By Javed Hassan
Elections held as per schedule in Pakistan on February 8. Free and fair elections should serve as beacons of hope for political stability, paving the way for improving the investment climate and sparking economic revival. The transformative potential of democratic governance is immense. Conversely, flawed elections fundamentally undermine democratic governance and prospects of economic prosperity. The repercussions of electoral malpractice reverberate across society, weakening electoral institutions and impeding public participation, bringing the nation closer to a precipice with limited prospects of an economic turnaround.
In “Political Order and Political Decay,” Francis Fukuyama explores two forms of political decay: the decay of institutions and the decay of political accountability. The former refers to institutions’ inability to adapt to changing circumstances, while the latter concerns the erosion of mechanisms that hold leaders accountable to the broader populace. Electoral malpractice exacerbates both forms of political decay. When the governing elite manipulates electoral processes to maintain their grip on power, they undermine the legitimacy of democratic institutions. Fukuyama argues that these elites often form what he terms “patrimonial states,” where power is concentrated in the hands of a few ruling families or networks. In such systems, electoral malpractice serves as a tool for perpetuating the status quo, entrenching vested interests, and obstructing meaningful institutional reform.
Flawed elections may succeed in creating a veneer of democracy that facilitates obtaining loans from international financial institutions, but they are unlikely to engender either public or investor confidence. The legitimacy of governing institutions is likely to be undermined, further eroding public trust in the system. They are also unlikely to quell dissent. With the safety valves that provide peaceful mechanisms for political expression and change removed, societal grievances are exacerbated, fostering a breeding ground for political unrest and conflict.
As Professor Samuel Huntington posits in “The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century,” flawed elections often serve as a flashpoint for civil strife, fragmenting societies along ethnic, religious, or ideological lines. The ensuing political instability breeds economic stagnation as investors shy away from uncertainty, potentially leading to capital flight and stalled infrastructure projects, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and underdevelopment.
Case studies from around the globe abound. In Egypt, the Abdel Fattah El-Sisi regime has maintained power through what is widely perceived to be an engineered electoral process. Despite superficially appearing to have brought about political stability after the Arab Spring, with tens of billions of dollars injected into the economy by friendly countries and multilateral financial institutions, Egypt remains mired in economic crises, low investment in public goods, and political repression. Venezuela provides another poignant illustration of this phenomenon, with its economy plummeting into chaos, exacerbated by rigged elections and authoritarian rule. The erosion of democratic norms has precipitated hyperinflation, scarcity of essential goods, and mass emigration, plunging millions into poverty. Post-election violence in Kenya in 2007, triggered by allegations of electoral fraud, resulted in hundreds of deaths and widespread chaos.
In contrast, free and fair elections, characterized by transparency and the rule of law, bolster the legitimacy of governing institutions, fostering public trust and confidence in the democratic process. While the so-called tiger economies are often cited as examples of the success of authoritarian rule, in reality, the economies of countries as diverse as South Korea, Indonesia, and Taiwan only fully blossomed after transitioning to democracy following the economic implosion of the East Asian crisis in 1997-98. That event possibly buried the myth of autocratic competence.
The crisis marked an inflection point for these countries, where it was understood that earlier models of ‘paternalistic democracy,’ as seen in the case of South Korea, or outright dictatorship in Indonesia, were all characterized by a lack of contestation to powerful interests that contributed considerably to the economic collapse. Thereafter, the countries saw a rapid transition to participatory democracy, resulting in political stability that increased investor confidence and attracted foreign investment; and significant investments in education and health care that increased productivity and innovation. Democratization became institutionally embedded through concerted action to strengthen electoral institutions, requiring the institutionalization of robust and independent electoral commissions, assertive judiciaries to ensure fairness, and transparent electoral processes that have served as safeguards against malfeasance. Ensuring transparency, accountability, and inclusivity would harness the liberating force of elections, laying the foundations for a more stable and prosperous future.
In Pakistan, institutional arrangements are lacking, and the next government is likely to be formed on the back of elections that do not meet the criteria of being free and fair. The perceived lack of public support for the selected winning parties could engender policy paralysis. A government whose mandate is questionable and with limited political capital is likely to prioritize self-preservation and managing public sentiments over meaningful reform. It is therefore doubtful that the flawed elections will result either in political stability or economic recovery.
(Javed Hassan has worked in senior executive positions both in the profit and non-profit sector in Pakistan and internationally. He’s an investment banker by training.)