THE rally by the opposition alliance Pakistan Democratic Movement in Quetta on Sunday confirmed fears that the political situation is escalating dangerously in the country. The government and opposition are now locked in a treacherous spiral with each day sending political temperatures soaring. At the Quetta rally, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif once again criticised the political role of the establishment by directly addressing the army chief and DG ISI. Maryam Nawaz also delivered a scathing speech and passionately argued for the recovery of the missing persons, an issue that resonates across Balochistan. In retaliation, the federal information minister said that the PDM had become part of an “axis of evil” which included Israel and India. These incendiary accusations by government spokespersons — often bordering on the infantile — are fuelling an already combustible situation. This cannot bode well.

The opposition alliance has a long list of grievances that converge on one major theme — that the 2018 elections were manipulated by the security establishment to bring the PTI to power. It now blames the government for persecuting its members through politically motivated cases and incarcerations. The government refuses to engage with the opposition saying the latter is only interested in relief for itself. There is no overlap between these extreme positions and the PDM is building up momentum for a long march to Islamabad in a few months. On display is the worst that our system has to offer — bad governance, flawed accountability, weak institutions and constant, unending turbulence. The reason why all this sounds so familiar is because we have seen this cycle of instability repeatedly over the decades. In the absence of any institutional mechanism to resolve seemingly intractable political disputes, politicians have resorted to upping the ante till one party blinks. The problem with this mode of conflict resolution has been that often no one ends up being the victor. The establishment has time and again walked in to break up warring sides and take centre stage itself. This has ensured that the Pakistani democratic project remains weak.

We are again in almost the same situation. Prime Minister Imran Khan has done himself, and his government, no favours by refusing to engage with the opposition. His attitude remains rigid and uncompromising. His spokespersons reflect this intransigence by pouring scorn on their opponents and using insults and crude language to demean them. The establishment too is in a tight spot because it has now been made to participate in the fracas instead of refereeing it. The unfortunate incidents in Karachi have shown the state crossing many red lines. The opposition too is being irresponsible with some statements targeting individuals within the establishment. The only way to defuse this dangerous situation is for all concerned to step back and break the spiral of events before it is too late and space for compromise disappears.

Published in Dawn, October 27th, 2020

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