Thursday, July 27, 2017

Elections or Democracy

Arrows Impossibility Theorem is a very interesting mathematical result that has serious implications for preference aggregation the act of capturing the choices of the members of a group. To understand the implication of this theorem, we first need to realise that there is more than one way to hold an election. This should be evident from the diversity in electoral systems in different institutions around the world.
The most common system that we in Pakistan are familiar with is the one where each voter simply votes for their most preferred choice and the person who gets the most votes wins. But this is not the only way to conduct an election. Other procedures may include mechanisms wherein everyone ranks their preferences and assigns them a score the winner then could possibly be the person with highest score. There are many possible variants on this procedure. (This procedure is obviously attractive to third parties trying to break into a two-party system).
There could also be procedures wherein voters give their least preferred options and thus move towards an outcome based on the elimination of everyones least favoured outcome.
The interesting implication of the existence of multiple aggregation mechanisms is that a group of people could end up with completely different outcomes based solely on which election mechanism is used.
So, which one is the best? Thats where the aforementioned Impossibility Theorem steps in to deliver some bad news there is none. Essentially, it states that if we want our voting outcome to have certain basic, and fairly reasonably, characteristics, there is no voting system that can deliver it to us. Whatever your voting system, there will be some set of preferences that it will fail to capture.
Thus far, we have not spoken about the impact of the structure of a government on voting outcomes but it should be apparent that it is there. For example, due to the Electoral College in the US, Donald Trump managed to win the election even though he got fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. Similarly, in the recent elections in the UK due to the parliamentary structure, the difference in vote share between the Conservatives and Labour was a little over 2 percent, while the difference in seats was over 8 percent.
Furthermore, we have so far been assuming that voters vote their conscience and do not vote tactically. This is not always true. It is possible for voters to vote against their preferences due to a multitude of reasons most obvious, perhaps, being the unlikelihood of their preferred candidates success.
Another thing we have not accounted for is asymmetric information and uncertainty, wherein voters dont know everything there is to know about the candidates and even candidates are uncertain about the true state of world affairs.
Given all of the above facts, one thing is clear the act of using elections as a procedure for determining answers to important questions is far from flawless. In fact, for a long time, many people in Pakistan have been using arguments such as asymmetric information (in the shape of illiteracy of voters) as an argument against democracy itself.
So, what is the big deal about democracy? Why has democracy become a scale along which countries are measured? Furthermore, why is it that First World countries consider it as one of their most prized values with many arguing the existence of a link between economic growth and prosperity, and democracy?
The answer lies in the fact that there is much more to democracy than the ritual election of office holders. The fundamental difference between a democracy and an autocracy or an oligarchy is supposed to be the existence of institutions and laws guided by principles rather than the whims and influence of an individual or special interest group. Ideally, a democratic society is one which aims to enfranchise the public and provide as level a playing field as possible. This essentially entails the existence of a functioning system of law and order through effective policing and courts. It also means providing access to education and other areas of development so as not to be exclusionary.
Since the main purpose of democracy is to act as a bulwark against the establishment of a ruling elite that exploits its position for personal gain at the cost of society, the establishment of a process of accountability of office holders is imperative.
And this is where we land ourselves in trouble with the democratic system in Pakistan. The basic questions that arise in our democratic setup go along the lines of whether institutions start to function more rigidly on rules and principles so as to serve the people under our democratic governments or whether they remain/become tools to be exploited by a select few. If it is the latter, then the democratic setup has little purpose.
Moving to our most recent headline grabber. It appears that the Prime Minister is teetering on the verge of disqualification because of financial corruption. Many educated and principled people in the country see the case as an assault on the democratic process. One needs to ask what exactly the democratic process entails. Is it simply monarchy by election, or is there more to it?
A question one might ask is whether, under the democratic process, the state institutions should have carried out investigations into the misuse of public funds as soon as the Panama Papers story broke? One might also ask if certain groups or individuals in the democratic government have taken hold of state institutions and are exploiting them for the benefit of vested interests. One might even ask whether the democratic government is intentionally lying to the public on certain issues, again for the betterment of a particular clique.
Even if we are to accept the theory that there is indeed some grand conspiracy behind the Panama Papers case where autocratic forces are targeting a democratically elected Nawaz Sharif, we need to ask whether the confrontation is between a democratic force and autocratic one, or whether it is simply between two opposing autocratic forces.
Thus, the arguments that Nawaz Sharif should be allowed to continue to serve as Prime Minister despite his alleged guilt, or that the process of investigation into accusations against the Prime Minister should not be carried out so as to protect democracy require that we protect democracy essentially by gutting it. People making these arguments need to think about whether they are demanding the protection of democracy, or simply the ritual of election-holding because there is a significant difference. Do they want democracy or do they simply have a preference among the autocrats?
At the very least, the situation is troubling. Does one benefit democracy by demolishing notions of accountability?
As a side note, let me also address a tangentially related argument that always creeps up in these discussions. On why it is that politicians are the targets of such accountability drives and not the other cliques in the country that too have their share of misdeeds. The answer is simply that in a democratic setup, that is where the buck stops. If elected officials are genuinely concerned about the survival of democracy in the country, they need to stop playing power politics and develop non-partisan, independent institutions that can act against powerful groups in the country. To do this, they need to ensure that there are no skeletons in their closets that may come tumbling out the minute these independent institutions take an interest in their affairs.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017


I have lost count of how many times in the last three years I have found myself banging my head against the wall, tearing my hair out, or just screaming into the heavens, Why?! after Imran Khan has gone and done something spectacularly stupid. Today was, of course, another such day. It came a day after the previous such instance!
Before I continue, let me make a disclosure. I voted for the PTI in last election, and I will vote for them again. Thats not what this post is about. If you must know, I would just rather take an honest, arrogant egomaniac who prioritises education, health, law and order, and the environment over any humble, soft spoken, crooks whose sole purpose in politics is self-enrichment (not naming any names!). But thats a personal preference.
And that is why Imran Khan is so infuriating!
Imran Khans outrageous statements about the foreign players that played the PSL final are just the most recent in a strategy that is consistently failing him. And yet, he persists with it. Please hold on as I try to fit in any many cricketing analogies as I can manage in what follows.  
Turn back the clock to the election 2013. The PTI was a considerably smaller party consisting of first-time voters and mummy-daddies taking on the behemoth that is the PMLN - a party that has been around power in some form or the other for over thirty years. As one might expect in such a mismatch, the PTIs strategy was to go all-out. Like any good underdog story, the Captain told his team to give it everything they had. They obliged. And like the better underdog stories (Rocky I, for example), they still lost, but after having given the PMLN a run for their money.
But the Imran Khan you saw during the election was not the Imran of old. Quite clearly, someone had told him that he was not street enough for politics; his Aitchison/Oxford ways were not going to get him votes. He needed to speak the language of the street. He needed to berate his opponents, humiliate them, call them out. This would establish him as a tough man who could take on the status quo and get things done that the gentleman Imran seemed incapable of. So Imran sledged and taunted, and put up a spectacular show only to be defeated on the fifth day (1).
While electoral victory eluded him, Imran had achieved something quite spectacular. He had managed to get the burger crowd onto the streets. He had gotten people flying in to take ownership of the country. A group that had previously been drawing-room critics, outsiders to the system, were on the streets taking on the muscle of the established parties.
And thats when things went completely wrong. People such as myself had hoped he would put this newfound force to developing a long-term plan for the next election. Essentially, canvass for him and keep the pressure on the PMLN to ensure his government got everything they needed in KPK.
Instead of appreciating the potency and fragility of his latest weapon, Imran decided to overuse it. He wasnt going to be using his pace attack in short bursts. No, his Shoaib Akhtar was going to open the bowling and keep bowling until the opposition was either bowled out or knocked out (2). As PMLN managed to hold out one barrage after another, they started getting quite good at handling his attack. The constant aggression, bearing no fruit, instead of threatening the government, started to expose his weaknesses. The strategy was clearly not working. In fact, due to the constant frontal attacks on the same issue, Imrans team seemed to be dropping chances all over the place, because they simply were not looking for them. Pretty soon he had all but depleted his reserves.
Unfortunately, there is a very predictable pattern to Imrans gameplay. He has two modes single-minded aggression and uber-single-minded aggression. When the first fails, it never occurs to him to back down and wait for the next opportunity to strike again. Instead, he doubles down. Sometimes it works, mostly it doesnt!  Weve seen it time and time again: faced with a crisis Imran Khan raises the stakes. This what we saw today. He said dont do the PSL in Lahore it wont be successful, it happened and was fairly successful, he buckled down and insisted it wasnt!
The perpetual war policy is at work where he feels he must harass the PMLN and its support structure at every juncture, no quarter must be given. The foreign cricketers were just collateral damage. Except this time, his judgement was completely off. Cricket is a touchy topic! 
To be fair, his constant attack approach is not completely insane. In fact, I came across quite a few people who believed it was essential for Imran to bring the Sharifs down a peg or two to puncture the halo of statesmanship that the PMLN was trying to create around them.
I also suspect Imran believes in one thing above all else (possibly rightly so) people support a winner! If he manages to knock out the government, all the naysayers will be silenced and all sins will be forgiven.
Unfortunately, there are two downsides to this approach. Firstly, with each attack, his chances of success are reduced, establishing the PMLN as the winner! Secondly, his is the smaller party. The only way his party can come back is by converting supporters from PMLN. His constant hostility makes this very difficult.
As a supporter of the PTI, I feel it is in desperate need of deep introspection. My qualms with Imran Khan are not based on morality. God knows, his many transgressions are nowhere near the sins of his opponents. The government in KPK seems to be making some progress as well and at the very least has its priorities in the right order. I even agree with Imran Khan that electoral reform and the Panama papers scandal are serious issues that should not be brushed under the carpet. But there are serious issues of election strategy that need to be addressed. I even agree that the institutions in the country are probably heavily stacked against the PTI simply because the PMLN has been around for so long. But the man who did this

was not very reliant on the generosity of umpires (3). He trusted his team to outperform the opposition under adverse circumstances. He needs performances like this (4)

To go a step further, I dont even mind the fact that he has compromised on so many principles and inducted a host of unsavoury characters into the party. Politics in Pakistan requires such moves.
But the big question is, are these moves going to pay off? Will they result in PTI gaining more popularity and votes than the other parties? Could there possibly not be more electorally beneficial actions that could be taken? Could the selling out actually be backfiring?
Imran Khan and PTI should use this fiasco as a wake-up call to check whether they consider themselves to be on the path to a thumping victory in 2018, or whether theyre just hoping the administration will disqualify the opposition on match-fixing allegations (5). It really will not be good enough if 5 years on, the PTI is still playing the role of boisterous rag-tag outsiders they were at the last election. In 2018, they will need to be a well-oiled machine; a serious party. The PMLN have had their strategy and systems in place for a long time now. The PTI needs to figure out how to counter them a task they have been largely struggling with so far.