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The bigger beast

It is yet again open season on Pakistan’s politicians. The manoeuvrings and posturing in the lead-up to the Senate election that will take place next week confirms, for pundits and laypeople alike, that the men and women designated as representatives of the people simply don’t care about anything other than amassing personal influence and wealth.

The TV media has been especially keen to remind the long-suffering masses about the habitual transgressions of our political leadership, alleging that enormous amounts of money are exchanging hands as the ‘horse-trading’ of Senate seats reaches its climax.

All of this is hardly new. The business of politics — pun very much intended — has been badly sullied by its principal protagonists over a long period of time. Elections in particular are viewed largely as an investment — if someone spends crores of rupees getting elected, s/he generally plans to make up the deficit and more in office.

The business of politics has been sullied by its protagonists. Yet every time an electoral exercise rolls around the media generates a fresh wave of moral indignation. The general perception thus created is that the problem lies with the individuals seeking office rather than the system within which these individuals operate.

Of course there is a reason that politicians are made into the proverbial ‘bad guy’ — deeper introspection about the political system in this country necessarily implicates classes, institutions and individuals that otherwise dress themselves up as defenders of the public interest. The military, media and pro-establishment intellectual have the most to lose if the structural underpinnings of the political system are exposed.

Actually existing democracy is beset by contradictions to the point of a legitimacy crisis even in the heartlands of the system. A wide cross-section of the population in almost all Western countries has admitted to being so disillusioned with the electoral system that people simply don’t cast their vote. In short they believe that their exercise of ‘choice’ is largely meaningless, because no change can be expected within the confines of the existing system.

There are rare occasions when segments of the electorate are inspired to use their vote such as during Barack Obama’s first campaign for president. Large numbers of youth, people of colour and women came out to vote harbouring great expectations about the ‘change’ that Obama promised would follow his victory. As the first black president of the US moves into the home stretch of his second term in office, the euphoria of his initial victory has been brought into sharp relief by the corporate, state and other lobbies to which Obama, even as president, is primarily answerable.

Indeed democracy in America is essentially a cyclical tug-of-war between two parties that both embrace capitalism and justify Washington’s imperialist adventures. In other ‘liberal democracies’ the situation is only slightly better, with a handful of parties playing musical chairs with one another rather than just two.

The recent victory of rank outsider Syriza in the Greek general election does offer some hope that the stranglehold of corporate, state and imperialist lobbies can be broken, but, as post-election developments in Greece confirm, when there is rupture in the domestic political system, global elites step in to rectify the situation. The only region that can boast more than one exception to the rule is Latin America.

Here in Pakistan, PTI loyalists will argue that their ‘tsunami’ represented a genuine attempt to overhaul the incumbent political order. But it is hard to tally this claim with the inordinate amounts of money that Imran Khan and his lieutenants have apparently lavished on their rallies, dharnas and seat adjustments (not to mention their cosying up to the army, retrograde positions on most crucial issues and hobnobbing with international powers). Indeed, Imran’s elevation to the highest echelons of the Pakistani power game was confirmed by the unprecedented spending on TV ads to project his person during the 2013 general election.

Which is to say that mainstream politicians are very much part of the problem, but that the system that nourishes them is a much bigger beast sustained by a plethora of interest groups. The moralistic bashing of politicians that poses for meaningful political commentary in this country actually obfuscates the working of this system.

Writing in the 1880s, Friedrich Engels argued that in a bourgeois democracy, “wealth exercises its power indirectly, but all the more surely”, first, by means of the “direct corruption of officials” (America); secondly, by means of an “alliance of the government and the Stock Exchange” (France and America).

We should not be fooled about the reality of democracy within the confines of capitalism. In our context the first task is to free the political system from the overbearing influence of the military establishment. But this is only the tip of the iceberg — unless our aspirations culminate at ‘capitalist’ democracy.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, "The bigger beast," Dawn. 2015-02-27.
Keywords: Political science , Political process , Political aspects , Political leaders , International relations , Stock exchange , Social media , Politicians , Democracy , Politics , President Obama , Imran Khan , United States , Pakistan , Washington , Syria , TV , PTI