Pakistan’s crumbling institutions

Published in The News (Sunday)

Pakistan’s instability is a clichè, almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. All the theoretical ingredients for stability are there: an elected government, a strengthened Parliament, working relationship between the government and the opposition and above all a free media and an independent judiciary. Despite such a promising milieu, there is chaos, misgovernance and instability all around. The paranoid conspiracy theorists would of course blame the enemies of Pakistan which range from India to Israel and from the United States to the Qadianis. Whilst the astrologers would say that Pakistan was created under a negative cosmic spell. However, the answer to the conundrum of Pakistan’s instability lies in the way its state was fashioned or rather sustained at 1947.

True, the civil-military relationship has been a problem from the very start and using Islamism as a tool for the legitimisation of unaccountable governance. But the fundamental nature of institutions that have wielded and distributed power has remained unchanged for decades. It is only with the assertion of the judiciary and a relatively free media that Pakistan’s political culture is changing and it remains to be seen how long it would be before the ancien regime tries to regain its ascendancy.

Essentially, public institutions can only be effective if they have evolved rules of the game that are fair and open. In our case, due to the distorted political development we have a political culture which is neither citizen-oriented nor based on even the fundamental notion of fair play. Hence the continuous inability of the ‘system’ – as a network and mediation by power wielders – to establish a framework that is workable and legitimate in the eyes of the public.

Over time the colonial state had established a governance framework that was immune to local pressure and was not accountable to the natives. The Raj steel frame, therefore, remained free of the niceties such as citizen responsiveness. The mode was to establish a strong legal framework and then impose regulation over the society whether it was legitimate and sensitive to the citizens or not. This is why we have a governance culture that tolerates the assassination of prime ministers, judicial murders and most recently the brazen disregard of the state institutions with respect to the murder of Benazir Bhutto. Our state was quick to form brigades of jihadis without thinking how these men will be reintegrated into the society once the jihad was over. As we have seen jihad is not over yet despite our public statements contrary to this reality.

Such exercise of power without accountability and responsibility is also a hallmark of civilian leaders. Bhutto’s turbulent rule through 1972-77 displayed similar characteristics when it came to roughing up the opponents and taking measures which would have a pernicious effect on our long term development. One such issue of declaring a sect as non-Muslims is still haunting us as the greatest blot on our national conscience.

General Zia stretched this doctrine of state impunity to new heights and created a state that was to harm the society – perhaps forever. But the civilian governments of 1990s were not immune to it. For instance, the creation of Taliban under Benazir Bhutto’s second tenure and the alleged hijacking of Musharraf’s plane are pertinent points. If the institutions were working, both these prime ministers would have taken recourse to the electorate rather than obeying the flawed decisions of the security establishment.

Today, the civilian government is once again embroiled in a similar situation. It has relinquished all policy initiatives to the security establishment and little area of autonomy is now under constant and rather intense vigilance of the Superior Courts. Thus the unelected institutions of the state are also working in a manner that is neither rule bound nor cognizant of the powers of the parliament.

The President is a party head and refers to the sacrifices of the Pakistan People’s Party at the drop of a hat. True, accidents of history have landed him in the current job. There is no legal or Constitutional bar on his political activities. However, as a symbol of the federation he has to be more circumspect than perhaps he is. However, this does not imply that the witch hunt pleas in the High Courts should be applied. However, the political party that he heads has little say in correcting the course and holding his performance to account. In his case he has ‘inherited’ it and in the case of his opponents they have ‘acquired’ power.

In a similar fashion, the army issued a public statement against the Kerry Lugar Bill last year which according to the rules was not permitted. In addition, the statements coming from the army leadership often border and sometimes overlap with the mandates of the civilian authority. There is of course a widespread perception even among the strongest of democrats that the army will have to rescue the situation when a constitutional and political deadlock occurs.

If we were to turn to the judiciary then the situation gets even more confounding. Once cannot comment on the sub judice cases. However, the judgments that have been delivered so far are worrying. For example, asking a political government to write against its head who incidentally happens to enjoy constitutional and sovereign immunities, to a foreign court for prosecution is baffling, to say the least. Similarly, reviving a conviction awarded to a sitting minister while he was out of the country under a military rule has also been questioned. Leaving aside these politically contentious issues, the very fact that the courts tried to act as regulators of sugar and oil prices was also clearly out of line. In fact one respected judge of the Supreme Court admitted that such matters were outside the ‘jurisdiction’ of the courts but they had to meet people’s expectations. This leads us to the question: are the judges bound by the legal frameworks or populist demands?

Even the overuse of Article 2-A inserted by a dictator these days is a pointer to the fact that the primacy of Islam in our polity is being wrongly interpreted by all and sundry including the gatekeepers of the Constitution. From Zardari’s disqualification to banning the internet social networking sites, this infamous article is getting a reputation as a free-for-all stick for the state to use. Of course, the political government is bearing the brunt of such developments but this only confirms that the rules of any game in Pakistan are neither clear not certain.

In a culture where the elites which comprise and control the state are unaccountable, public resources become ‘privatized’ in a broader sense. The rich and the powerful do not pay taxes. Politicians with astounding levels of wealth pay negligent amounts of taxes; the big business evades taxes and the state machinery responsible to collect them becomes a party to the collective malfeasance and plunder. Once the defence expenditure and debt servicing requirements are fulfilled a puny amount is left with the government to undertake development and introduce public welfare schemes. The result is that Pakistan with a population of 180 million has less than 2 million taxpayers. The bulk of revenues are generated through anti-poor indirect taxes which keep the state machinery alive.

The current plans to impose a value added tax are, therefore, meeting resistance and the provinces are showing little interest. The IMF programme requires the government to introduce VAT but it seems unlikely. Millions are spent on luxuries and perks for the senior civil and military officials and the elected representatives keep on increasing their stipends. The net result of this scenario is that essential providers of public services – the thana officials, revenue officials, teachers, doctors, paramedics get a pittance and are unable to meet the expectations of the citizens.

The inability of Pakistan’s institutions to deliver these services has led to crisis of legitimacy and a complete lack of trust in the state’s ability to deliver the goods. The recent economic meltdown has aggravated things to such a level that the government does not have enough money to pay the independent power producers and the country has been plunged into darkness for 12-16 hours in recent months. Oddly enough, once again the civilian government wants to keep the ball rolling and is unable to undertake structural reforms due to the lack of a consensus in the country. National security remains paramount due to the Indian threat we are told and now the insurgencies in the northwest. When the government wants a hefty civilian aid package it is construed as a sell out by the media and the establishment. Our institutions therefore are used to keeping the status quo and appropriating public resources as it reinforces the existing patterns of power.

Given the governance patterns delineated above, reform is a distant dream. All efforts to reform the civil service have been non-starters. Pay and Pension Commissions are formed and their recommendations are rarely taken into account. Ironically, the recent wave of ‘reform’ was introduced by a military regime during 1999-2002 but its mode and process was not owned by the representative political parties. Therefore, lack of accountability remains a hallmark. The Superior Courts’ judges are only accountable to their internal bodies, army has its own methods, bureaucracy rarely fires people and now a free media is only following the established norms. Its anchors predict the demise of individuals and governments with impunity and some even advise the jihadis as to how they should treat the infiltrators and enemy-agents. And, the media barons and journalist associations remain silent.

In these circumstances, the sustainability of an electoral process and representative system remains the only way forward. But given the recent trends of limiting space for civilian government’s decision-making, control over economic, security and foreign policies and encroachment of authority by the unelected institutions it remains unclear if democracy has a bright future.

If the current trends continue and the economy fails to recover, there is a strong chance that national security concerns and promotion of justice become the new alibi for an extra constitutional intervention. The danger is that such a development will undo a fragile state. Never has the state been so dependent on political stability; and never the same has been so elusive.

Raza Rumi is a policy expert based in Lahore. He blogs at and manages an e-zine Pak Tea House.

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