Will Pakistan be any different after the hustings?

The present governments at the center and the provinces will be replaced by new ones after the hustings due in May. Keeping in view the shoddy performance of the incumbent administrations, many hope those installed in power for the next term would learn from the past and improve the country’s future.

Elections held on time and peaceful transfer of power from one government to another is the key to the improvement of performance is an oft-repeated mantra. The people are the final arbiters, says another, and they would elect better people this time round. In human society however things don’t improve mechanically. A lot of conscious effort is required to improve things. As Mao aptly put it, “Everything reactionary is the same; if you do not hit it, it will not fall. This is also like sweeping the floor; as a rule, where the broom does not reach, the dust will not vanish of itself.” Of the three formal institutions of the state, the parliament and judiciary can bring about the reforms that can enable and force the executive to act responsibly.

Politicians are generally bad learners or Americans would not have gone to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan after the humiliation suffered in Vietnam. In Pakistan they are equally slow on the uptake. This explains why corruption cases continue to hound the leaders of the two mainstream parties. All that the two have learnt so far can be summarised in two negatives: Don’t annoy the US and never be on the wrong side of the army. As far as their duties to their voters are concerned there is little improvement in their thinking. Their parliamentarians consider themselves a privileged class meant to rule rather than serve.

Apologists of both the PPP and PML-N tell us that whatever misgovernance or lack of performance exists is the result of electoral compulsions for which the voters themselves are responsible. The voters failed to repose full confidence in either of the two parties, forcing one to make unprincipled alliances and confining the other to Punjab instead of helping it to form government at the center where all crucial decisions that affect the lives of the people are taken.

But haven’t big mandates made the leaders heads swell in the past? Didn’t ZAB make some of the worst decisions like the nationalistation of practically all industrial enterprises, big, medium and small? Didn’t Nawaz Sharif try to become the Amnirul Momineen with all powers, executive as well judicial, concentrated in his own hands during his second tenure?

As things stand neither the two old sinners nor the saintly Mr Clean are likely to sweep the polls in May. There is greater possibility of a split mandate leading all the three to seek alliances with all sorts of political actors of dubious credentials. In India the BJP and the Congress faced the same dilemma and had to seek alliances with numerous parties to form the government. India too suffers from endemic corruption no doubt. What it has achieved, and Pakistan hasn’t, is a non-controversial and therefore a widely accepted accountability mechanism. The allies try to pressurize the government but it does not yield to their illegitimate demands as readily as their Pakistani counterparts. The BJP and the Congress know that they were constantly being monitored by the watchdogs. This explains why there is comparatively better governance and lesser skeletons in the Congress and the BJP cupboards.

Will the next parliament be able to create a non-partisan and efficient institution of accountability acceptable to all like the present Election Commission? Of the three formal institutions of governance – the executive, legislature and judiciary – the only ones which inspire some hope are the Parliament and judiciary. The performance of the executive has been the most dismal.

It is the executive that the people generally look up to and it is here that they’ve been betrayed. During the last five years the federal government has been mired in scams. It went on a spending binge, getting loans whenever it faced financial crunch, and its focus was on making the rich richer while caring little for what happened to the common man. Its priorities were anti-people.

In a written reply submitted to the Senate on Tuesday the FBR has maintained that the tax exemption to powerful lobbies by the PPP-led coalition government surpassed loans acquired from the IMF to make up for the balance of payments shortfall. In other words the people would not have to suffer from the conditionalities imposed by the IMF if the undue relief was not provided to a few hundred super rich and influential individuals. Between 2008 and December 2012, the government took loans of Rs604 billion from the IMF and granted tax exemptions to the tune of about Rs719bn. This was done by waiving income and sales tax and customs duties through the SROs.

The annual report of the State Bank appearing the same day has made further revelations about the fiscal deficit and why it is unsustainable. “The size of the fiscal deficit is not sustainable as it is contributing to inflation, squeezing out private investment, impacting the balance sheet of commercial banks, and could push the country into a debt trap.”

It took a leftist leader to approach the SC for electoral reforms, especially related to election expenditure. None of the three parties, least of all the administrations in power, was interested in the reduction of election expenditure. Having deep pockets it suited them to opt for expensive elections as it stopped the entry of the middle class.

The Parliament fared a little better than the executive. It passed three important constitutional amendments. The Parliament however failed to do its duty when it retained some of the changes in the constitution introduced by Zia to blur Jinnah’s vision of Pakistan and promote religious fanaticism. These included the controversial Objectives Resolution which was made an operative part of the Constitution and a number of vague clauses in Article 62 which leave too much to the discretion of the interpreting authority. A narrow interpretation of these clauses could lead to the disqualification of a fairly large section of the candidates. It was for the government and the opposition to replace these ambiguous clauses with more concrete requirements in consonance with present day realities when they were preparing the 20th amendment.

People were initially inspired by the presence of an independent judiciary. They hoped that it would concentrate on making the dispensation of justice both prompt and cheap. The hopes gradually faded as the SC increasingly concentrated on the high profile political cases, sometime creating the perception that it was extending its jurisdiction. Will the SC in future help in strengthening the institutions instead of invading their turf?

Looking at the political scenario today, one is reminded of what Human Development South Asia Report had to say in 1999. The governments in the region, it maintained, “are high on governing and low on serving; it has parliaments that are elected by the poor but aid the rich; and society that asserts the rights of some but perpetuates exclusion for others. Despite a marked improvement in the lives of a few, there are many in South Asia who have been forgotten by formal institutions of governance. These are the poor, the downtrodden and the most vulnerable of the society, suffering from acute deprivation on account of their income, caste, creed, gender or religion. Their fortunes have not moved with those of the privileged few and this in itself is a deprivation of a depressing nature”.

Revisiting the region six years later in 2005 the new Report had this to add: “Ordinary people are too often humiliated at the hands of public institutions. For them, lack of good governance means police brutality, corruption in accessing basic public services, ghost schools, teachers absenteeism, missing medicines, high cost of and low access to justice, criminalization of politics and lack of social justice. These are just few manifestations of the crisis of governance”.

Whether Pakistan would be any different after the next election depends partly on the level of awareness among the voters and partly on the performance of judiciary and the new Parliament.

The writer is a former academic and a political analyst.