Interest groups and Pakistani democracy

ByM Ali Siddiqi

writer who contributes to leading periodicals


June 4, 2022

Interest groups and Pakistani democracy

M Ali Siddiqi points out an essential attribute of governance

Interest groups and Pakistani democracy are a natural component of any social system and their presence has remained constant through any kind and form of governance that was and is practised in the world. As is quite obvious from the term, interest groups represent the strand of opinion aligned to the interest they pursue and the result they want to accomplish. Throughout history interest groups have been seen instrumental in policy making and implementation and they are supposed to be aware of the consequences of their intentions. In the current prevalence of democracy as the dominant mode of governance it is required to be assessed whether interest groups have the ability to improve the quality of democ¬racy and enhance the development of citizens’ representation and good government. The underlying assumption in this respect is that groups promote democracy if they help citizens win better opportunities for representation and con¬tribute to good government if they give citizens the possibility of preventing or punishing abuses of power by making governments accountable for their actions toward the political community.

It is widely accepted that interest groups offer significant opportuni¬ties for communicating with governments that, in turn, enable the citizenry to exert required influence on the decisions taken in respect of public arena. They are the best possible method of ensuring broader consensus within the social circle that has larger bearing on the national fabric. It is also noted that the variety, number and presence of interest found interacting with official process brings about the much needed vitality and capacity for renewal of democratic governance. Interest groups also help produce informed citizenry fully aware of the limitations of the social matrix and also motivates the citizens to par¬ticipate in elections and engage with issues of public interest. Interest groups guarantee widest possible expression of diverse views that are used by governance structure to increase its levels of effectivity.

The concerns so exhibited allow all segments of society, particularly minorities, to emphasise their particular needs and to ensure that they are accordingly met and fulfilled. In addition interest groups have more than a fair chance to collaborate with both public and private sectors in making people aware of their rights and obligations and instruct that by following them the citizenry can achieve a higher degree of mutual satisfaction. Such opportunity is usually there to be capitalised upon provided the interest groups pay due attention otherwise socio-political frustration keeps on increasing as is happening currently in Pakistan. It is certainly the lack of empathy exhibited by the crucial interest groups that has exacerbated the socio-political polarisation badly creating fissures in the country with the result that the temperature is not coming down.

There is hardly denying the efficacy of interest group representation in democracies that favours political equal¬ity in case of promoting wider representation as it becomes the method through which the minority but effective group in national making is prevented from taking advantage of the power it commands as was recently witnessed by the shenanigans of powerful cartels in Pakistan exploiting the provision of goods to people by increasing the margin of their profits. Such groups proved to be extremely influential though they constituted a minority in the governance circles and manipulated all levers of the governance system to obtain their goals. Very unfortunately such groups were able to get by with their goals as the other groups collaborated with them and fleeced the common people with impunity.

Currently the Pakistani interest groups have been successful to prevent governments equipped with partial infor¬mation about citizens’ preferences from favouring the expectations of a minority. It is therefore not surprising to witness that their existence and activities have managed to create a permanent imbalance in representa¬tion because business groups and professional associations find it easier to organise themselves than cause groups that Pakistan lacks. Such interest groups are found to act more rapidly when they feel threatened and they represent people with a high social status, income and education. They are also dominant in areas of policy that have particular strategic significance for the whole political community. These characteristics are more than common in interest groups of Pakistan that not only get their own way but have also developed the capacity to manipulate all other governance echelons.

In Pakistani context it is frequently observed that large economic groups occupy a preponderant position within the national institutions, even though their numbers keeps on increasing with the passage of time. Most often it is observed that neo-corporatist experiments that benefited business groups in the country to the detriment of marginalised and less organised social categories that matter little in the annals of policy making. These groups have succeeded in creating permanent imbalances that are often seen interacting in policy circles that are frequently dominated by economic interest groups and are inaccessible to citizens. In this scenario what is deducted here is that even the cause interest groups have a limited ability to favour balanced representa¬tion in the decision-making process. It should be taken into account that the degree of representational imbalance is more significant in a certain period in a specific area of policy and less so in the same area at a later time though the influential levels remain constant in some form or the other.
Pakistani interest groups aim at mobilising few stakeholders who get involved in actual decision making while others are kept busy in generating disputes in which hundreds of interest groups take part rendering the entire exercise futile. The fact also brought to fore that the variations in the number of interest groups participating in the decision-making process suggest that the imbalance is probably less uniform and rigid than it has frequently been made out to be and may be susceptible to attenuation. This is a pretty serious situation indicating an institutional weakness that is a sure recipe for impending difficulties and the prevailing situation in the country provided an ample testimony to it.

Side by side it is, however, noticed that the increase in the number of interest groups also contributed to opening up policy communi¬ties thereby encouraging the widest possible participation in the decision making process. It must however be kept in view that the crowding of the policy-making scene has also made the outcome of decisions more uncertain for the national cause. The omnipresence of interest groups in the various decision-making arenas is not necessarily proof of their strength but it may be the result of a defensive reaction to the wider range of public regulative interventions regarding issues directly affecting their interests. This process is also marred by the frequent and wide splits caused by internal divisions within these groups that prove more problematic for forming governance as is currently witnessed in Pakistan where the ruling coalition is facing tremendous pressures in keeping itself united.

While there are many negative aspects of interest groups in Pakistan yet there is hardly any alternative to ensure consisted accountability of state institutions. Interest groups are the most potent forum to monitor the actions of decision makers in the interval between elections that provide the governance actors considerable time to exercise power and, oftentimes, without explaining the motive of their actions. These groups obviously have an interest in preventing abuse of power of the ruling dispensations and taking decisions detrimental to overall public welfare. TW


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