Cover Story: Change or continuity

Updated January 01, 2020

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The civil-military relations, away from all the rumours to the contrary, remained unprecedented and were going strong as the year came to a close.
The civil-military relations, away from all the rumours to the contrary, remained unprecedented and were going strong as the year came to a close.

THE government may have been new in 2019, but the turmoil remained the same. After the general election in 2018, the PTI government had come in promising tabdeeli (change) in all walks of life — from politics to economics to the environment — but a year-and-a-half later, it seemed that it contended with much that had plagued its predecessors. And, as a result, despite its rhetoric, many of its responses were no different from what had come before.

Indeed, we saw a government struggling with economic issues, a hostile neighbourhood, a powerful judiciary and media which doesn’t stop flexing its muscle, throwing endless stories of the establishment’s growing discomfort with the government.

But there were signs of change, too; change that may not always count as progress and was a clear departure from some norms established in the post-2008 period.

It can safely be said that the main factor ensuring that the PTI government has not had an easy time is because of the economic situation, internally, and the challenges created by the FATF grey list. What added to this was the government’s own inexperience, the self-created weight of its promises that were made in haste while in opposition, and the attacks from other political parties.

Uncertainty on several, if not all, fronts was the hallmark of governance through the year.

Indeed, the struggle with the economy was the most difficult for a party which hadn’t done its homework. Hamlet like, it struggled with its IMF-or-no-IMF decision, which also ended up claiming Asad Umer as its first casualty. But a more tried and tested approach to the economy, in the shape of a new but experienced finance team, didn’t put an end to the feverish criticism that it was just incompetence.

This was partly due to the government’s own delay in approaching the IMF and partly because the post-2008 consensus among political forces was not extended to the PTI (and neither was the PTI interested in it). The opposition was not willing to see the ruling party as any more legitimate than the PTI was willing to view the opposition as anything but criminal. The constant barrage of criticism from the other parties, amplified by the media, has now allowed little deviation from the view that the PTI is inept. The opposition was obviously motivated by far more than a fair election. The aggressive and unfair accountability drive has left it with little option but to direct its guns and venom at Imran Khan and his government; the easier targets in sight because of ministers who are more comfortable in talk shows than in governance matters.

However, the polarisation, complemented by the criticism and mutual attacks, were not the fault of the opposition entirely. The government played more than its role by aggressively attacking the opposition for being corrupt and misusing public money. Combined with multiple investigations into and the arrests of PPP and PMLN leaders, not even PTI supporters are comfortable saying that the process was independent and neutral. Hardly anyone could. Minister after minister blamed the previous regimes for the crisis in the economy and accused the opposition of corruption. And they were led by the prime minister who spoke of the issue everywhere, including international forums.

All this simply led to a level of polarisation rarely seen before. But what remained unchanged was an accountability process, which seemed as politicised and one sided, as in the past. And no different was the unresolved debate over how the accountability drive will have to slow down if the economy had to be prioritised. Pakistanis excel at repeating history.

But it wasn’t just the lack of experience and the breakdown of the government and opposition relationship which caused all the uncertainty in 2019. As always, the main culprit for this has always been and continues to be the speculation about the civil-military relationship.

Imran Khan came to power at a time when it was obvious that the establishment had lost patience with the PPP and the PMLN for different reasons. Khan, with his popular base, was the only possible choice left.

But since coming to power, he is seen to have disappointed and displeased the power brokers, giving way to speculations of all sorts. It can be debated how far this displeasure is real and how much of the speculation is worth it, but the bigger question is about the choices the establishment might have at its disposal. But in a land of conspiracy theories, this is enough for considerable uncertainty. It was there at the beginning of the year and it remained firmly there as the year came to a close.

Adding to the uncertainty was the infamous march of Maulana Fazlur Rehman. So convinced is everyone of the establishment’s hand in everything that no one believes a politician is capable of miscalculation; such as a long march which will not bring the desired results. If Khan had somne backing in 2014, then obviously the Maulana, too, must have been instigated by someone, somewhere, proving in the process that someone, somewhere was unhappy with Khan and wanted his removal. So went the grapevine.

The hypothesis lasted just a little longer than did the JUI-F dharna but only to be replaced with another, which was based on the sudden and considerable relief provided to the Sharifs. Nawaz Sharif and his daughter’s bail, the former premier’s departure from Pakistan (widely credited to the pragmatism of Shahbaz Sharif) and the silence of the aggressive narrative of the party led to, yet again, the prediction of Khan’s departure.

For many, there was enough to believe that the younger of the Sharif brothers was clawing his way back into relevant circles. While this rumour was overshadowed by subsequent events, it is bound to make a return in 2020.

By December, the game about predicting the exact date of Khan’s departure took a backseat as the [army chief’s extension][5] ended up in the Supreme Court. The issue continues to hang fire as 2019 packs its bags to make space for 2020 but this one case – heard for a mere three days – is enough to ensure that chief justice Asif Saeed Khosa’s short but stolid tenure of judicial restraint and reform efforts will be remembered for little else but the army chief’s extension. And of course, it was a reminder that judicial restraint will – for the time being – prove a mere interlude during stretches of activism. This, if anything, was yet another sign of continuity rather than change.

But, more importantly, the continuity of uncertainty is due to the question mark over the army chief’s tenure. The case once again gave hope to the non-PTI supporters and while the final verdict may have shattered their hopes, the impending legislation which is to decide the tenure issue will continue to fuel the uncertainty in the short term. Perhaps this uncertainty is caused more by the inability to understand what actually the bill will propose than what the opposition will do; few think that the opposition will be able to vote against the legislation once it is presented in parliament.

But all this indicates the most important lesson learnt from 2019; that regardless of the party in power, the civil-military relationship in Pakistan is such that no government can take its tenure for granted and no amount of acquiescence will put an end to the rumours and the uncertainty.

Perhaps one area where this friction was the least visible and where the efforts of both sides to work together yielded the best results was foreign policy. This is because, unfortunately, the expectation from one stakeholder is that the other will not have input to offer and will simply follow instructions. Hence, 2019 saw a number of ‘successes’, partly due to the hard-to-defend Indian decisions and partly due to the coordination between the military and PTI – from Pulwama to the release of the captured Indian pilot to the opening of Kartarpur, Pakistan won a number of brownie points even as it struggled with FATF and its past legacy. The government in India, bent upon re-writing its own legacy, went a long way in helping its next-door neighbour look good.

But even this arena did not allow the PTI to escape criticism. The prime minister’s tweet in favour of BJP before the Indian general election and the BJP’s decision to make changes to Indian occupied Kashmir’s special status provided considerable ammunition to the government’s opponents. But even more serious was the mess made of the invitation to the Kuala Lumpur summit, which once again caused considerable embarrassment to the government and the much-maligned style of making impulsive decisions without requisite homework.

The good moments in politics in Pakistan are just that — moments. And there is little to indicate that the PTI government will be able to make them more lasting in the coming year.


Published in Dawn 2019 Year Ender