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Who’s in charge?

Updated October 06, 2017

A deepening unease in the country needs to be addressed head-on by the civil and military leaderships.

Who is in charge of Pakistan? How much of the governmental paralysis is self-inflicted? Is the military willing to not just accept its constitutional limits but also support the civilian apparatus unconditionally? How will Pakistan respond to increasingly pointed criticism by the US of the military and the ISI’s alleged ties to militant groups?

The answers to those and several other questions may well determine if Pakistan stays a democratic course or once again tumbles towards political chaos and military ascendancy. The disqualification of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif from holding public office was an undeniable jolt to the political order, but it did not have to escalate into the systemic crisis that is apparent today. All sides must bear some responsibility for the present impasse.

Certainly, Mr Sharif and his PML-N have committed a number of missteps. From the unsatisfactory responses to legitimate questions by the Supreme Court about the Sharif family’s wealth and assets to the unwillingness to accept the binding legality of Mr Sharif’s ouster, the PML-N appears to have put the personal interests of the former prime minister ahead of the demands of the democratic order.

Indeed, in the two months since Mr Sharif’s exit, the government has effectively stalled, there being no clarity about where the locus of power lies and the prime minister’s office reduced to an afterthought. Responsibility for that must primarily lie with the PML-N.

However, other elements have played a role too. It had been hoped that the Supreme Court would hand down a judgement that would not just be definitive, but also well argued and well grounded in the existing law, setting a sound precedent for future accountability cases. But that did not happen; instead, uncertainty has been spawned.

Yet, uncertainty regarding Mr Sharif’s fate would perhaps not have morphed into a systemic threat had the military leadership acted decisively to support the civilian order. The recent trip by army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa and DG ISI Gen Naveed Mukhtar was a positive and necessary step, but how difficult would it have been to ensure more senior participation by the civilian apparatus than that of the foreign secretary?

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif is touring the US at a time when the Trump administration is increasingly threatening action against the ISI. Would a joint civil-military front in the US have been so difficult to ensure?

Finally, there is the political opposition that is as opportunistic as ever. Unwilling and unable to learn the lessons of history, the opposition, in its keenness to defeat the PML-N, appears eager to draw the military leadership deeper into the political morass. If democrats do not defend democracy, then for how much longer can a shaky democratic order stumble on?

Published in Dawn, October 6th, 2017