Pakistan has never been a particularly democratic state. This does not mean it has not had periods of democratic rule, flawed as they may have been. Instead, the reality is that regardless of the type of regime Pakistan has had – democratic or authoritarian – governments have usually tended to try and centralize and monopolize power and decision-making to as great an extent as possible. There are obviously differences of degree depending on the actors in power but for the most, it is fair to say that mostly successful attempts to expand the powers of the state have been made at the expense of expanding accountability and popular participation in running the affairs of the country.
Consider, for example, the record of the PML-N in power these past five years. In this time, the party has made some progress in erecting an institutional framework for politics that disproportionately empowers a small coterie of ruling politicians and bureaucrats. For example, it has been evident from the start that Nawaz Sharif, as Prime Minister, had little use or patience for his own Cabinet, keeping important portfolios in his own hands (or those of his close family) while appearing to make important decisions without much input from his party or government. Similarly, the terms of CPEC remain shrouded in mystery, a lack of transparency and an apparent official unwillingness to engage with some of the important questions being raised about the project indicating the existence of a relatively opaque decision-making process dominated by a select few politicians and officials. Another example comes from the experience of recently elected local governments, whose entire existence and ability to discharge their (limited) duties is dependent on alignment with the ruling party at the provincial level. Tweaks and changes to the law and rules governing official business have also provided the PML-N with additional means through which to control and manipulate bureaucratic appointments.
These examples are indicative of a broader trend in which parties that come to power in Pakistan attempt to entrench themselves within their newfound positions with a view to holding on to power in the future. While the PML-N is an easy example to point towards when observing this phenomenon, it is something that all mainstream parties share. After all, the different provincial governments in Pakistan, headed by different parties, have demonstrated similar predilections when it comes to controlling local governments, and all have used the tools at their disposal to ensure the cooperation of their provincial bureaucracies. Similarly, from an organizational perspective, it is clear that the mainstream parties are more similar to the PML-N than they might like to admit; with few exceptions, Pakistan’s mainstream political parties are dominated by strong dynastic families or charismatic individuals who are rarely, if ever, subjected to any form of internal accountability, and who essentially take unilateral decisions when it comes to questions of policy and ideology. It also goes without saying that the tendency to centralize power and decision-making is most manifest during periods of military rule; by design, militaries are organizations that rely on hierarchy and clearly defined chains of command, within which there is little if any space for questioning orders or soliciting popular opinion.
The authoritarianism that appears to be inherent to politics in Pakistan can be attributed to a number of different but inter-related factors. Many would argue, for example, that the institutions bequeathed to Pakistan by colonial rule were designed to be undemocratic and coercive, with these tendencies being exacerbated by repeated episodes of military rule. Linked to this is the simple fact that absent popular accountability, through elections and the mass mobilization of the polity, there is little incentive for parties and the ruling elite to share their power. It is also the case that in the absence of ideological and programmatic politics, rulers have an incentive to discipline their own allies by controlling the levers of state policy and patronage (threatening to use or withhold both to reign in potential defectors and control troublemakers). An explanation more sympathetic to Pakistan’s political parties might also point out how centralizing power might be viewed as a means through which to defend against military and judicial intervention in politics.
Whatever the causes, however, it is clear that the concentration of power in ever fewer hands, and the increasingly opaque nature of decision-making, is not good. Again, just looking at the events of the past year, the passage of the notorious Cybercrime Bill and the enforced disappearances of dissident bloggers and activists are indicative of how the state’s power to police and coerce has been expanded. At the same time, important economic decisions, particularly with regards to CPEC, continue to be taken without anything even remotely resembling public debate or scrutiny. It should be self-evident that developments like these can only lead to increasing tyranny as those in power use the various means and apparatuses at their disposal to act with impunity and pursue their own interests without fear of accountability. Given the extent to which this is a problem that unites actors across Pakistan’s mainstream political spectrum, from the military establishment to the major political parties, it is also clear that these actors cannot be relied upon to reform themselves. Instead, it is more imperative than ever to speak out against the tendency towards the centralization and expansion of state power, engaging in popular mobilization aimed at bringing greater inclusion, transparency, and accountability to public affairs in Pakistan.
Whatever the causes, however, it is clear that the concentration of power in ever fewer hands, and the increasingly opaque nature of decision-making, is not good.