Moving beyond a clientelism model of democracy – by Luv Puri

The cross-party consensus on Pakistan’s constitutional reforms is a shot in the arm of the parliament and strengthens the process of democratisation in the country. Democratisation is an answer to the country’s many contemporary challenges, including the fight against religious extremism.

In order to further entrench democracy in Pakistan, the policy makers should also address the social and economic realities that may be acting as an obstacle for realising the fuller potentialities of democracy. The Pakistani political leadership, like that in many other developing countries, does not emanate from the middle class, but is invariably elitist. Democracy theorists describe this state as political clientelism, which is marked by conditions of low productivity, high inequality, and starkly hierarchical social relations. It is defined as transactions between politicians and citizens whereby material favour is offered in return for political support.

A skewed land ownership in Pakistan is one of the factors responsible for manifestation of political system which has features similar to clientelism. The class owning huge acres of land also has the financial and social muscle to influence the political verdict. The feudal lords and their allies constitute only five per cent of Pakistani agricultural households, yet they own 64 per cent of the farmland. The rest of the 95 per cent are thus the feudals’ political vote-bank.

As a result, the political parties are led by the elite whose social penetration and connections with the vast majority are quite limited. The political parties bank upon feudal lords in the country to get votes and this has developed a client-patron relationship, which the elite has a vested interest in continuing.

The clientelist model of democracy makes the decision-making process in Pakistan a highly exclusive arena as there are structural obstacles for the non-elite sections of the society to become part of the political process. The capacity of the political parties to build a committed following is also limited by the fact that the political parties are run as private corporations by a few wealthy individuals.

The political parties in Pakistan need to promote intra-party democracy so that they reflect the societal and economic base of the country. Democratising the political parties in that country will include creating equitable economic structures in the rural areas. For this purpose, the state needs to usher in land reforms to empower the landless people in the rural areas. This will enable the political parties to get rid of the clientalist model where the parties bank on the feudalistic structure to garner votes.

The political speeches of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, where he espoused socialist ideals, touch on the themes of social and economic iniquitous structures. However, he could never practically implement his ideals. In the contemporary context, the ideals are even more important to resolve the pressing problems confronting the country. The capacity building of the political parties to combat the forces of religious extremism is directly related to its ability to widen the societal base of the groups.

In addition, the political parties need to acquire a national political and social agenda to forge a feeling of national unity among the people of Pakistan. A party with a strong grassroots network can neutralise the growth of religious groups that depend on marginalised sections of society. In sharp contrast to the rural areas, Pakistan already has a resilient middle-class in the urban areas that was demonstrated in the lawyers movements.

The second complementary factor that can get rid of the clientalist model is to make massive investments in education and reforming the religious seminaries. Pakistan’s literacy rate is 43.5 per cent, which is considerably low compared to neighbouring countries like India and Sri Lanka that have increased their literacy levels to 62 per cent and 92 per cent respectively. The low educational base in the country perpetuates the present model of democracy leading to lack of accountability.

In 2001, an analyst for the US-based Brookings Institution wrote that there were around 45,000 seminaries in Pakistan, though that number is contested by many Pakistani experts. In August 2001, the government of Pakistan likewise created a Madrassa Education Board, and asked all seminaries to register with the government in return for financial benefits. Either way, of these, the Pakistani government recently stated that it had been able to register less than 15,900, and admitted that some seminaries continued to function without registration.

A militaristic approach to the problem of religious extremism alone will only result in backlash and further inflame religious passions. Instead of increased security crackdowns, the solutions would be to democratically engage Islamic scholars with the social, economic and political issues of the times so that the educational reform process is not seen as an imposition by the state and does not hit a roadblock. The availability of modern education to all the classes is critical for the success of democracy.

Democratic consolidation in Pakistan and the battle against religious extremism are closely interwoven. The rise of religious extremism in Pakistan is also a symptom of the failure of democracy in that country. The democratisation process in Pakistan hinges on how factors that inhibit democracy are tackled. The factors are rooted in the country’s colonial legacy, societal structure, international politics, and regional insecurities. Each of these factors is to be addressed so that the country’s political institutions garner the strength to take the country forward.

Luv Puri is a Fulbright fellow at New York University.

Source: Dawn, 17 Apr, 2010



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