VIEW: Midterm election — for whom? —Dr Syed Mansoor Hussain - Monday, March 14, 2011

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Yes, we do have something similar to what might be called a representative democracy. But most of our elected representatives cease to represent us as soon as they get elected

Once again the prophets of doom and gloom are out in full force. Political parties sitting in the opposition are chomping at the bit for a ‘midterm’ election. The reason is, as always, related to the weather and has little to do with any political realities. As every observer of the Pakistani political scene knows, nothing of any importance ever happens in Pakistan during the dog days of summer except of course for a flood or two. As such the window of opportunity for possible elections is closing rapidly. For all practical purposes, if nothing happens in the next few days, then nothing will happen till much later in the year barring some major unforeseeable crisis.

The time line for any possible election campaigns is made even murkier since the month of fasting will fall at the end of summer and here again, as every observer of the Pakistani scene knows, nothing, and I mean nothing, happens during this time since all devout Muslims, and that means most Pakistanis, are much too busy worrying about the hereafter to think of the here and now. And the period between the two Eids is not conducive to any sustained political activity either, so the period between the end of August and the early part of November is also done for.

As such one must discount all the talk of any major political change at this time. More importantly, the summer months are the time when many if not most of our ‘A class’ politicians travel abroad to find relief from the heat and get appropriate medical care to get back into shape. In all likelihood, nothing will therefore happen until sometime in November and maybe not even then. And that brings me to the question why all the clamour for ‘midterm elections’?

Politicians appearing on TV talk shows and being quoted in newspapers these days keep insisting that the ‘people’ of this country want immediate midterm elections. However, I get a little worried when politicians start talking of what the ‘people’ want. Frankly, the nearest most of our major politicians ever come to ordinary people of this country is about as far as security cordons and bullet-proof glass enclosures allow them and that obviously is not near at all. So that then is the big question. How do these politicians that never come face to face with ordinary people know what the ordinary people want?

In countries like the US, elected representatives at the local and state levels filter public concerns up the political pyramid to the people running state and national governments. Besides this, there are reasonably reliable public opinion polls that provide information about many things, including what people want from their government or what they think is wrong with their government. Most ‘mature’ democracies also have grassroots political party organisations that keep their elected representatives informed about local issues. Unfortunately, in Pakistan little of this ‘informational’ infrastructure exists in any effective formulation.

Yes, we do have something similar to what might be called a representative democracy. But most of our elected representatives cease to represent us as soon as they get elected. In my opinion the primary problem in Pakistan that undermines almost all democratic impulses is the ‘protocol culture’. Many ‘analysts’ think that feudalism is responsible for all that is wrong with Pakistan. However, it is not feudalism itself but rather the feudal preference for non-merit based hierarchies that have afflicted Pakistan in a big way.

Anybody, irrespective of their personal background, who assumes any position of ‘importance’ immediately puts on ‘feudal’ airs and expects to be treated as somebody superior and as such can no longer hobnob with the hoi polloi. Most of our politicians, especially those that come from powerful political families, are afflicted by this attitude. They win elections because of ‘connections’ and distribution of economic largesse rather than any true connection or responsiveness to the needs of those that vote for them. Fortunately, politicians come and go. But the most serious effect this ‘protocol’ culture has is on our permanent bureaucracy that in reality runs this country.

It would seem that many of our bureaucrats are trained to demonstrate arrogance rather than competence. And the more ignorant they are the more arrogant they act, something I saw firsthand during a recent interaction with a senior healthcare bureaucrat in the Punjab This behaviour is of course based upon the assumption that bureaucrats belong to the ruling elite that can never (almost never) be fired and all they have to do is to serve their political bosses and they can continue to lord it over the masses.

There was a time that now only lives in the memory of the people of a certain age when most of our senior bureaucracy was independent, competent, above reproach and honest to a fault. What made things worse is the emergence of a non-merit based elitist culture. The sad thing about this descent into elitism is that it has gone on while there is also an increasing penetration of Islamic ideology into public life. The egalitarianism of Islam has however completely lost out to this meritless elitism of the ruling classes.

Therefore, as far as I am concerned, even though corruption, political ineptitude, apathy and incompetence are all important factors in making things bad for us in Pakistan, it is this pervasive protocol culture that perpetuates the serious problems faced by this country. And as far as any midterm elections are concerned, they will do nothing to change how Pakistan is governed since those that really run this country will still remain in place and rapidly adjust to the whims and wishes of their new political masters.

As far as what the people want is concerned, nobody in positions of power either knows what that might be or really cares about it either, least of all the members of our permanent senior bureaucracy.

The writer has practised and taught medicine in the US. He can be reached at

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