Dhaka, Bangladesh
A critical year for democracy

A critical year for democracy

THE much-delayed and agonised passage of the 24th Constitutional Amendment means that 2018 will most likely witness the third election of Pakistan's ongoing phase of democratisation. While it is tiresome to talk about critical junctures in a country accustomed to hearing about them for 70 years, the importance of the upcoming polls cannot be understated. Existing academic literature is in agreement on the significance of free and fair elections, followed by peaceful transfers of power, in making procedural democracy the 'only game in town'. Some political scientists go further and posit that a minimum of two such transfers are required to reduce the likelihood of the system falling apart. In 70 years of statehood to date, the 2013 polls remain Pakistan's only moderately successful democratic transfer of power. I say moderately because while voter participation was the highest in nearly four decades and the incumbent (PPP) accepted the results immediately, reservations of one major party (PTI) partially delegitimised the process with a segment of the electorate. One outcome of this conflict, the new Elections Act, 2017, aims to address procedural shortcomings of the electoral system. This provides hope that at least some of the underlying flaws from past polls will not be present in 2018, paving the way for a fairer election. Nevertheless, events from 2017 in particular have introduced new complications for the 2018 polls that go well beyond procedural disagreements. These challenges are now fairly apparent: the consensus over civilian-led continuity forged between the PML-N and the PPP in 2007 is increasingly irrelevant given how the composition of political actors has changed in the last five years. What matters more now are the stakes involved and the level of personalised bitterness between the PML-N and the PTI in Punjab, which raise the threat of election-related violence and subsequent de-legitimisation of results at a scale not seen since 1977. The PML-N is not alone in facing a difficult future ahead of and beyond the 2018 polls. Seasoned observers of Pakistani politics are in agreement that the level of polarisation between leaders of the two parties (and, consequently, their supporters) has raised the chances of a systemic breakdown in 2018. This risk is only likely to escalate in the months leading to the election, and its much-needed mitigation requires unprecedented maturity from both parties, which has not been forthcoming. On the other hand, the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif also opens up a small and wholly inadvertent window of opportunity for democratic progress. Prior to the Panama Papers leak, the PML-N appeared to enjoy a position of unprecedented political strength for a civilian government. There were frequent predictions that the party was looking ahead to another five, if not 10, years in power at the centre, and at least two decades in Punjab, ultimately giving rise to complacency and a new kind of civilian authoritarianism. Leaving aside the obvious shortcomings of political predictions, Nawaz Sharif's exit from electoral politics has changed the landscape confronting his party by rendering it far more competitive. This has led to both a renewed push towards completing big-ticket infrastructure projects ahead of the election, and significantly increased the chances of that all-important second transfer of power, provided the PTI manages to win a plurality or a majority at the polls. Finally, the 2018 election also marks a major turning point for the organisation and future of Pakistan's weak political parties. Nawaz Sharif's disqualification brought the back-burner issue of leadership transition in the PML-N to the front, leading to Shahbaz Sharif's muted elevation as the party's prime ministerial candidate. If he wins now, he'll have a few years to remodel the party's core personnel and future trajectory from a position of strength, thus ensuring its continuity over the next decade or so. On the other hand, a loss may bring back the risk of dissent and factionalism, especially among the next generation in the family, which would have to be dealt with if the party wishes to stage a comeback in another five years' time. The PML-N is not alone in facing a difficult future ahead of and beyond the 2018 polls. For the PTI, this election marks the second of two chances - the first being in 2013 - of obtaining power at the centre in its current shape. As I noted on these pages some time ago, all of its main rivals now have some mechanism to solve their hunt for future leadership. Whether it is the PPP's categorical dynastic inheritance or the PML-N's recent complicated familial transition, a blueprint is now in place for both at least in the short term. On the other hand, the PTI's overt reliance on Imran Khan's personality and powerful local candidates, and its repeated sidelining of core, ideologically motivated middle-class activists in actual party organisational work leaves it with no clear-cut mechanism. If the PTI manages a victory in 2018, it gives the party a few years to figure out an appropriate way to sustain itself in the future. Conversely, however, another loss at the polls will almost certainly expedite this problem of transition, as the chances of a 72-year-old leading the party in 2023 are (and, frankly, should be) slim. Recent commentary has shed considerable attention on Pakistan's systemic downslide in 2017, and the reassertion of the military and judiciary in the political sphere. These institutional tussles remind us of the fragility of the country's political system, and the often transient nature of democratic gains made since 2007. However, despite all that has transpired, the system stumbles on and offers another chance in the shape of an on-schedule general election to move a few steps in the direction of normalcy and stability. Let's see if Pakistan's political elite can use this critical chance to consolidate progress of the last decade in as productive and peaceful a manner as possible.

Share |