The narrative in the public and political sphere points to corruption as the single most important barrier to governance and economic functioning in Pakistan. This narrative has not been born. This has been true in the field of government for decades now.
Many previous elections saw campaigns by major political parties accusing rivals of corruption and therefore did not deserve popular votes. Because of this centrality that leads to corruption and indecent behavior, the drive for accountability is felt at all levels of society. Recognizing this impulse, nearly every government in Pakistan has pledged to hold the corruptors accountable. And in fact, there have been several actions taken under the pretext of accountability. Unfortunately, none of them are spiritually correct.
In academia, not much has been written about the evolution of the accountability system in Pakistan. However, a brief overview of the accountability law was noted by the Supreme Court judge in the Khawaja Saad Rafique v NAB case. The School Committee Decree addresses the history of accountability law at length in paragraphs 64 and 65.
From the Public Representative Office (Disqualification) Act, 1949, to the 1999 National Accountability Ordinance, there are nearly a dozen laws (and amendments) on accountability. But nothing has effectively held anyone accountable. The ruling also illustrates that these laws are politically motivated and play a role in sacrificing opposition.
Interestingly, in a long history of government marked by changes between military dictatorships and civilian governments, these legislators were military dictators and “democratically elected” governments. So, there isn’t a single thing to blame for having done this in the past. Even those who claim to be champions of democracy today are those who have long been involved in this undemocratic affair. While Imran Khan and his PTI could argue that they do not set a precedent for a politically motivated accountability system, they are rapidly thriving in the business.
By separating all political discussion, in the current scenario, the problem is that the accountability process is not functioning effectively. Above all, the accountability institution has come under strong criticism from almost all levels of society except the government. It is important to understand that criticism never means that the accountability process must be abandoned, but requires reform for the process to be effective.
The main problem with the current accountability system is that it operates in a conventional fashion. The main laws governing the premise of the system have their roots in the 20th century, while the society in which it operates is the 21st. I have stated previously that the involvement of citizens and citizen-led civil society organizations is a modern trend in accountability that Pakistan can also adopt. This can make the accountability system effective and help the government shed light on the criticism it faces every day from various walks of life.
In short, reforms are needed in the entire accountability process to be effective. One way to do this is by adding a civil society aspect to the process, and by empowering and engaging citizen-led civil society organizations. A step in the right direction would make reforms in accountability legislation and create space for civil society to act for accountability. Another is that the right to information (Right to Information) law is made effective and works for civil society organizations to access accurate information in order to campaign for accountability. Similar systems in certain developing countries have worked well and are likely to succeed in Pakistan as well. Adding a civil society aspect to the accountability process is essential in the current paradigm of governance.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 14th, 2021.