Altaf: Getting out of the mess

Dr. Anjum Altaf is an economist and Dean of Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. The following are excerpts from an article Altaf recently published in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn.

THE big question Pakistanis must ask is how to get out of this disarray. By now, no one can deny that the country is in a huge mess, which is getting worse by the day. And it is getting worse because of the quality of its rulers. They are interested in nothing beyond their own interests; their only concern, while the country drowns and burns, is who will get to appoint the most important man who, they will then complain, does not allow them to do what needs to be done.

At this stage of terminal decline, there is no possibility of a normal recovery because of the state of the rot and the capability deficit to address it. Only radical solutions offer hope. Ideally, one would hope that the quarrelling rulers would realise the gravity of the catastrophe that threatens everyone and arrive at a consensual response, but that is extremely unlikely. In its absence, only popular demand can force their hand and save the country.

It is no longer possible to revert back to monarchy (though note how intelligently that has been employed in Malaysia) and dictatorship has time and again made things much worse. There is no alternative to popular rule, but we can certainly have a system where governance is truly by the people. There is a model for such an alternative called ‘sortition’, in which legislators are selected by lottery from the larger pool of adult citizens.

In ancient Athens, sortition was the method for appointing political officials and was deemed the principal characteristic of democracy by ensuring that all eligible citizens had an equal chance of holding public office. Unhealthy factionalism, the buying and selling of electables, and populist posturing is eliminated when assemblies are chosen by lottery. These representatives can then engage the experts they need for formulating policies.

This proposal is bound to be met with incredulity and scepticism. I can only point out that even today, in common-law systems, sortition is used to select prospective jurors who have a say over life-and-death decisions. Today, it is a life and death instance for Pakistan, and citizens need to take their governance in their own hands. There is no way they can do a worse job than the motley bunch of uncaring electables and strongmen to whom they have handed over their destiny.

Any extension of the status quo will reduce Pakistan to rubble. By the time the music stops, the lights will be out and there will be nothing to eat next year.

4 Responses

  1. Pakistan is an interesting and difficult case for sortitionists because of the constant political interference of the military. A practical proposal for sortitional democracy in Pakistan must answer the criticism that allotted civilian leaders would be even less effective in countering the military’s influence than elected ones.

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  2. > countering the military’s influence

    I am not a big fan of generals, but I am not sure that there a good reason to suppose a-priori that the influence of the military is more problematic than the influence of the electoral elite. In the West, at least, people tend to be more trustful of the military than of elected institutions.

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  3. I recommend you read ‘The Man on Horseback’ by Samuel Finer – he details the military’s particular incapacity for governance. But in any case, my point is that regardless of the demerits of Pakistan’s elected class, military domination of the state is a serious and difficult problem in itself.

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  4. I am not doubting that rule by a military elite is generally a problem. The question is whether it is inherently worse than rule by an electoral elite.

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