PAKISTAN has spent 34 out of its 68 years, or half its life, in internal political instability defined as regime instability, political emergencies and constitutional deadlocks. Long-term instability in Pakistan has been significantly higher than in East Asia and post-Partition India. The difference between Pakistan and India is large enough to make one wonder whether long-term instability may provide a significant part of the explanation for the recent divergence in growth.

The politics of the high state has played out as a zero-sum game where the acquisition of power by one actor or a set of actors has not resulted in a ‘stable acquisition of power’. Contrary to resulting in revolutionary ‘change,’ episodes of instability have typified persistent institutional and elite conflicts. Evidence shows that the years of political instability have been marginally higher under authoritarian rule, suggesting that reversion to this form of rule is not a panacea. However, a significant portion of the life of democratic regimes has also been spent managing instability. The pressing question today is what are the elements of a political compact that can catalyse the transition to a ‘stable’ democratic state?

Analysing the pathology of instability may provide the beginnings of an answer. Analysis reveals that instability has been a defining feature of authoritarian rule, both at the point of takeover and after the induction of partisan civilian partners. The main cause has been the contestation over civilian supremacy. However, an unacknowledged cause has also been the inability of authoritarian rule to marginalise political parties, which have shown incredible resilience.

Contested civilian supremacy has also exacerbated instability during periods of civilian rule for two reasons. Parties that failed to gain power have had the political space to lobby for extra-constitutional measures in return for compromising on civilian supremacy. In turn, the threat of disruption has provided parties in power a strong incentive to centralise power in a ‘trustworthy’ cabal making the system exclusionary. These imperatives result in vicious cycles of mistrust and instability. Therefore, the first element of a democratic compact has to be an agreement between all major political parties and the military regarding the sphere of civilian supremacy.

The politics of the high state has played out as a zero-sum game.
However, the civil-military divide alone does not provide a complete explanation of instability. Another important factor is the widespread dispersion of political power within the civilian political elite. This can be gauged from the fact that no political party has been able to claim more than one-third of the registered vote in recent elections and that the two-party system has steadily given way to fragmented representation. His*tori*cally authoritarian and centralised executive-styled civilian regimes have exacerbated pola**risation among dispersed power-holders factionalised along provincial lines. It is difficult to see how this polarisation can be reduced in the absence of an inclusive framework of power sharing. The federalism of the 18th Amendment is one response along these lines.

However, the failure to create elected party-based local governments in the larger provinces, a centre piece of the Charter of Democracy (CoD) and the PTI’s recent manifesto, continues to inhibit the deepening of an inclusive framework. The institutionalisation of sub-national federal and fiscal democratic arrangements has to be the second element of a democratic political compact.

The political structure has also deepened polarisation over the Election Commission, civil administration and the judiciary with accusations of partisanship being made by all political parties. In spite of this there have been few attempts at reforms that redress these claims of partisanship. Measures to create multi-partisan ownership with regard to judicial appointments and police oversight that are provided in the CoD and the Police Order, 2002 have not taken root. It is worrying that proposals to reform civil administration and the judiciary are not being meaningfully debated in any of the parties despite growing polarisation over these institutions, which is eroding their writ and sanctity. Institutional reforms that build multi-partisan ownership and strengthen accountability of these institutions have to be the third element of a democratic political compact.

Pakistani elites have to realise that exclusionary power grabs and centralised governance will not deliver stable acquisition of power when political power is this dispersed and polarised. This realisation has resulted in two major constitutional compacts, the 1973 Constitution and the 18th Amendment, between parliamentary political forces, which gives cause to remain optimistic about democratic state building. However, we must also realise that the inability to deepen the democratic compact along these lines will lead to persistent contestation that is likely to impose a heavy cost on Pakistan’s future.

The writer is senior research fellow, Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and associate professor of economics, LUMS.

Published in Dawn, September 7th, 2014