THERE may be nothing in Nawaz Sharif’s ‘no-holds-barred’ address from London to Sunday’s multiparty conclave in Islamabad that he has not said before. But his words seem to have galvanised the fractured opposition groups at least for now. Coming out of a prolonged hibernation, the former prime minister has revived his anti-establishment narrative that seemed to have been put on the back-burner by his party out of political expediency.
For long, the target was Prime Minister Imran Khan and not his alleged backers. But now the guns have been turned on the ubiquitous security establishment. This change of tack has not been without reason. Besides other factors, it also shows the growing frustration over the relentless persecution of opposition leaders in the name of accountability.
A number of multiparty conferences (MPC) have been held in the last two years, but the latest sitting of around a dozen opposition groups was more structured. It also formalised the alliance under the banner of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM). The 26-point resolution adopted by the conference vows to oust what it describes as the “selected prime minister” through a mass movement, and calls for an end to the establishment’s role in politics.
Notwithstanding the solemn pledges, a question mark hangs over the PDM’s ability to mobilise the masses towards that end. Undoubtedly, the PTI government stands on a weak political wicket largely because of its failure on practically every front; it has failed to deliver on its promises of good governance.
Most parties at the MPC have played into the hands of the establishment when it suited their interests.
Yet there are few precedents in Pakistan’s history where governments have been ousted through street agitation. It is much more difficult when the administration is backed by the security establishment. It is hybrid rule that is being challenged but the alliance is still not willing to play its most effective card of resigning from the assemblies for obvious reasons.
Both the PML-N and PPP would not want to lose their foothold in the power structure. Moreover, they are not sure whether the lawmakers would comply with any decision to resign. The only thing the alliance could do is to increase pressure on the government through mass mobilisation on various issues directly affecting the people.
But their capacity to mobilise people can be questioned. The battleground is Punjab, which is also the stronghold of the PML-N. But the party failed even to bring out its supporters when Nawaz Sharif was jailed. It is also uncertain if the entire party would stand behind Sharif’s anti-establishment narrative which has never been fully accepted by many party leaders in the past. It is doubtful if they would accept it now.
Many would not disagree with what Nawaz Sharif said in his speech about a “state above the state” which has been an evident feature in Pakistan’s political history. Because of weak democratic institutions, the establishment’s shadow looms large over the country’s political spectrum. Political parties are equally responsible for this state of affairs.
Most political parties at the MPC have played into the hands of the security apparatus when it suited their interests. Nawaz Sharif in his speech mentioned how his party’s government in Balochistan was toppled in 2018 in order to manipulate the Senate elections. He held a now retired army officer responsible, but not the party, which was instrumental in that sordid power game.
People may not have forgotten the then prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s speech in December 2011 from the floor of the National Assembly when he warned the establishment against becoming a “state within a state”. It was the most scathing criticism of the establishment by a sitting prime minister. But other parties including the PML-N joined in the demand for his resignation when he was tried for contempt of court.
Sunday’s MPC called for revival of the Charter of Democracy signed by the PML-N and PPP in 2006, but both parties had flaunted it for their own vested political interests. It was a good document for strengthening the democratic process in the country. But it never worked as each party tried to undermine the other. The Balochistan episode was not the only one.
Even now, when these parties are deploring a “state above a state” there has been silence over the alleged backroom contacts between the PML-N and the establishment. In a recent interview, Shahbaz Sharif reportedly confirmed an impending understanding with the establishment.
That may not have worked, but the fact is that political leaders are not averse to making a deal with the establishment when it suits them. The perpetual state of confrontation among the political forces also helps strengthen the parallel state.
Just days before the MPC, the top opposition leaders along with PTI ministers attended a meeting called by the army chief. It was not for the first time the political leaders were summoned by the military leadership to discuss key national issues. The latest meeting was to deliberate the future status of Gilgit-Baltistan and the forthcoming elections in the sensitive region.
Surely there is a security element to the issue but it is mainly a political matter and needs to be discussed at a political forum. The responsibility lies with the prime minister but he seems to have delegated this role to the establishment. With the prime minister refusing to deal with the opposition, even where key national issues are concerned, this responsibility has also been taken over by the establishment. The opposition also seems to have accepted its role as arbiter. So effectively it’s not a parallel system or a state within the state but the state itself.
Indeed, there is a need for establishing civilian supremacy, but the question centres on how it will be achieved. It’s certainly not possible without a strong democratic culture and ethos. That is lacking among most political parties. Democracy does not mean only holding fair and free elections but also delivering on promises made to the people. While pledging to fight for civilian supremacy the opposition alliance needs to do some introspection.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, September 23rd, 2020