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External Arbitration and Failure of Politics

by Ejaz Haider
Asif Hassan—AFP

Asif Hassan—AFP

Both the PMLN and the PTI have lessons to learn from the dharna that wasn’t.

Politics, at the end of the day, is about aggregating interests, often conflicting and contradictory interests. So is governance. The rest is ancillary.

In which case, those who believe that politics, with its electoral and legislative processes and the functioning of the government, is about efficiency—or should be—live in, to quote James Buchanan, economist and the founder of Public Choice Theory with Gordon Tullock, “romantic and illusory…notions about the working of governments…”

But public choice theory is not the basic issue I want to talk about here, though it seems to me that a healthy dose of the theory’s many findings and the work been done on it would do tremendous good to Imran Khan and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.

The fundamental issue here, as always, is the inability of politics to resolve disputes and aggregate interests. Everyone talks about the elephant in the room, a not-so-veiled reference to the praetorian tendency of the Pakistan Army. That includes this writer. To what extent it is right misses the point for two reasons: there’s historical precedent for military interventions, and, while several factors have combined to make it more difficult for the Army to intervene with impudence, it retains, nonetheless, a large part of its clout that still makes the civilians kowtow to it.

This means that regardless of whether the military intends to do so or not, regardless also of whether covert social media campaigns are run by some elements affiliated with the military or not, it should be in the interest of politicians and political parties to ensure that conflicts do not get out of hand—i.e., the cut-and-thrust of politics, no matter how low it goes, must still abide by certain rules of the game.

Put another way, the political leaders must ensure that a situation of conflict doesn’t reach a point where the Army decides to kick the chessboard, change the game, and start playing Solitaire.

That, as we have seen, is not happening. Take the Panama scandal. The opposition, especially the PTI, has been pressing the point since the documents were leaked. The government has resorted to delaying tactics. In fact, such is the lack of trust in the ability of political-parliamentary institutions that from the word go there was a demand for a judicial commission of inquiry and even the prime minister wrote a letter to the chief justice of the Supreme Court, asking that the court set up such a commission. The chief justice of Pakistan, on his part, refusing at the time to be dragged into political mudslinging, wrote back asking Parliament to legislate so he could constitute a commission that was not toothless.

From then on, it was about agreement on the Terms of Reference of the inquiry. The opposition’s ToR focused exclusively on the P.M. and his family while the government threw into its remit everyone, the kitchen sink and Charlie’s aunt. One cast the net exclusively for the P.M.; the other decided to start from the Fall of Man. Result: logjam.

The lack of consensus had to, as it did, result in the PTI and some other opposition parties taking to the street, which they did. Khan announced rallies and kept the issue alive but none of that made any difference to a government that remained smug. Finally, Khan had no option, within the framework in which he was working, but to announce that he would lock down Islamabad, though three or four petitions were already in the Supreme Court. The idea seemed to be that while the Court hears the petitions, there must also be street pressure on the government.

The government, on the other hand, had planned to respond differently than before. As happens in Pakistan’s Byzantine politics, it is a matter of speculation whether the meeting of two federal ministers and the chief minister Punjab with the Army chief and the sacking of another federal minister had something to do with the space the government thought it had got to act more confidently against the PTI leaders and workers. Neither the government nor the Army will confirm it but nuts-and-bolts information over time has a way of coming out.

What is clear is that the SC’s obiter dicta and the options it gave to both sides helped in defusing the situation. The government immediately lapped it up and Khan, realizing that the SC had moved in the direction he wanted it to move and knowing the government had dug in and won’t let his supporters reach Islamabad, also decided to climb down.

The reprieve is welcome but it is just that—reprieve. Two elements here are important: the judicialization of politics that had become a norm during former chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s tenure is back again in this case, though the SC’s hand has been forced into it this time. The court has served as a bulwark against a situation getting worse. It does not seem that the court this time wants to make it a habit of judicializing politics but its reluctant role as an arbiter should indicate to the politicians the dysfunctional state of political institutions and the art of negotiation, compromise and aggregation.

Two, the court’s arbitration is not a long-term solution. It cannot be a substitute for the political process of compromise.

This is where two other factors come in: the PMLN, for all its electoral successes, must realize that a large section of the population is unhappy with the way it governs—or doesn’t. Khan’s references to corruption are simplistic and his solutions the stuff of primers. Yet, just because he can’t make things stick doesn’t take away from the fact that the support he garners is not without basis.

Two, Khan, for his part, has to understand that governance is a complex game and if things were as simple as Radiant Reading III, he would have by now turned Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa into a lesser form of Eden. Hence my original suggestion that he and his coterie read up on public choice theory. He also needs to understand that negotiations are never about all or nothing. They are about finding a bargaining zone and because this is more about capturing political space than any (rhetoric aside) altruistic campaign against corruption, they will be distributive.

Until the political process can develop the maturity to understand that games are never played in a vacuum, to quote Tsebelis, and are “embedded in some higher-order network”, we will continue to have political logjams and look for arbiters external to the political processes.

Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider 

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