Pakistan has seen a new political party leading the seat tally in each of the three general elections since 2008. It is also likely that a third successive federal government will complete the five-year tenure. Does this automatically imply the smooth evolution of a democratic governance framework? An analysis will reveal that such a dispensation is yet to materialize despite a reasonable turnover in individual faces ruling the roost.

Two broad types of deficits in Pakistan’s democratic politics may be noted. First, political competition is not tempered by the principle of political equality. Citizens do not enjoy equal rights/entitlements because of inadequate constitutional/legal arrangements. In some cases, they are effectively secluded from public sphere. Second, a lack of accountability is palpable. Weak civic engagement by citizens, CSOs and media to exact accountability (popularly known as “vertical accountability”) reflects a fundamentally weak social support for democratic politics. This is largely because the citizens have little effective choice between alternative political programs and the politics is controlled by dominant interests. Self-imposed accountability within the state machinery (popularly known as “horizontal accountability”) is chequered at best with political, administrative, fiscal and legal mechanisms usually displaying spurts of selective efficiency only.

The essence of the democratic deficit is that representative/accountable governance has very shaky foundations in Pakistan. Representative/accountable governance largely rests upon free and fair elections, the democratic role of political parties, an effective parliament and decentralization.

First, despite a recent legal package (carefully designed to prevent hurt to the elite), the entire electoral cycle is crying for serious reform. A comprehensive treatment of the reform agenda requires a separate article. However, such reform will be a tall order for the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) with its limited capacity and autonomy. Beginning from the frequently dubious delimitation of constituencies to non-transparent campaign financing way above the legally permissive threshold, we have but a facade to protect the elite capture of the electoral process. The less said about the efficacy of electoral dispute resolution mechanisms the better.

Second, the political parties are little more than the fiefdoms of populist and/or dynastic (sometimes charismatic) individuals. They focus excessively on attracting electable heavyweights including landed, tribal, professional and commercial elite who conveniently change loyalties to respond to lucrative offers. Inevitably, election manifestos almost always take the backseat sans a crystallized ideological position. The absence of policy orientation reinforces the presence of dynastic leadership to ensure easy party identification for the larger public.

hird, the peculiar structure of political parties and intra elite constituency-based elections contested on the basis of a simple majority system (first-past-the-post) ensure that the parliamentary membership is largely about confirming your membership to a privileged club to leverage state resources. Religious minorities and women selected on “reserved” seats are mostly incapable of representing their communities, as the parties do not follow any objective criteria when submitting the list of their nominees to the ECP. Successive regimes have not done justice to their principal responsibility of shaping legislation by evolving consensus and mobilizing support in the legislature. The standing committee system - the nucleus of the parliamentary process - has been largely dormant. The Parliament has been frequently bypassed through the usage of ordinances to bulldoze laws. There is an imbalance between powers of the National Assembly and the Senate, restraining the Upper House from protecting the rights of the federating units. The Senate is particularly constrained by its limited mandate for financial oversight and can only make non-binding recommendations for the budgetary proposals. Patchy as the legislative record of the parliament may be, the worse failure is in oversight of the executive. The most striking manifestation being that the Public Accounts Committee has been reduced to virtual irrelevance. It is regularly undermined by supplementary budgets that often modify 15-20% of the original allocations and are approved ex post facto, after the money has been spent.

Fourth, except in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), Pakistan does not have empowered and functional local governments (LGs) - a violation of the Constitution. This omnipresent tier of democracies worldwide has been deliberately maligned in Pakistan and labelled as the dictators’ tool to undermine political parties – the self-proclaimed vehicles of democracy. The parliamentarian-civil bureaucrat nexus against LGs is understandable. For most national/provincial representatives, elected office is primarily a vehicle to gain access to state patronage to help reinforce their local power base. Their politics is not about shaping policies and legislation but about dispensing generous discretionary “development” funds to their constituency networks bypassing elected members of the LGs. This is done with the help of district and provincial bureaucracy which takes its share of the “pie”. Also, it is easier for parliamentarians to misuse the Police and exercise decisive influence on its transfer/posting in the absence of an organized citizen voice at the grassroots.

The combined result of these distortions has been to devalue democratic governance itself. Occasionally, as in case of KP, we do get a signal that the ruling party intends to consolidate Pakistan’s nascent democracy by facilitating the LGs to play their long-due pivotal role. However, such one-off episodes do not fundamentally disturb the “political settlement”. Over the years, Pakistan’s powerful elite have successfully forged an understanding that their best interests are served by ruthlessly hijacking political power to secure access/control over sources of wealth. Sometimes they do come into conflict when working out favourable arrangements under the “settlement”. But such conflicts are essentially power struggles between particular individuals. However, the undermining and reshaping of the so-called democratic institutions (four of them are outlined above) to sustain the “political settlement” continues unabated. When the elite feel that they are not getting an acceptable distribution of benefits from an institutional structure they resist it and render it near-impossible to enforce. Formal institutions thus end up being subservient to the will of the powerful groups operating in pursuit of their self-interest.

Pakistan’s democracy has regularly replaced its poster boys since 2008. The nomenclature of the groups in power at federal and provincial levels has also been somewhat variable. Self-interest has taken the shape of plausible “national visions.” However, the poster boys and the group members belong to a limited privileged pool almost always unwilling and often incapable to champion major reforms to strengthen the democracy. Under the ominous shadow of elite capture, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

–The writer is a political economy analyst and former civil servant. He can be reached at