Nawaz Sharif’s Missing Allies

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan finds himself under attack from many sides. His tussle with the army aside, nearly all political parties are assailing him; PTI is planning a “million man march” on the capital to depose him. PTI is supported by the megalomaniac Tahir ul Qadri who predicts Sharif’s ouster before the end of this month. Is Nawaz Sharif really that precarious and if so why. He is one year into a 5 year term that he won with a clear majority. He spoke extensively of this “mandate” last year. So why is this mandate not important anymore.

In any government there is a group of people who place and keep people in power. These selectors of governments are all powerful and must be appeased. In a functioning democracy, these would be all eligible voters. Governments serve at their pleasure and are removed when voters turn against them. Its a little more complex in not so well functioning democracies such as ours. So while the voters put Mr. Sharif in the office, his concerns with the shenanigans of a party with 10% of seats in the national assembly and a politically lame bombast suggests that the selectors are other than the voters who made Mr. Sharif the Prime Minister. For Pakistani politicians, the selectors are the generals, other politicians, business leaders, large land holders and bureaucrats. In short, the game is that of collusion where favors – called private goods in the language of economists – are exchanged behind the scenes. Politicians are placed and allowed political offices so that they can enable private goods to their cronies whom they must continue to appease. Their voters simply dont count, they are merely needed to overcome the formality of elections.

This understanding is well manifest in the policies of this and previous governments, who once in office completely ignore the voters. Prices of staples sky rocket and the government uses these to put up more tariffs that benefit cronies and empowerish the common man. The country plunges into darkness and we still have price fixing, subsidies and free electric connections to state run corporations – the cost borne by those who actually pay their bills. These common voters will be ignored until the next elections. However, as they have shown in the past 3-4 elections, they are not passive. They have voted out non-performing politicians each and every time. So why dont politicians work to win over their voters as much as they appease their other cronies.

But this need not continue to always be the case. Nawaz Sharif is in a particular position to break this trap. His party has done enough in Lahore to keep their grip on a plurality of voters. What if they actually treat ALL their eligible voters as “selectors”. The advantage would be that they would become less vulnerable to the PTIs and PATs of the world; even more sure against the generals who will eventually balk against powerful politicians. However, this will come at a cost. For sure the close group of cronies that surround Mr. Sharif and propel him from one bad policy to another will be resentful and will try to block any shift to favor voters over the cronies. There will be reprisals from them and other cronies who will see their private goods disappear. There may even be a dangerous period where there wouldnt be sufficient voter support and the pushback from the cronies may still be strong enough. But Mr. Sharif (and his brother Shahbaz Sharif) are savvy politicians as they demonstrated in the opposition in the past 5 years. Surely they can negotiate some of these rough winds. Once they find their footing with the support of their voters, they are looking at a new Pakistan – not just in slogans by you know who – where voters participate the government and Pakistan establishes a robust and prosperous democracy. And Nawaz Sharif may yet find his name in history books with the likes of Park Chung-hee of South Korea and Deng Zhou Peng of China; rather than just a footnote in someone else’s history book.

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