America in turmoil

THE neoliberal economic and social ideas that arguably made America “the greatest nation on earth” are now facing resistance. Big corporations are under pressure as proponents of social and climate justice are demanding a bigger share of the economic pie. At the same time, a nearly 50-year-old “reproductive right”, granted in ‘Roe vs Wade’, has been overturned by the US Supreme Court, indicating ferocious political battles in the future. Not surprisingly, a number of new books have been published in the US that predict a coming civil war.

Barbara Walter’s How Civil Wars Start, perhaps the more famous work on the subject, makes an alarmingly convincing case about the coming civil war in the US. She highlights three main drivers. The first one focuses on when countries transition towards or away from democracy. Transitionary periods, she argues, increase the probability of a civil war even more than autocratic periods. The second driver “factionalism” is defined as when a political party becomes associated with a particular ethnicity or religion instead of ideology. This is when different “ethnic entrepreneurs” capitalise on mutual distrust, something we have seen in the shape of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia. Finally, civil wars are more probable in those countries where the dominant group suffers a loss of status, which makes the dominant group more likely to engage in conflict.

The US, argues Walter, exhibits all three drivers. The US hovered between democracy and autocracy under the Trump administration, according to data from Polity Score. There is also a palpable drift towards factionalism in the Republican Party, especially as the party is now increasingly being taken over by far-right and white supremacist groups. In this year alone, the Republican Party will field 100 far-right candidates, according to the Anti-Defamation League, a non-profit that monitors hate groups. And, in a major way, the increasing political presence of far-right groups is but a result of the general feeling of status reversal among vast swathes of White America. These ominous indications, the presence of 400 million privately owned guns and the general political and social inability to control rampant gun violence does not bode well when it comes to avoiding the next civil war.

Outside of the US, Walter’s theory certainly seems to have strong explanatory power in describing the events of 1971. As this country transitioned towards democracy after the first elections held under universal adult franchise, a political party increasingly took on an ethnic position, while another ethnic group violently resisted potential status reversal. But, that was ancient history. With inflation at 21.3 per cent, rolling blackouts and constant political seesaw in Punjab, it appears that Pakistan is stuck in economic and political turbulence for the time being. Against this dark backdrop, does Walter’s theory tell us something about where Pakistan is heading?

Civil wars are more probable in those countries where the dominant group suffers a loss of status.

There are ample indications that factionalism is on the rise in Pakistan. Gone are the days when various political parties held sway in multiple provinces. In a recent paper, Amory Gethin, Sultan Mehmood and Thomas Piketty show how some national political parties have now been reduced to a single province. Additionally, some political parties are actively focusing on particular ethnic groups. It is thus no wonder that political parties’ official songs are now being recorded in either Punjabi or Pashto. It is likely that political parties will start displaying brighter ethnic hues in the future, especially closer to the elections.

However, unlike 1971, the majority ethnic group certainly does not seem to be in much danger of status reversal and thus it is unlikely to become part of any violent conflict. Moreover, despite undergoing a very serious crisis, Pakistan’s democracy is still intact, for now, and there is a low probability of movement towards full-blown autocracy since the present government is a rainbow coalition — a coalition made up of different ethnic, political and religious groups. In other words, two of the drivers that cause civil wars are still dormant in Pakistan.

Still, the highest inflation in 13 years — and rising — could change this calculus very quickly, especially as rolling blackouts become all too frequent. Ensuing demands for more economic and political rights could definitely increase system volatility. Where policymakers must remain vigilant on inflation and find ways of shielding the most vulnerable, some institutional changes would go a long way in preventing future civil strife.

Recent events from the national and the provincial legislatures have demonstrated that the speaker of the house has a key position within parliamentary democracy. If the speaker turns partisan then the workings of the entire democratic system can come to a halt. For this reason, legislators must contemplate how future speakers may be elected through consultation between the government and the opposition, just like choosing caretaker prime ministers after the 18th Amendment.

Pakistan needs to go further than these institutional adjustments in order to create bulwarks against violent civil strife. Invariably, redistribution of economic rights and capabilities will be required. But, even before that, the present political system needs to be reimagined and reconstructed as a more equitable and inclusive system. Perhaps, one way to achieve more equity and inclusiveness is to enshrine the principles of consociational democracy in the Constitution, meaning developing power-sharing formulae for all important executive, judicial and political offices in Pakistan. What this means is that in order to rule out the possibility of future civil strife, a new ‘national commission for political inclusiveness’ should be notified in order for important federal offices to be shared among different provinces through regular rotation.

Where some of the main drivers behind civil wars are presently dormant in Pakistan, ongoing economic and political turbulence can change things very quickly. But, before that happens, Pakistani policymakers would be well advised to carry out changes in the political architecture by way of institutional adjustments as well as through the wholescale redesign of political institutions.

The writer completed his doctorate in economics on a Fulbright scholarship.

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