When the PML-N won the by-election held in NA-120 on 17 September, the party was quick to claim that its victory demonstrated how it continued to enjoy the trust and support of the people of Pakistan. The PTI has been making similar noises after its victory on Friday in NA-4, where it held on to a seat that had been vacated after the death of the incumbent Gulzar Khan. Amidst the worsening legal woes of the Sharif family, it is become increasingly clear that the elections of 2018 will prove to be extremely interesting and competitive. After all, just six months ago it would not have been unreasonable to claim that the PML-N government was comfortably strolling towards re-election. Now, all bets are off as an energized PTI gears up to face a PML-N that is still recovering from the body blows dealt to it by the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif.

It is still too early to tell what will happen when the people of Pakistan go to the polls next year. In addition to the simple fact that a lot can happen between now and polling day, meaning that any speculation at this point would be extremely premature, matters are not helped by the constant muddying of the waters being done by various elements of the political order. The most recent example of this comes from General Pervez Musharraf, whose ignominious ouster from power in 2008 has not prevented him from attempting to mount a political comeback, and who has barely been able to contain his glee at Nawaz Sharif’s misfortune. Earlier this week, General Musharraf explained that while he did not believe the military was interested in taking over the country and imposing martial law, he did think that it was possible a ‘technocratic’ government would be put in place before the next elections. This option, beloved of military and bureaucratic elites, as well as wealthy armchair analysts dismayed by the hustle and bustle of democratic politics, works under the assumption that governance is simply about appointing the right experts – so-called ‘technocrats’ – to manage the affairs of the state. It suggests that these experts, chosen for their talents and their training, would have both the vision and the drive to introduce and implement policies conducive to Pakistan’s growth and development.

The problem with this idea, and what is often left unstated by its proponents, is that it is inherently undemocratic. The assumption that all-knowing technocrats possess the capacity to unerringly formulate good policy is accompanied by the notion that they will have the space and autonomy to put their plans into action. What this, in turn, means is that the ideal technocratic government envisaged by General Musharraf is essentially a dictatorship in all but name, granting great power to unelected individuals without any of the traditional forms of accountability inherent to democracy. However, a lack of accountability is not the only problem with technocratic rule. What Musharraf and others like him often forget is that democratic politics, through parties and elections, serves to aggregate and articulate popular wants, demands, and opinions. Policies can be good or bad, but the question of which areas to prioritize or which issues to deal with is not something that can be left entirely to the predilections of experts who, for all their protestations to the contrary, will always have their own biases and prejudices. Therefore, determinations regarding what to do, as opposed to how to do it, can only be made through a mass, consultative process that places the will of the public above all other considerations. There are obvious exceptions to this principle, such as when it becomes necessary for the state to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority, but it should otherwise be clear that ‘technocrats’ should exist to execute the responsibilities assigned to them by the people to the best of their abilities, rather than arbitrarily assuming the mantle of decision-making for more than 200 million people.

Ever since his ouster, Nawaz Sharif has been crafting a narrative that suggests he has been the victim of political persecution and injustice. Independently of the effect this has been having on the unity and coherence of his party, within which there are elements that would prefer a more non-confrontational approach to politics, the accusations Sharif is making are not entirely without merit or, indeed, precedent. After all, the judiciary and the military have both, in the past, played a role in destabilizing democratic governments through coups, legal decisions that legitimize coups, and the use of the courts to remove troublesome prime ministers and governments. Whether or not history is currently repeating itself remains to be seen. What is evident, however, is that talk of ‘technocratic’ and ‘national unity’ governments is not simply idle speculation on the part of people like General Musharraf. Instead, it can be either be viewed as an attempt to invite the dismissal of the current government, or even as a means through which to prepare public opinion in favour of such an outcome.

When celebrating their electoral victories, both the PTI and the PML-N assume that their successes vindicate their records in government as well as the choices they make with regards to campaigning. What both parties seem to misunderstand, however, is just how similar they are politically; from an objective standpoint, both parties represent right-of-center political tendencies that combine faith in capitalism and markets with a large amount of social conservatism. At a policy level, there is not much to distinguish the two parties, nor is there much difference in terms of how they both approach elections (through the use of local elites and patronage spending). While the rhetoric of the two parties might suggest otherwise, the reality is that they are actually quite difficult to tell apart.

This is important because of the way in which it comes back to the questions regarding technocratic government raised above. One of the reasons why technocrats keep popping up in the public discourse is a general disillusionment with the democratic process. Slow and tedious as it is, it is tempting to believe that experts with untrammeled power would be able to get things done where lumbering and corrupt political parties have failed. A better way of looking at this dilemma, however, might be to hold political parties up to higher standards, and to push them to reform in meaningful and substantive ways. Unless the PTI and the PML-N can provide an electoral contest based on truly clashing ideologies and programmatic strategies, providing voters with real choices rather than having them decide between two separate sets of elites, little will be done to close the democratic deficit that exists in the country.