An inevitable crisis

November 06, 2017


HEADLINES from these last four months suggest Pakistan is experiencing a serious political crisis. Television talk shows and newspapers are referring to the permanent precariousness of democracy. The military is heard making periodic references to political and economic stability. Opposition parties want an early election to resolve an as yet unstated problem, while the ruling party is sending out reminders of why technocratic rule and dictatorships are never a solution.

The nature of the conversation in Islamabad, Rawalpindi, and other seats of power is a bit confusing given the reality elsewhere. Unlike previous instances of political unrest, existing conditions in the country appear to be fairly stable. Contrary to what we saw in 2014 or 1977 or 1968, there’s no mass mobilisation by the political opposition, nor are there any spontaneous protests against the government. While there might be one in the near future, there’s no major macroeconomic crisis unfolding in the present, as was the case in 1999. Unlike in 2007, there are no major food shortages (except tomatoes) and inflationary pressures on household expenditure appear relatively muted. Finally, the energy crisis is no worse than it was in 2013, while violence by non-state actors of any shade is at its lowest in a decade.

And yet, because the elite who matter — politicians, judges, generals — are positioning themselves as if navigating a crisis, the country dutifully finds itself in one.

The PML-N has been around for three decades, and this is the first time it’s been forced to think about a leader other than Nawaz Sharif.

The headline narrative is that this impasse was triggered by the Panama Papers. It is now escalating due to the attempts of a disqualified and under-trial prime minister (and his daughter) to stay in power, both in their party and, by corollary, in the country.

In this version of the story, there is nothing inevitable about the crisis. It’s simply been made worse by the confrontational rhetoric being pushed by Nawaz and his team, and the strains his brand of politics is placing both within the ruling party, and between the ruling party and other institutions.

There are a few things this version of the story gets right. The Panama leak was indeed an exogenous event. It is also true that Nawaz’s personal agency does matter here. He believes his disqualification was a larger conspiracy, and his ensuing politics, which includes positioning his daughter in the party, is creating pressures on the system.

However, what existing analysis gets wrong is on the question of inevitability. Because everyone’s hung up on the completely exogenous nature of the Panama Papers leak, they miss out on the fact that at its heart, the current crisis is about the strength of the PML-N as an organisation, and the ongoing tussle for its control.

Think about it this way: the PML-N has been around for three decades, and this is the first time it’s been forced to think about a leader other than Nawaz Sharif. There are quite a few people (including his own brother and nephew) who think they deserve a shot at something bigger. There are others who think their proximity to the disqualified prime minister makes them better candidates for a leadership position. Everyone else in the party is busy hedging their bets.

Some want Nawaz to stay away from Pakistan, as a distant figurehead, so they can garner votes in his name, without having to deal with the mess that comes with his confrontational politics. Others have privately hitched their cart to Shahbaz’s horse, thinking that the powers that be are inclined to look favourably upon him.

This is what a first-time leadership transition looks like in a weak organisation. Put simply, there is no blueprint or tested mechanism in place to select the next leader. Since most of this is happening within a family, we have to bear the ignominy of a slow-moving, passive-aggressive pantomime, complete with conspiracy and fratricide.

What’s made this worse is that over these last three decades, the party’s MNAs and MPAs have been more than willing to sustain this weak organisation. They saw little need to invest in the party structure because they felt the gravy train of votes, access and a permanent majority in Punjab under Nawaz would continue indefinitely. So confronting a situation without Nawaz, and with family tensions on the rise, there’s no existing mechanism that can amplify their voice in the leadership transition. All they’re left with is charting out different escape routes.

The reason why there’s a degree of inevitability to this is because the PML-N falls short of the two dominant models of party structure in South Asia. Unlike the Jamaat-i-Islami in Pakistan or the BJP and the left in India, it doesn’t possess a well-built organisation or strong internal democracy that can push out an old leader and elect a new leader based on his or her political performance and commitment to party ideology.

It has also fallen short of the PPP and Indian National Congress model, where one family (and, more importantly, one leader in that family) exercises complete control over the party elite, possesses a direct connection with its support base, and is able to control a leadership transition.

So regardless of two enterprising German journalists and the weakly secured IT system of a big law firm, the crisis that we’re witnessing would have taken place at some point in the near future. Maybe not before 2018, but certainly within the next five years as age and family ambition would have undercut Nawaz’s grip on the party.

Unfortunately for those who are tired of political bickering and internecine fighting, this state of affairs will continue till a stable status quo emerges within the PML-N. And then a few years down the line, much of this will likely be replicated once the PTI attempts to move past Imran Khan.

The writer is a freelance columnist.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, November 6th, 2017