Politics of confrontation

Published October 5, 2020
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

A NUMBER of political developments have set the stage for a confrontation between the government and opposition with the establishment caught in the crosshairs of the melee. This may open the door to unrest and political instability, putting at risk Pakistan’s much-needed economic recovery in the face of the continuing coronavirus pandemic.

Read: Opposition trying to cause army-govt rift, says PM Imran

From the All Parties Conference, emergence of a new opposition alliance, the PDM, the arrests and indictments of opposition leaders to the unceasing verbal onslaught by government ministers against their opponents, a conflation of these events has created a politically fraught environment and further fracturing of Pakistan’s polity.

Obviously, those found guilty of abusing public office for private gain must face the full force of the law. But one-sided accountability has a long pedigree in the country and has mostly been counterproductive. In July, the Supreme Court warned of the consequences of politicising the accountability process, going so far as to say that accountability laws and their enforcement have been used for “political engineering”, to “pressurise” political opponents into submission and “fracturing political parties”.

What is happening today has familiar echoes of the past — a government unwilling to engage with the opposition, an expedient alliance forged by a desperate opposition pledging to upend the government against a backdrop of economic gloom and governance deficits, a controversial accountability process and a deeply polarised nation. But a number of factors also distinguish the present from the past.

A combination of factors can plunge Pakistan into uncharted territory with unpredictable consequences.

The state of political play today differs from the past in at least five respects. The first difference lies in the present government’s stance: a preference to rule unilaterally despite the fact that it doesn’t have a decisive mandate. Unable to secure an overall majority in the 2018 election, it needs a motley collection of allies to sustain itself in power. The point of note is that the PTI polled under a third of the votes cast, which means that about two thirds of the votes went to other parties and independents.

This alone should have urged humility on the PTI government and willingness to work consensually with other political parties as they represent a substantial part of the electorate. Instead, the ruling party has continued to govern as if it has an overwhelming mandate and act without consulting even its own coalition partners. Party spokesmen spend more time demonising the opposition than explaining government policy. Partisanship has taken an extreme form with the ethic of war shaping an attitude that sees opponents as enemies to be eliminated, not competitors to be engaged. Members of the ruling party claim only they have the legitimate right to rule while all others are either venal or unpatriotic. This attitude rules out any stable operation of the political system, which is a multiparty and parliamentary one, not an elected autocracy.

Two, past minority governments were compelled to reach out to other parties and forge alliances to govern, make the parliamentary system work, pass legislation and elicit support for policy measures. Today the government finds no incentive to do this as the ubiquitous establishment seems to have assumed the role of mobilising parliamentary votes for it on key pieces of legislation. As a result, the government is freed from the responsibility of learning the give and take of parliamentary politics and cooperation with others. This also reinforces a unilateralist mindset.

Three, while the opposition has been under immense pressure from cases against its leaders, this has not changed the fact that it remains well-entrenched both in national and provincial legislatures and in the country’s politics. The PML-N maintains its stronghold in the country’s largest province while the PPP controls Sindh. They are far from being politically marginalised as was often the case with opposition parties in the past. They cannot be wished away, whatever the charges of malfeasance against their leaders. In fact, the latest round of arrests may have galvanised their party activists to support their leadership more vigorously.

The fourth difference concerns the establishment’s role. In the past, its political leverage and value lay in the wide public perception of its neutrality, which enabled it to play the role of an arbiter — resolving political conflicts when national need dictated this. In the past, determined efforts were made to at least maintain a public posture of nonpartisanship. But today, it is increasingly perceived by significant sections of the public as ­partisan, which can, over time, denude it of a vital role.

The fifth difference lies in a vastly transformed environment which imposes limits on authoritarian rule. The sinews of authoritarian control have weakened in a landscape that has changed fundamentally from the past, in which power and influence is more dispersed and where citizens have unprecedented access to information and avenues to get their voices heard. The mainstream and social media have much greater reach than ever before with the latter emerging as a powerful tool. Just as the PTI used it effectively in its journey to power, these means are also available to the opposition. No longer can any government control the narrative nor can old methods of suppressing opponents be successfully deployed as state power has also been eroding over time.

The point of underlining these differences is not simply to describe how the present has departed from the past but to underline that a combination of these factors can plunge Pakistan into uncharted territory with uncertain and unpredictable consequences for all political actors and stakeholders. In fact, the interplay between these factors makes the present situation untenable as it eliminates any political middle ground or space for engagement, which is always needed for national purposes.

Efforts to establish de facto one party rule have all come to grief in the country’s chequered political history and have left problematic legacies. Apart from the federal nature of the polity, Pakistan is much too diverse and heterogenous for the politics of exclusion to work. Its long-term repercussions are not only deleterious for Pakistan’s fragile democracy but can also imperil national cohesion.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

Published in Dawn, October 5th, 2020

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