Healing the sick man of South Asia

Daily News Egypt
7 Min Read

LAHORE: Pakistan is undergoing three transitions simultaneously. How they unfold matters not only for Pakistan, but also for much of the Muslim world, particularly as the Arab Spring forces change upon governments across the wider Middle East.

Most Muslim countries were governed for decades by autocrats who had either emerged directly from the armed forces, or had strong “khaki” support. That was the case in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and, of course, Pakistan.

The Arab Spring drained away whatever spurious legitimacy that style of governance ever had. But, in Pakistan, delegitimizing of military rule had actually occurred three years earlier, and the pressure for change came from much the same source — a restive and mobilized new middle class.

Several decades ago, the American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington argued that economic prosperity in developing countries with weak governing institutions would not necessarily lead to political stability. On the contrary, economic growth in such contexts can be — and often is — politically destabilizing.

That proved to be the case in Turkey and Pakistan in the 1990s and early 2000s, and later in much of the Arab world. Indeed, the rising aspirations of Arab youth in Egypt and Tunisia, the wellspring of the Arab Spring, followed impressive economic growth that had failed to trickle down. And such rising expectations have been visible in all large Muslim countries.

As Huntington suggested, when young people see their economies grow, they begin to demand participation in decisions that affect all aspects of their lives, not just their economic well-being. Military-dominated political systems precluded such participation, so, with economic growth, demilitarization of politics became a rallying cry in all large military-led Muslim states, from Indonesia to the Mediterranean coast. Even Iran, where the Revolutionary Guards control roughly one-third of the economy, was affected when the result of the presidential election in 2009 triggered large anti-government protests in Tehran and other major cities.

But demilitarization means more than transferring power and policymaking from the armed forces to elected parliaments. In their recent book Why Nations Fail, the economists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson suggest that elections — even those that are free and fair — do not necessarily move societies from what they call “extractive” to “inclusive” systems. Indeed, extraction of a country’s wealth for use by the elite can occur even in democratic societies when those who dominate the political system face no constraints other than periodic elections.

This is where the effort to devise institutional mechanisms to check and balance elite behavior enters the picture. Indeed, the search for such mechanisms is precisely what is now underway in Pakistan.

In Pakistan, a discredited military was forced by public opinion to withdraw from power, creating political space for elected representatives. They assumed control (though not over the military), but did not govern wisely. While their personal wealth increased, living standards for everyone else either stagnated or, for lower-income groups, declined. So, as Pakistan negotiated its political transition, it experienced significant economic decline.

As a result, Pakistan’s judiciary, media, and many civil-society organizations are now engaged in attempts not only to keep the soldiers in their barracks, but also to constrain the political establishment’s rapacious behavior.

Three cases before the country’s increasingly assertive Supreme Court promise to take Pakistan from the phase of demilitarization to a system in which meaningful checks can be exercised on those who wield power. One case is an attempt to force Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani’s administration to reopen proceedings in a Swiss court that were examining charges of money-laundering and misuse of public funds by President Asif Ali Zardari. The Swiss proceedings were stopped at the request of the Pakistani government when Zardari became president.

In the second case, the Supreme Court wants Pakistan’s military intelligence agencies to account for hundreds, if not thousands, of missing people who were detained as part of the agencies’ campaign to contain the rise of Islamic extremism, or to undermine separatist aspirations in restive Baluchistan.

The third case opened an old complaint lodged by a politician decades ago against the “troika” — composed of the president, the prime minister, and the chief of army staff — that then governed Pakistan. The plaintiff alleged that large amounts of funds were channeled to the troika’s favored candidates to contest the 1990 general election, in which Nawaz Sharif’s party won a big victory over Benazir Bhutto’s Peoples’ Party.

Finally, Pakistan is undergoing a transition in which power is moving from the central administration to sub-national governments. The 18th amendment to the constitution, adopted in 2010, does precisely that, but implementation is being delayed by parties that prefer a highly centralized political structure.

If Pakistan’s transformation of its political system succeeds, it could serve as a model for other Muslim countries that are attempting to move from extractive to inclusive systems of governance. Turkey has already traveled some distance along this path. If Pakistan also advances, demilitarization of politics elsewhere in the Islamic world might not be far behind.

Shahid Javed Burki, former Finance Minister of Pakistan and Vice President of the World Bank, is currently Chairman of the Institute of Public Policy in Lahore. This commentary is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with Project Syndicate, www.project-syndicate.org.

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