Pakistan is in political free fall – The Express Tribune

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Last fall who would have thought Shehbaz Sharif would soon be the prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan would be back on the streets with his anti-government rhetoric, Asif Ali Zardari would be eyeing the presidency again and Nawaz Sharif would be planning his return to Pakistan. Some would say such is the unpredictable nature of Pakistani politics – but that is a gross oversimplification.
Attributing what has transpired over the last few weeks to the fickle nature of Pakistani politics would risk overlooking several key developments that merit a detailed examination. Ever since 2018, the country’s erstwhile opposition parties had been trying to overthrow the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government. To that end, they organised long marches, protest rallies, even cobbled together a formal coalition of all opposition parties – the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM). Maulana Fazalur Rahman marched on the capital, PDM announced its elaborate schedule for countrywide anti-government rallies, and the senate chairman found himself scrambling for support to dodge a no-trust move.
But somehow, on each occasion, PTI and its allies prevailed and the opposition was left bruised. Even through the most testing of times during the first three years; in the midst of a raging pandemic, with the economy struggling to find its feet, public resentment against unpopular economic decisions, and serious failures in governance, the government never looked as weak as it did in the last two months.
The key reason for the repeated failure of the erstwhile opposition to pose a meaningful challenge was the lack of unity, driven by the lack of trust that permeated their ranks. The major component parties of the alliance had a long and bitter history. Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) had entered into many coalitions over the last two decades, only for the alliances to end on bitter terms. Alliance for Restoration of Democracy (ARD) about two decades ago lost its steam when Nawaz signed a deal with Pervez Musharraf and abandoned the rest of the opposition parties.
A few years later, Nawaz accused the late Benazir Bhutto of violating the Charter of Democracy (CoD) when she entered into an American-brokered agreement (as claimed by Condoleezza Rice in her book No Higher Honour) with Musharraf and betrayed the opposition. Nawaz and his party subsequently vilified the PPP through Memogate, got Prime Minster Yousuf Raza Gilani disqualified through the courts and then publicly promised, in rather graphic terms, to force Zardari to return the looted public wealth.
It was this baggage that crippled the fractured coalition and resulted in PPP exiting the PDM. This time, the most important development that happened behind closed doors was PPP and PML-N trusting each other to not sell the movement for individual gains. It is nothing short of a miracle that the two parties which quarreled over senate chairmanship only a year ago, amicably arrived at a consensus amongst themselves and with a dozen other parties, for the positions of prime minister, chief ministers, governors, numerous federal and provincial ministers, as well as for speaker and deputy speaker of the national assembly.
A trust deficit of this magnitude is not bridged without the help of influential guarantors. Historically, such miracles have happened only when brokered by state institutions or by powerful friendly countries – Musharraf allowing Nawaz to retreat to Jeddah, and subsequently allowing Benazir Bhutto to return to Pakistan following the National Reconciliation Order.
Nonetheless, the manner in which Imran was ousted has given his fading popularity a significant boost. Contrary to all expectations, his below par governance and the country’s dismal economic situation have been overshadowed by his elaborate narrative of an international conspiracy. This narrative draws its credibility from the fact that what happened over the last few weeks was not only unprecedented but also saw several key political players – MQM, BAP, part of PMLQ, as well as close to two dozen MNAs belonging to PTI – jump across the aisle in no time, even where it didn’t make any political sense for some of them to do so. There are too many inexplicables that have occurred too close to each other, and that has helped Imran push his narrative of being the victim of a conspiracy.
Regardless of whether there actually was a conspiracy or not, or who orchestrated the events of the last few weeks, the popular perception is that Imran was ousted in an ‘unfair manner’. This perception on the street is reflected both in the enormous PTI rallies, and in the popular narrative gaining traction on social media where even state institutions are not exempt from brazen criticism. What this has led to is an extraordinary degree of polarisation in an already divided society. The volatility of this situation is very palpable; the country is one skirmish away from widespread unrest and the house of cards will come crashing down.
There is obviously no hope for meaningful economic growth as a nervous uncertainty looms large over the country’s political landscape. The new government would do well to retain any existing foreign investment at this time, let alone attract any new investments. The razor thin majority of the government, coupled with a divided society and the fear of massive public backlash, further paralyses the ruling coalition. The government’s inability to raise fuel prices, despite showing an unmistakable intent to do so, exemplifies this quandary. Any significant progress on the foreign policy front, viz-a-viz India or the United States for instance, will similarly be stymied. Domestically, Punjab is in the middle of a constitutional crisis, is without a chief executive and has seen, in full view of the masses, both the speaker and deputy speaker attacked, beaten and injured by honorable members of the parliament.
It is like the country is falling into an abyss in slow motion; key stakeholders watch helplessly as crucial time and opportunities are squandered, sores of the economy are allowed to fester, purposeful diplomacy has come to a standstill, and the government doesn’t have the mandate or the political capital to take any difficult decisions. The only way out of this highly unstable, extremely volatile arrangement is through free and fair elections, where all state institutions remain, and are seen to remain, completely neutral.  Only a government with an unequivocal and incontrovertible popular mandate will have the ability and the political appetite to take long-awaited decisions on economy, governance and foreign policy.
The author is a Pakistani cardiologist currently working in the US, who enjoys writing about politics, societal issues and healthcare. He can be reached at [email protected]
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