A case for evolutionary change

By Saad Hafiz:

The recent “anti-establishment” rallies confirm that Pakistanis are more politically activated, politically conscious and politically interactive than ever.  It is heartening to witness the quest for personal dignity and economic opportunity in a country painfully scarred by memories of decades-long domination by the “status-quo”. The pattern is also consistent with the political turmoil and stirrings against the established order so widespread today around the world. The youth in Pakistan are particularly restless and resentful and politically alert and engaged.  The demographic revolution they embody is thus a political time-bomb, as well.  The rapidly expanding demographic bulge in the 25-year-old-and-under age bracket is creating a huge mass of impatient young people. Their minds have been stirred by sounds and images that emanate from the region and beyond and which intensify their disaffection with what is at hand.  It remains to be seen whether the recent social consciousness presents a greater or more direct challenge to entrenched and centralized power structures or it will “fizzle-out” like earlier “anti-establishment” awakenings.

It is tempting to think that Pakistan harbours revolutionary impulses that could trigger a radical transformation of politics and society.  Some may argue that Pakistan needs a revolution to overhaul the oppressive culture of corruption and impunity that continues to enrage the Pakistani masses today.  The people are victims of the same indignities that incited revolt in the Middle East: corruption, oppression, and injustice.  Successive despotic dictatorships and dynastic political governments have made the masses feel helpless and ineffectual.  A pertinent quote from Friedrich Engels applies to Pakistan: “We find two great gangs of political speculators, who alternately take possession of the state power and exploit it by the most corrupt ends — the nation is powerless against these two great cartels of politicians (add generals) who are ostensibly its servants, but in reality dominate and plunder it.”

Having said that, it is unclear whether the country would benefit if the re-discovered “peoples-power” is translated into a major shift and change, or revolution, in the political, social and economic realms.  It can be argued that the evolutionary democratic path would be far more preferable.  The recent upsurge in social consciousness is an opportunity to maintain pressure on the entrenched and centralized power structures through the ballot box to address the extraordinarily high levels of inequality in society.  Along the way, Pakistanis can help disprove Giuseppe Prezzolini, who said that “representative government is artifice, a political myth, designed to conceal from the masses the dominance of a self-selected, self-perpetuating, and self-serving traditional ruling class.”

Pakistan has the edifice of a democracy in place with a functioning legislature, independent judiciary, lively media which operates relatively free of state control and multi-party elections which are fiercely competitive. Pakistanis have solid party associations and have several organized national parties and numerous regional political parties with very strong following. This is a genuine foundation for a democracy: organized political parties and their base is an absolute precondition for any viable democratic system.  On the flip side, Pakistani democracy is a system that mostly serves the interest of “the all ambitious, prosperous and self-confident elites”. The challenge is for the prevailing democratic dispensation to evolve from just representing the elite to becoming broadly participatory as well.  Any society which claims adherence to an inclusive, participatory democracy would demand nothing less of its elected representatives.

The process of “democratic legitimation” in Pakistan will require: First, the state’s acknowledgement that it regards the citizens as the foundation of its rule and the “ultimate seat of all powers that it exercises.”  Second, that a bond links the populace to the state via the notion of citizenship: a set of general and equal entitlements and obligations vested in individuals with respect to the state, as well as the content of society’s activity and outputs. Third, “the rule of law” exists.  Law is brought into the “organization of political power and the modes of its exercise,” establishing what Max Weber called “legal-rational domination.” Fourth, opposition to the state, debates and contestation over policies, critical orientations, and expressions are legitimized and institutionalized — indeed, they are regarded as productive.  This in turn is linked to the idea of the public sphere: recognition of the rights of assembly, association, and petition. Fifth, there is the established institution of representative government based on free and fair elections.

As this happens, Pakistan itself is at a pivotal moment in its history.  The current government, ineffective as it may be, is the first government in decades that is almost there, almost about to finish its five-year term.  The upcoming May elections have the potential to begin a tradition of civilian government and peaceful transitions between democratically elected administrations.  A mass potentially violent revolution is the last thing Pakistan needs at this stage.  The best path forward for Pakistan, reformative as it might be, is not to ask and hope for a mass revolution but the continuation of the process in the form of timely held general elections. Only democratic continuity will enable Pakistan to strengthen its civilian institutions and build its political and public sphere.


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