The ‘Morality’ Problem

Muhammad Amir Rana

‘MORALITY’ is a tool often used by undemocratic forces to snub democratic values and promote self-serving alternatives. Particular victims of this lethal weapon are democracies in transition which must make their way largely without challenging the so-called moral standards crafted by anti-democratic forces.

As the political temperature increases in Pakistan, the issue of morality is once again taking centre stage. The Panama Papers have given another direction to the debate where opposition parties are trying to maximise their political gains through challenging the moral credentials of the rulers.

Political oppositions everywhere in the world act like this with a view to upholding transparency and accountability in governance processes; they also try to capitalise on the opportunities presented by moral debates to form a government.

But countries like Pakistan, where democracy is still fragile, remain under constant threat and pressure from the security establishment. The literature of political science is replete with examples where undemocratic forces employ ‘moral’ reasoning to justify interventions. Basically, they challenge parliament and its procedures that are supposed to evolve a code of ethics for the functioning of state and society. Parliament can be undermined when ‘moral’ attitudes not in sync with democratic norms are adopted.

Morality is a multi-edged sword that does not require much skill to wield effectively. It can be used to hurt or challenge the interests of a particular group — there are so many adversarial combinations ie morality vs legality, morality vs rights, morality vs governance, morality vs accountability, morality vs values etc. It all depends on what one’s goals are, what one expects to achieve by wielding this sword.

The establishment knows that if space is provided, the political leadership will establish its credentials.

The dynamics are not difficult to understand as authority is what defines moral values. Authority itself is subjective and varies from case to case and class to class. Power elites, including the security establishment, religious, social and business elites, act as authorities in their own spheres and they have a variety of moral standards amongst them. Their domains are defined and in most cases these interest groups do not challenge each other’s authority unless their interests clash.

The clergy in Pakistan has virtually unchallenged authority in the religious, ideological and social discourse. Their moral standards are very rigid. The common man may not completely rely on their vision but still largely believes in their insights into religious issues. In functional democracies, the judiciary is the institution which defines the legal and constitutional boundaries without interfering in the domain of morality. In Pakistan, the judiciary has a mixed record and has usually avoided challenging the authority of those with power. The media in Pakistan is also a participant; a major segment of it promotes the ‘moral’ standards of the most powerful in the country.

The civil bureaucracy has assumed a silent role in power equations. It manoeuvres situations according to its institutional or elitist interests. It usually remains successful both in democracies and dictatorships.

Pakistani society has its own parallel moral standards based on traditions and cultures. Different segments of society continue to follow regressive ‘norms’ such as ‘honour killings’, swara, vani etc — their own definition of ‘moral’. The state does not challenge the traditional jirga or panchayat systems, where people continue with their own ideas of justice, because that does not hurt the interests of the power elites.

True, politicians are expected to be moral creatures. But in Pakistan, their image has been distorted in a way that their ‘morality’ appears tainted. This is a difficult situation for them because they have to fight not only to keep the political process intact but also to maintain their moral credentials, especially when it is easy for everyone to degrade them and tag them as corrupt, incompetent, and even label them traitors.

Those who define patriotism and morality hold the real power, and those among politicians, media, and power elites who want to share these powers act as destabilising agents. Some also try to project themselves as moral. Imran Khan is a perfect example of the stereotypical ‘clean’ man. But when the democratic process gets weakened, personalities take over the political process. Personalities survive on the illusion of charisma, where process becomes irrelevant and political parties are transformed into cults.

There is also an argument that the establishment keeps checks on the democratic process in good faith. This argument is based on the notion that the political leadership lacks the qualities required to manage the state of affairs. But the establishment does not give political leadership space to prove this notion wrong. They know that if this space is provided, the political leadership will establish its ‘moral’ credentials.

Politics is all about restructuring disciplines according to human nature, and societal values — both religious and cultural. Democracy’s natural path leads it to procedures and a code of ethics. The latter regulates the state’s power structures. Parliament is the institution which regulates this process. Political forces can construct a code of ethics in or out of parliament. In both cases, they need the people’s endorsement.

The PPP and PML-N attempted this and agreed on a political code of ethics when they signed the Charter of Democracy in 2006. However, both failed to engage other political parties in the CoD; in fact, they themselves have not adhered to the spirit of the charter.

Despite their failure to do so, there is still a sense that the common political interest must be secured. But this sense is not strong enough to provide a shield against interventions. The biggest challenge is that politicians are not the only political actors in Pakistan

Political instability is neither in the interest of the country, the establishment or the opposition parties, nor is it in the interest of the country’s in-transition democracy and economy.

The writer is a security analyst and Director Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) is an independent, not-for-profit non governmental research and advocacy think-tank.

About Arif Qureshi

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