Such circumstances would neither create congeniality among the citizens for the governance nor muster the requisite support from international actors.  

In the third scenario, all political actors may be permitted into the electoral fray with reasonable freedom to impact the electoral outcome. Such elections may get support from international actors however, the outcome of elections may plunge the country into a deep crisis keeping in view polar positions in a power asymmetry. 

Probable policy impacts of the political morass may either be the rolling up of the constitutional power-sharing dispensation that is already under clouds due to the absence of the two provincial assemblies or, the actors in the political arena would have to go back to the basic principles of the bargain and compromise enunciated by the theory of consociationalism.

The track record of the acrimonious political history of Pakistan does not provide any rational justification for a broader compromise among political elites. Power concentrating electoral framework leaves little room for the losers to cooperate and the tendency of democratic autocracy is on the rise among the winners.  Besides, a bulge in the number of frustrated, agile youth among citizens is posing a potential challenge to the status quo. 

The perspectives encourage political actors to come up with a short or medium-term post-election all-inclusive setup for national reconciliation. Though numerical strength may be important to float the policy proposals yet approvals may be subject to minority veto for ensuring broader consensus. A charter of the economy is already a fashionable idea for political consensus but that alone would not be sufficient for reaching up to a pre-election compromise.

Hence, the probability of power-sharing regimes under the in-vogue parliamentary setup, and implementation upon horizontal and vertical distribution of power within the asymmetrical political arena (in accordance with the consociational theory) may also be included to cater to the pragmatic political interests of stakeholders. Such short-term measures might be helpful for bridging the ever-increasing elite versus citizen gulf and the edifice for long-term political consolidation in Pakistan.

Irfan Kausar
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