Friday, July 29, 2022
Humayun Kabir | Published: 00:00, Jul 29,2022
Maryam Nawaz, right, daughter of Pakistan’s former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, speaks along with the foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, left, and Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the leader of the coalition government and parties of the Pakistan Democratic Movement, during a press conference in Islamabad on July 25. — Agence France-Presse/Aamir Qureshi
PAKISTAN has recently caught the attention of the world community because of the political and economic crises that have developed from a wide range of internal political differences on national and international issues and from a prolonged period of misrule and corruption in the country. Clearly, the current impasse merits a detailed look into the root causes of the gradual decline of the state’s political and economic systems.
The end of British colonialism divided the sub-continent into sectarian lines leading to the birth of India and Pakistan as independent states. The leadership of Pakistan was handed over to the Muslim League. For the first 25 years, discourses of West Pakistan dominated the national politics and East Pakistan was politically and economically neglected. In 1971, the people of East Pakistan revolted against the prolonged economic and political deprivation and fought a nine-month war against the Pakistani army to earn its independence as Bangladesh.
The lost war with Bangladesh for Pakistan not only meant a loss of people, but it also changed the nature of the state and destabilised the balance of political power. Punjab became the dominant province in Pakistan, being both more populous than Sindh, Baluchistan or the North West Frontier Province, and economically far more prosperous than the rest.
Since 1958, Pakistan’s political history has, time and again, been interrupted by her military generals, who exerted their might and discretely colluded with political parties. The first such intervention on part of its army was as early as 1958 when general Ayub Khan abolished the constitutional regime of 1956. Subsequently, the military staged three coups in October 1958, July 1977 and October 1999.
A most significant aspect of Pakistani politics is its total, unflinching commitment to the religion of Islam, which had served as the basis of seeking a nationhood in order to safeguard the interests of the Muslims in the Indian sub-continent. A recurrent theme in the military and civil life in Pakistan is that every citizen should be mindful of adhering to the principles and code of conduct prescribed in Islam. It is regarded as the way to safeguard and preserve one’s dignity and honour.
The former president, also former general, Zia ul Huq used to say that the gift of western education should not be considered an end in itself and that a Pakistani must not be merely ‘a professional soldier, an engineer, or a doctor’, but must use this to become ‘Muslim soldiers, Muslim generals, Muslim doctors, Muslim officers and Muslim men’. Thus, Islam became a core public policy in the state affairs, and Pakistan was officially declared an Islamic republic.
It is relevant here to highlight that Pakistan progressively became a garrison state, one of the last ones still standing. It is the military that has ruled directly through the imposition of martial law or indirectly for most of its existence. The military remained at the centre of the international community’s three most serious and inter-linked concerns — the longstanding conflict with India, which has often turned violent, the ‘Jihadi’ threat, and the security of its nuclear weapons.
Pakistan provides an example of how the military has justified its control over the civil government or has acted as the civil government by keeping the Kashmir issue, a perennial dispute with India, or the threat of Indian invasion alive. To tackle these threats from India, a strong army with Islamic ideology was presented as necessary. The pressing question to ask is: what have been the effects of such longstanding military rule on the institution of democracy and the people?
Firstly, Pakistan’s democratic institutions such as the judiciary and parliament or democratic values such as the freedom of speech, the right to protest and civil liberty suffered from the military. Secondly, the freedom of the press and media has been restricted. Thirdly, prolonged army rule meant the incorporation of army officials in civil administration which has been gradually eroding the civilian culture and control of administration. Fourthly, the development of a military-politician nexus that is behind the crippling of Pakistan’s democracy and finally, the international isolation that Pakistan faced because of military rule. The weakening of democratic institutions has also contributed to growing poverty in the country and a lack of security of its citizens. From the above discussion, military interference in Pakistan’s political economy and foreign affairs is evident.
In 2018, the leader of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Ishtiqlal Party, Imran Khan, a former cricketer, swept to power and formed a coalition government. However, early this year he was compelled to leave his role as prime minister. In the parliament, Khan’s party lost the support of others in the coalition; hence he lost the vote of no confidence tabled by the opposition parties. Khan also lost the support of Pakistan’s powerful military, which the opposition alleged helped him to win the national election in 2018. It has been reported that the former prime minister recently had a public fall-out with the army over senior military appointments and policy decisions. Of course, the PTI and the military have promptly denied the allegations. The coalition party of the PTI, the Baluchistan Awami Party said, ‘There was disagreement for the past two years. The BAP was not happy about its share in the federal government and the ministerial portfolio it has been allocated.’
In addition, a deepening economic crisis contributed to Khan’s unpopularity. The two most significant economic challenges facing Pakistan today are high inflation and fast depleting foreign exchange reserves. In February, as the opposition campaign against Khan gained momentum, the prime minister announced a cut in domestic fuel and electricity prices despite an increase in the global market. That move put further pressure on Pakistan’s chronic fiscal deficit. Recently, the Pakistani currency fell to historic lows against the US dollar. Economists are of the view that part of it was the situation which Khan inherited from the previous government and part of it was driven by the Covid-related crisis. However, the consequence was that the government fell quickly into firefighting and as a result reforms were left unattended.
It should be mentioned that Imran Khan’s parliamentary support began to dissolve when the military signalled that it would not side with Khan. Furthermore, Khan’s attempt to recast ties with the United States, Pakistan’s largest trading partner, precipitated his fall from the position of power. The ultimate nail in the coffin was Khan’s visit to Russia in February, right before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the end, trade or other economic interests neither with the US or Russia was served.
Khan is the first prime minister who was removed through a no-confidence motion in the parliament. Only three of the 23 prime ministers since Pakistan’s independence were able to complete their full term. While there is a general pattern here, Khan’s was an exception in the sense that he was removed by a constitutional procedure practised in other established democracies.
The new government led by Shahbaz Sharif, who faces a series of corruption charges, is grappling with multiple political and economic crises. Pakistan’s rupee is one of the world’s worst performing currencies, the country’s foreign exchange reserves are abysmally low, and it has been unable to attract much needed foreign investment. Domestic political instability and increased vulnerability to terrorism following the Taliban takeover in neighbouring Afghanistan has added to its long list of problems. The all-powerful military establishment is now criticised for helping Khan into office and for dethroning him. Pakistan’s current crisis is the culmination of decades of fraught policies. For example, the political desire to combat a perceived existential threat from India resulted in decades of unsustainable military expenditure.
The vicious cycle Pakistan faces will be difficult to break, even more so at a time when the global economy is recovering from the dual blows of the Covid pandemic and Russia’s war with Ukraine.
The most recent surprise in Pakistan’s political life emanated from the by-elections in the Punjab province held on July 17, 2022. Imran Khan’s PTI won 15 of the 20 seats and regained control of the most important province in the country. Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, is the country’s political centre of gravity. It is also the power base of Khan’s opponent Shahbaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League party.
Now, once again, Pakistani politics have turned upside down as a result of the ongoing political events in Punjab. Political turmoil in the country seems to be far from over.
Humayun Kabir is a former official of the United Nations.
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Editor: Nurul Kabir, Published by the Chairman, Editorial Board ASM Shahidullah Khan on behalf of Media New Age Ltd.
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Friday, July 29, 2022