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Pakistani Politics Resembles Tribal Warfare More Than Parliamentary Democracy

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Pakistan is a parliamentary democracy but looks like a tribal society as far as its political life is concerned: a political elite starts the conflicts and disputes from a maximalist positions and often resorts to force, without an attempt to resolve the conflicts through national institutions that are the essence of parliamentary democracy, writes Umer Farooq.

What is the difference between social and political life under parliamentary democracy and tribal society?

Social and political life under parliamentary democracy is not fixated on any one pattern. At the political level it’s in a continuous state of flux, which means there are no permanent enemies. People come together to form alliances for a particular political cause. After achieving the cause they depart to form new alliances for another cause. There are temporary short-term alliances, for instance, for a particular vote in the parliament and there are long-term alliances for achieving solutions to long-term objectives.

In a liberal parliamentary democracy, in fact, there ought to be no maximalist positions—no cutthroat competitions and no-do-or die races. Unlike a tribal society, the political elite in a parliamentary democracy tries to avoid cutthroat competitions because today’s political opponents could be tomorrow’s allies for a new political cause. If the cause is opportunistic, there is always the free media existing in a liberal parliamentary democracy to point that out to the general public.

In a tribal society, on the other hand, social and political lives are defined by blood feuds and cutthroat competitions and by do-or-die maximalist positions. In modern times, political systems based on tribal structures are designed on the patrimonialization of resources of the society. There is no well-defined public law and procedures for the distribution and redistribution of resources among different segments and groups.

In a well functioning parliamentary system, it is the laws, institutions and procedures that define the process of distribution and redistribution of resources among different segments, institutions and groups in the society. And if these institutions and procedures fail to resolve the conflicts then there is always the option of turning towards the electorate itself.

Anthropologists now claim that in old tribal societies there were also robust institutions and procedures to resolve the conflicts and disputes. But if these institutions and procedures failed, then the rival parties could resort to the use of force to decide matters.

Pakistan is a parliamentary democracy but looks like a tribal society as far as its political life is concerned: a political elite starts the conflicts and disputes from a maximalist positions and often resorts to force (or makes threats to that effect), without an attempt to resolve the conflicts through national institutions that are the essence of parliamentary democracy.

Pakistani society has just experienced the full weight of state propaganda to prove that part of the political elite – more specifically, those jailed by the state machinery after their ouster from power – has patrimonialized the national resources. Such propaganda has, however, failed to legally prove the point. The institutional monopoly over national resources is a proven fact, which is presented before parliamentary institutions every year at the time of presentation of national budget. These institutions which control national resources, or their elites, have some of the characteristics of a tribal elite, especially their tendency to resort to violence and force against their opponents, without allowing freedom of speech and expression or any real right to dissent. When you disallow such dissent, you do away with a major means of resolving conflicts and disputes in a democratic fashion.

As often happens in a tribal society, the Pakistani elite looks towards the most powerful man in society—in crude terms the person who is in possession of the most guns—to come forward and resolve their disputes and act as a guarantor. This has happened multiple times in Pakistani history when the political elite in a post-martial law situation looked towards the Chief of the Army Staff to come forward and resolve their conflicts.

Parliamentary democracy has a history of more than 150 years in this part of erstwhile British India which now forms part of Pakistan. And yet Pakistan’s political elite has failed to internalize the ethics and norms which are so essential to the smooth functioning of a parliamentary democracy.

One of the basic ethical principles of parliamentary democracy is that you don’t treat your opponent as an enemy. Your opponent in a parliamentary democracy could be your rival or someone who holds different political views and there is always a possibility that your views change or the other’s views change after both of you are exposed to the continuous flow of information and ideas in a modern society. Treating your opponent as an enemy in a parliamentary democracy will create a situation akin to the political situation in Pakistan.

In Pakistan, those opposing the government always think in terms of bringing down the government. There is no other possibility—like developing working relations between the government and the opposition; creating alternative policy options other than the ones proposed by the government; or blocking the path of government through parliamentary tools rather than paralyzing the capital city.

There is a general acceptance of parliamentary democracy in Pakistani society—intellectuals, popular political leaders and religious scholars have always preferred it over other forms including a presidential system. This general acceptance contrasts with the security establishment’s preference over the years for a more centralized, Presidential system. Generally Pakistani intellectuals have a realization about the cultural, religious, political and economic diversity that exists in Pakistani society. They prefer parliamentary democracy because it has a greater capacity to accommodate the realities of diversity. This diversity in Pakistani society is reflected in the distinct sense of identity and separateness that Pakistan’s different nationalities, religious communities and cultural units display in our public life.

However, diversity in Pakistani society is anathema to the state machinery, which has always wanted to impose standardized and manufactured cultural uniformity on Pakistani society. Hence the preference for highly centralized Presidential form of government— this is another similarity to political life in tribal society.

Here, lest a reader misinterpret the point, it is pertinent to mention that tribes in Pashtun and Baloch societies were highly decentralized structures before the advent of British colonial power in the Indian Subcontinent and it is colonial administrative practices. It was, in fact, the colonial encounter that created the centralized structures in Pakistan’s tribal society which we discussed earlier.

The filthy language used for political opponents in political debates and unethical behavior toward opponents on social media are examples of how political culture reflects a morality of tribal warfare and not parliamentary ethics in Pakistan.

In parliamentary democracy, the opposition is treated as a shadow government. They have stakes in the system. There is less incentive to violently rock the boat.

This stands in contrast to the methods of opposition adopted in tribal confederacies of the past (i.e. fierce warfare over succession crises) or kingly courts (i.e. palace intrigues).

Such backward means to resolving a political deadlock was followed by Imran Khan when in August 2014 he brought bands of his followers to Islamabad and urged them to launch a civil disobedience movement against the government in order to cause social and political unrest in the country. This, he hoped, that ultimately would have paved the way for a coup or a successful palace intrigue. Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman is following in his footsteps.

Despite the presence of many trends of modernisation in our society, the ethics and norms of parliamentary society have not taken root. Our political elite still behaves as if it is engaged in tribal warfare and not in politics in a parliamentary democracy. Therefore they always fail to demonstrate the flexibility that is required to run a complex political system.

In the absence of all these essential requirements of parliamentary democracy, what we actually managed to achieve is chronic political instability.

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