Destructive Status Quo or An Opportunity to Reform?

Destructive Status Quo or An Opportunity to Reform?
During the last sixty years, the world has seen countries like Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and China achieve tremendous economic growth and completely changed the conditions of their people within a short period of 20 – 25 years. While authoritarian regime in these countries, at least initially in South Korea and Taiwan, might be a factor as it provided political stability and continuations of policies; the real reason of their complete turn-around was their leadership’s focus on alleviating poverty and changing the condition of their people. They realised that the country and its defense against enemies won’t be strong without economic growth, and to achieve that they implemented multiple economic and government reforms.

These and other countries which have progressed economically during the last few decades, however, have one advantage that Pakistan does not have so far. All of them had a unitary power structure, either authoritarian or through constitutional democracy with well-defined roles of institutions.

Pakistan, on the other hand, has at least three power centers and all of them have a major distrust for each other and are willing to take extra-constitution steps. Instead of putting the country first, they are all engaged in corrupt practices and are focused on extending their rule and extracting as much from the system using their power, perks, and privileges. They might be strong within themselves but are weak to rule alone. This inherent weakness in power centres led to the failure of both pseudo-authoritarian and pseudo-democratic rules, ultimately leading to a continuous state of bad governance and political instability

The lessons must be learned that when there are multiple stakeholders to power, the true strength comes from working together while sticking to their roles and responsibilities and not as adversaries of each other. As China has shown since late 70’s, issues can be resolved, and the country can prosper economically; all that is needed is the leadership’s resolve for a course correction.

For Pakistan, this course correction means moving from conflicts to collaboration and from serving self-interests to country’s interests. Until this is realised, both governance and political stability will continue to suffer, and no meaningful social or economic reform can succeed.

The leadership of the country has two clear choices; either they continue with the status quo and wait for a complete destruction, or they make the best use of the next 6 months and initiate governance reforms before holding the next general elections. Putting off actions and kicking the can down the road will only make problems worse to possibly a point of no return from which nobody will benefit, including the ruling elites. It is a fallacy to believe that the governance and economic issues will be resolved by merely holding free and fair elections asap.

PTI leadership and supporters should also realize that one person or 2/3rd majority in parliament cannot solve Pakistan’s problems, given the multiple power centres running the country. The best option for the PTI is to be a part of or rather force the reform process before elections.

At a minimum, good governance for any organisation or a country entails the following features working under an overarching umbrella of the rule of law:

  • Departments or institutions working sufficiently independently within the realm of their roles and responsibilities but in unison - with checks and balances - for the common good of the organisation or country.

  • An effective system of self-accountability for individuals and departments/institutions by adhering to certain rules and policies.

  • Empowerment of sub-organisations or local governments for effective delivery of services to their stakeholders and for creating future leaders, and

  • A performance based renumeration for the employees incentivising them to maximize productivity and efficiency.

Unfortunately, Pakistan lacks in all these areas and to make a change, reforms such as below must be considered.

Charter of Governance with Establishment and Judiciary: The focus of this charter of governance should be in strengthening of democracy and making it deliver to the people. This is only possible if military and judiciary are aligned and willing. A fundamental requirement is the commitment by all that no extra-constitutional actions will be taken in the future and any such attempt will be dealt with by enforcing the rule of law without exception. An agreement on roles and responsibility of all institutions and avoidance of institutional encroachment in future must be the focus. An open discussion on mutual expectations will help define institutions’ roles better.

Military must step aside not only from politics but also from wielding power outside of its mutually agreed upon roles and responsibilities. Political parties must also stop witch-hunting in the name of accountability and ensure that the establishment won’t be called upon to help resolve political issues. And the judiciary must realize that their job is to hold the constitution supreme and ensure people’s fundamental rights and their judgement must not be influenced by pressures/blackmails from outside forces. As this won’t happen overnight, there must be a transitional mechanism to address conflicts amongst institutions without causing political instability.

A forum such as a council of governance might be needed temporarily consisting of leadership from the three branches of the government and the military.  This forum, without a veto power to anyone, can address prevailing governance issues and inter-institution conflicts while holding each other accountable for their roles and responsibilities and keeping a check on their vested interests. The economic growth is only possible if all institutions are following the rule of law and work as a unit to come up with solutions which are best for the country.

Rule of Law and Intra-Institution Accountability: The basis of a good accountability system is the principle that the state is stronger than its institutions which in turn are stronger than their individual members. The state becomes weak If its institutions and individuals treat themselves as more powerful than the state and breach rules and break laws without any repercussion.

While intra-institutional accountability can be addressed by the council of governance suggested above, the institutions must take responsibility to hold their members accountable. Not doing so actually makes institutions weak and subject to criticism. The current behaviour must be reversed by formulating and enforcing strong laws and policies related to code of conduct, conflicts of interest, abuse of power, and corrupt practices (both financial and intellectual) at the institutions level. Individuals, irrespective of their position, within an institution must be held to account by that institution if any of these laws and policies are violated.

This is similar to the practices at the corporate world where all companies have policies that employees must follow or face disciplinary or legal actions. To create an effective internal mechanism to prevent policy violations, whistle blower laws and anti-retaliation policies must be introduced and enforced.

Devolution of Power: To strengthen democracy and make it deliver at the grass-root level, political parties have the responsibility to establish a predictable and reliable local government system. The practice of dissolving local governments and not holding their elections for an extended time must be abrogated.

Using the example of the US, the election commission must be given powers to hold local government elections on a fixed date at a prescribed interval. The local governments should also be required to generate their own revenue by collecting property tax on residential, commercial, and agriculture properties and use it for improving primary education, healthcare, public safety, and municipal services and infrastructure.

A reliable system of local governments, such as the one in the US, will create future competent leaders who are experienced in governance – skills badly needed in Pakistan’s political parties. In time, this will lead to think tanks within each party for policy making and developing expertise in various sectors for social and economic development of the country.

From Perks to Performance: Pakistan should step out of its colonial past and the government and bureaucracy should migrate from perks to performance and from land to equity. The kind of perks, protocols, and tax exemptions provided to bureaucrats, ministers, members of parliaments, judges, and military officers is unheard of even in developed countries. Lawmakers getting tax exemptions on their agricultural income and businesses and military running commercial enterprises create conflicts of interest that must be avoided.

As this might face the strongest of resistance, a win-win situation needs to be created which can shift the culture to performance and investment while minimising the monetary impact on government employees, lawmakers, and the military. Some possible ways of achieving that include; a) replacing perks with equivalent salary increase and performance based bonuses for government employees, b) increasing retirement funding and granting shares of SOEs at discounted price throughout employment instead of the current corrupt practice of granting prime plots of land, c) replacing tax exemptions and subsidies with tax credits on investments in agriculture and other targeted areas to improve productivity, and d) converting military run businesses to SOEs with military retirees serving as member of the board of directors of these new SOEs.

The first two will have the impact of improving government services and SOEs profitability and the last two will resolve conflicts of interest issues for lawmakers and military.  These steps will not only result in performance driven bureaucratic reforms from within but will also promote a culture of investment in agriculture, energy, and industries.

These reforms, if implemented, are not a zero-sum game for the elites. All countries – developed and undeveloped – have elites and they get richer with the growing economy as they have the means to invest in new opportunities and industries and grow their wealth and influence.

However, the resentment against the elites subsides in a growing economy if everyone is doing better and the government is providing an inclusive growth opportunity to the masses based on good governance, progressive taxation, and the rule of law enforced on all.

Like the CEOs and executives of private businesses who lead the workforce to grow the company and deliver value to the shareholders and in the process get better compensations, elites of a country also do better financially and increase their influence by helping others get better economically.

With the vast potential for agricultural output and export, large consumer base for industrial growth, one of the highest levels of free fuel (solar radiation) for energy independence and import reduction, huge potential for IT export with young workforce, excellent geographic location for trade with surrounding countries and create economic depth; Pakistan has every ingredient to become an economic power in the next 25 years, increasing its GDP by ten folds or more.

Reforming the governance will create a path for this achievement, and in time, the country can assert itself positively at the world’s stage and deal with its hostile neighbours from a position of strength.