NationalVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 27

The challenges of accountability and good governance in Pakistan

Currently, Pakistan is facing one of the most severe political and economic crises in its history. The primary cause of this situation is the absence of good governance practices and a proper system of accountability. Political scientists generally agree that the most significant form of accountability in any system is free, fair, and transparent elections, provided the results are accepted and the victorious party, group, or individual is granted state power.

In the recent national elections held on February 8, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) won a landslide victory. However, through extreme violations of the Constitution, rules, procedures, and even moral standards, the party was denied power. More troubling is the fact that the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) were forced to form a coalition government. Despite their poor performance while jointly ruling the country from April 2022 to August 2023, they have joined forces to form the government once again. As a result, the very tool of accountability available directly to the people, elections, has been rendered ineffective.

There are strong demands for good governance and accountability from civil society and even from non-executive state institutions. While some accountability measures are being implemented by existing bodies, the critical question remains: Is good governance and accountability possible within the current political system of the country? If history is any guide, we must conclude that accountability and good governance are not achievable within the existing political framework.

Since the early 1990s, numerous initiatives and drives for accountability have been undertaken in Pakistan, yet none have been successful. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which have been in power from 1988 to the present—with a significant interregnum under General Pervez Musharraf (1999-2008)—have filed countless corruption and abuse of authority cases against each other, but these efforts have yielded no significant results. Both parties also collaborated to create cases against the PTI, which was in power for just three years from August 2018 to April 2022. Despite widespread allegations and open secrets of corruption, the key figures of the PML-N and PTI have not been convicted of any substantial corruption.

Even General Pervez Musharraf, during his tenure, failed to hold political leaders accountable for corruption since 1988, the beginning of the so-called democratic era. Lacking constitutional and political legitimacy, Musharraf had to rely on the same politicians to maintain his power. Consequently, he formed his own party, the PML-Quaid, by co-opting disgruntled leaders from the PML-N, many of whom were facing accountability cases. He also created rifts within the PPP, forming a faction called PPP-Patriots through coercion. Ironically, PPP-Patriots was led by politicians on the verge of being convicted by the country’s accountability authorities. Thus, Musharraf’s much-touted accountability efforts were primarily aimed at securing his own power rather than bringing the corrupt to justice, undermining the national interest.

In response, the PPP and PML-N, along with other major electoral forces in the country, which had held power at the federal or provincial levels, perceived they were being marginalized. They signed the Charter of Democracy (CoD). The CoD had little to do with promoting democracy in the country but was heavily focused on the personal and party interests of the signatories. Its primary goal was to prevent the PPP and PML-N from accusing each other and filing corruption and abuse of authority cases against one another. Today, both parties are in government for the third time, which should come as no surprise.

Then, all the parties and General Musharraf came together to sign the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO). The primary purpose of the NRO, despite its claims, was to grant immunity to parties and leaders who had been in power and were extensively accused of misuse of power and corruption. It also provided legal cover for many of General Musharraf’s unconstitutional actions.

The rise of the judicial movement, led by the then-deposed and now-retired Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry against General Musharraf’s military regime, with its rallying cry for upholding constitutional order, raised public hopes. People believed that once the deposed judges were reinstated, they would ensure ruthless accountability and good governance. Although Chaudhry’s judiciary did take up significant corruption cases, such as the Air Marshal (R) Asghar Khan case involving the formation of the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) in the late 1990s with state funds by the then ISI command, no one has been convicted for corruption and abuse of power.

Given the existing parliamentary political system in Pakistan and the cultural and societal realities, meaningful accountability and good governance are not possible. The current system reinforces the caste-biradri structure, which necessitates financial and administrative self-strengthening and favors to close associates. Politicians need money to establish themselves in their constituencies, and any initial investment in their political careers is seen as a business investment expected to yield significant returns. Consequently, when politicians gain high public office, they often engage in embezzlement and abuse of authority to recoup their investment. The parliamentary system pressures politicians to favor their followers, cronies, and local people, leading to financial corruption and abuse of power.

Good governance encompasses political, administrative, and economic governance and is characterized by transparency, accountability, participation, and rule of law. However, the features and dynamics of Pakistan’s parliamentary system, rooted in caste-biradri and ethno-linguistic foundations, make good governance unattainable. Since good governance inherently includes accountability, both are intertwined.

Interestingly, no leading members of Pakistan’s political elite have questioned the foundations of the existing parliamentary system because they have all benefited from it through illegal and immoral means, such as abuse of authority and financial corruption. These politicians have provided benefits to a large number of their voters, who, in turn, have continued to support them to maintain their petty personal advantages. Consequently, fundamental political and social change cannot be achieved through the current electoral system, which is supposed to be the largest form of direct accountability.