The Political Economy of Establishment Neutrality in Pakistan

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This article presents a political economy explanation of the institutional recalibrations underway in Pakistan. In particular, it critically examines the notion of establishment “neutrality” in the political sphere, which can seem confusing at first glance – both to supporters and critics of the establishment.

In the dominant imagination of Pakistan, recent changes in the political landscape are mainly explained by the action of one or more powerful individuals. Without neglecting the agency of individuals, this article presents an alternative explanation rooted in the country’s socio-institutional structures and class dynamics.

The notion of establishment cannot be reduced to one or more individuals. Because at the conceptual level, “the establishment” is an abstract representation of the hegemonic socio-institutional and economic order. In Pakistan, to state the obvious, its concrete manifestation passes through the personality of senior officials of state institutions. But it is important to go below the surface and work out the larger logic of the role of the establishment in Pakistan. In terms of facility functionality, one of the characteristic aspects of the Pakistani facility is that it enjoys the de facto veto power which may be the de jure ruler of the country.

This forces us to ask ourselves: who regulates the behavior of the establishment? There may be several factors, but the most dominant factor is “the economy”. In particular, we refer here to the economic structure and economic performance that governs the decision-making of the establishment. In other words, the establishment operates within the confines of the dominant economic structures of Pakistan.

But at the same time, the establishment does not have absolute power over the rest of society. History is full of incidences where progressive forces in the country rose up against hegemonic establishment rule. In fact, one can also cite multiple times when the establishment had to give in to major socio-political players, for example, the rise of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto through a mass political movement, as well as the resurgence of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif despite their past. public quarrels with the establishment.

This forces us to ask ourselves: who regulates the behavior of the establishment? There may be several factors, but the most dominant factor is “the economy”. In particular, we refer here to the economic structure and economic performance that governs the decision-making of the establishment. In other words, the establishment operates within the confines of Pakistan’s dominant economic structures. And in order to maintain its hegemonic status, it must integrate the impact of the current economic situation into its decision-making, especially in the area of ​​“politics”. In other words, my argument is that the establishment is very sensitive to the processes of economic development in Pakistan. As one of the most powerful and best endowed players, it holds one of the biggest stakes in the country’s economic development. And whenever the economy collapses, it’s not just ordinary Pakistanis who suffer, but the establishment also tends to struggle. The economic downturn translates into increased poverty, unemployment and food insecurity for ordinary Pakistanis. On the other hand, the economic slowdown for the establishment implies a disruption of capital accumulation processes and instability in the current context. political settlement.

The stability of the dominant “political settlement” is intimately linked to the processes of capital accumulation. The political settlement is not just about who is inside the ruling coalition, but also who is held outside. In any “political settlement”, the role of the horizontal distribution of power – that is, the power of the excluded coalitions in relation to the coalition in power – is essential.

Today, the political dispensation that emerged in 2018 has given rise to a new political settlement in Pakistan, often referred to as the “hybrid regime”. The creation of the hybrid regime was a high-risk strategy for the establishment.

I call it a “high risk” strategy because it left out the biggest political player in Punjab and two of the most organized politico-religious forces in the country, namely PML-N and JUI-F, respectively. In other words, the birth of the hybrid regime in 2018 gave rise to a strong horizontal distribution of power in the country. A strong horizontal distribution of power means that the ruling coalition is likely to face constant threat and instability, as excluded groups attempt to destabilize the ruling coalition. Therefore, such a high-risk move is only worthwhile if it can yield high rewards. And by “high rewards” I mean smooth and rapid capital accumulation that can allow the ruling coalition to distribute rents widely among its supporters.
Moreover, to keep horizontally excluded groups at bay, the ruling coalition must ensure that the standard of living of its constituency improves – in the case of hybrid rule in Pakistan, this was the urban classes at middle and high income.

It looks like – for lack of a better word – a ‘new’ political settlement will emerge in Pakistan, regardless of the outcome of the vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Due to a combination of endogenous and exogenous factors, Pakistan’s economic situation has deteriorated over the past four years. This gave powerful ammunition to horizontally excluded groups to raise the stakes – not just against the ruling party but against the dominant “political settlement”, for example, Nawaz Sharif’s public criticism of de facto centers of power.

A deteriorating economic situation alongside the expansion of horizontally excluded groups played a central role in the establishment’s decision to reconsider and ultimately recuse itself from footing the bill for the PTI government. In other words, the establishment opted for “strategic neutrality” and it should not be confused with “unconditional neutrality”. In the Gramscian sense, I would refer to “strategic neutrality” as the politics of common sense, that is, the establishment “strategically” stepping back to cut its losses.

This is by no means the first instance of the establishment taking the path of strategic neutrality in Pakistan’s history. In fact, whenever the economic situation turns grim and horizontally excluded groups gain momentum, the establishment seems not to hesitate at all to publicly disassociate itself from the de jure leader(s). Recall the ousting of Pervez Mushraf and Ayub Khan.

It seems that – for lack of a better word – a “new” political settlement is about to emerge in Pakistan, regardless of the outcome of the vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Imran Khan. It is therefore important to discuss how strategic neutrality could play out in the future.

From the above discussion, it can be wrongly inferred that the establishment optimizes economic development, and therefore, any political government that can provide “good” economic performance can stay on the “same page” with the establishment. establishment. This assumption is quite common among major political parties in Pakistan, and it should be taken with a grain of salt as the processes of rapid economic development produce their own problems. The most obvious concerns the question of distribution: that is, how to distribute the gains of economic growth and development. The establishment may disagree with the political government on the issue of the distribution of economic resources, for example the 18th Constitutional Amendment.
The establishment knows that it is the most powerful actor in the country, and therefore it can demand – or rather, it can assume that it deserves – an ever-increasing slice of the economic pie. A political government has two options: concede and give what the establishment wants, or refuse.

Now, the first case scenario – where political government gives in to the demands of establishment – ​​has the potential to disrupt the ecosystem of economic development, as rapid capital accumulation requires reinvestment and reallocation of resources to productive sectors and efficiency of the economy rather than handing out cheap rents. .

The second case scenario – where the political government refuses to distribute the rents to the settlement – ​​can create fissures between the political government and the settlement, which can lead to political instability. This political instability can disrupt or even halt the process of economic development. And then the cycle repeats itself, that is, the old political settlement is replaced by the new one.

Therefore, I argue that as long as power asymmetry prevails within the de jure and de facto centers of power in Pakistan, the prospects for rapid economic development – not to mention inclusive development – remain vulnerable to shocks.


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