The mid-night climax of the Vote of no confidence (VONC) had all the ingredients of a blockbuster thriller and got the pulse racing even for most docile of the beings. As a new government takes oath, it is important for everyone on either side of political aisle to step back from the emotional roller coaster for few minutes and understand what ouster of Khan’s government means in the wider political context. Let’s make no mistake, the nerve-wracking drop scene marked a watershed moment in the democratic history of the country: the spectacular failure and unraveling of the ‘hybrid regime’ cobbled together through an unwritten alliance between the unelected state institutions and the PTI. As curtain draws on this particular power configuration, dubbed Naya Pakistan, it is important to ask what caused its failure, and what’s next?
19th century German philosophers, Johann Fichte and Georg Hagel contended that a society’s consciousness evolves through successive phases of thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis. In simple terms, thesis can be an idea that dominates the politics at a particular point in time. Antithesis is an idea that challenges it by presenting a counter argument. Synthesis is then a new societal consensus that emerges from the debate and remains a dominant idea until challenged successfully by another antithesis.
The synthesis of societal debate ensued during the Lawyers’ Movement, that brought Musharraf regime to an end, was the unacceptability of overt military rule to govern the country. A meaningful consensus still exists among key segments of the society in this regard, restricting the policy needle squarely to the grey area between that and a substantial democracy. It was within this grey area, that model of a hybrid-regime was carved out, using a political party as its facade that had genuine support of a vocal but limited segment of the population. There were some compelling reasons for the rise of PTI in the politico-cultural milieu of Pakistan in recent past.
Rise of PTI
Imran Khan led PTI rode the tide of changing class dynamics in Pakistan where a professional, urban, educated middle class was taking shape as a result of deregulation and expansion in services sector (telecommunications, banking and finance, IT, media, NGOs, private health and education etc.) during the Musharraf era. Coupled with demographic shifts such as a younger populace and rampant urbanization, and epitomized by the expanding private housing societies, a new constituency took shape that needed a political vehicle.
Imran Khan was quick to benefit from this because he belonged to the same class, shared their worldview and spoke their language. Furthermore, officer cadres of key state institutions such as the military, bureaucracy, judiciary and media already had growing representation of the urban middle classes since 1980s. This emerging constituency saw corruption as the major problem that plagued the country. They abhorred the dominance of industrial and feudal class, its lavish, exclusive and shahaana lifestyles and its perpetuation through dynastic politics. It did not help that they also saw them as major tax evaders and beneficiaries of states’ largess while the burden of both direct and indirect taxation was born by the salaried and working classes. Finally, this constituency craved for a seat at the table, demanded meritocracy and desired a raised international profile.
The Hybrid Regime
These factors combined to establish PTI as the political vehicle fueled by the sentiment shared by the social segments identified above. However, given the lack of numerical strength and organized social cadres, it was questionable if this constituency alone can propel PTI to the top in a first past the post electoral system. The fragmented nature of Pakistani politics along ethnic lines and the patronage based political networks built by established political parties through their local intermediaries posed a key challenge. Thus compromises had to be made to accommodate factions of old elites in the form of ‘electables’. The party also needed the support of unelected institutions, especially military to have a realistic shot at power. Both of these forms of support came with their own set of problems. First diluted the very promise on the basis of which PTI garnered support and the later exacerbated the perennial civil-military imbalance to unsustainable levels, reducing PTI effectively to a king’s party.
Though PTI did represent the sentiment within urban middle classes, its understanding of complex social, political and economic challenges faced by the country remained extremely limited. It got an opportunity to focus on learning the ropes, get valuable experience and prepare for its tenure in power when it emerged as the biggest opposition party in National and Punjab assemblies and established government in KP after 2013 elections. However, it failed to capitalize on this by choosing confrontational politics and diverting all its energies on destabilizing the then PML-N government through dharnas and protests. Finally, a major limitation emerged right at the top, in the capacity, leadership style and choices made by the Chairman Imran Khan himself.
Imran Khan established himself as the linchpin of the hybrid regime that came into power after 2018 elections, however it soon became clear that the wisdom, large heartedness, political astuteness, strategic thinking and statecraft required to lead a coalition government, set pragmatic priorities, devise strategies and deliver on key promises are sorely missing. Except for NCOC’s exemplary performance in dealing appropriately with COVID-19 pandemic, it is difficult to count any major policy achievement of the PTI government. Instead, economy suffered a free fall, quality of education and healthcare remained abysmal, corruption increased, administration remained dysfunctional and security situation worsened.
PTI’s ticket lost electoral value for the next elections for its own members and allies and this allowed the opposition to make inroads within its lines. The disappointment over performance and pressure from opposition swayed the rank and file within the institutions that once supported PTI to distance themselves. Rather than letting certain partnerships within the hybrid regime to extend beyond 2023, it became imperative for the system to pull the plug before these could be cemented through some critical appointments. Allowing the government to fall through a VONC and resetting the system back to 2008 model seemed the only pragmatic option to control damage and clear the mess that had been created.
What however underlies the under-performance and the eventual failure of hybrid regime? and perhaps even that of Musharraf’s regime earlier? In one word: technocracy.
The unelected institutions need to understand that ‘good governance’ does not have an apolitical panacea. Governance is inherently a political process.
It is this belief that a procedural political process is needed only to provide a semblance of de jure legitimacy to system while a de facto techno-bureaucratic cabal pulls the real levers of power. Both regimes therefore showed a profound disdain of politics and the political process. They ridiculed politicians, sidelined them where possible and saw the myriad challenges that the country faced as mere ‘technical’ problems.
From managing the economy to formulating foreign policy, and from security to development, both regimes relied on politically unsavvy technical experts backed by the military bureaucracy. The result was the exclusion of political voices across the board, including from within the ruling coalitions themselves. The crisis of representation thus created, not only translated into policy failure, but also swept the ground under the feet of the regime upon which it stood.
The unelected institutions need to understand that ‘good governance’ does not have an apolitical panacea. Governance is inherently a political process. Even perceived ‘technical’ prescriptions – are deeply political, and if disconnected from the political mechanizations, will yield suboptimal results. The purpose of public policy thus, is not merely to ‘balance the books’, but to chart out a way that caters to the needs of all segments of the society, through an inclusive political bargain, garnering continued social support. A diverse polity such as Pakistan hence, cannot be governed through the politics of exclusion, alienation and intimidation, but only through that of consensus, accommodation and reconciliation.
A New Synthesis
Given this experience, a new societal synthesis, in favor of an uninterrupted, inclusive political process, free from coercion and over-zealous interventionism from unelected institutions is needed to take the country forward. The challenge is to find a balance, and synergies, between the political leadership, technocratic input and exercise of bureaucratic authority. Without a politically informed and socially cognizant public policy design and effective implementation, all governments will struggle to retain popularity beyond the honeymoon period after elections.
This also requires a slide towards a more substantive democracy. It is important for mainstream political players to realize that at another level, the political system as a whole remains exclusive. There is a massive ‘pay wall’ for entry into politics, there are gendered, ethnic, religious and demographic imbalances and prejudices, there is a lack of check and balance in the exercise of executive authority, there is often a disregard of consultative and parliamentary oversight forums and the democratic processes do not always trickle down to the party, district and the household levels. Further, a young population has little hope or opportunities for a better life and economic inequality is on the rise.
The politicians now have a small window of opportunity to rectify these weaknesses. The political elites must open space for greater inclusion and offer meaningful concessions to the masses. It is important for political parties to broaden their social base and ensure organized grassroots participation among their ranks. Local governments provide an excellent vehicle for this purpose. These should be empowered to identify local issues and have finances at their disposal to resolve these.
The major financial outlays of the state must also strike a better balance between needs of the masses and profiteering of the elites. This requires politically informed policy innovations aimed at alleviating people’s hardship, generating sustained social support and ensuring elusive political stability. A key challenge here is to find local and regional ways of creating wealth rather than relying on international aid. Lastly, the post colonial nature of state apparatus must transform from subjugating to serving the people and the political millage accrued through improved service delivery rather than disbursement of patronage.
PTI may be down and out for the moment, but the sentiment and the ideals that propelled it forward remain intact. If a remedy is not found to the unresolved issues underlying this sentiment, mass spread disillusionment, despondency and discontent will follow. This, coupled with violent religious and secessionist tendencies, ethnic faultiness and various forms of anti-social behavior may create a much greater political and social crisis than the prevailing one.
The author holds a PhD in Politics from Oxford University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Tweets @adnanrafiq.