THERE’S never a dull moment in Pakistani politics. It’s now a season of conspiracy theories. It’s dirty politicking with no winner in the game. It’s more about who gets the blessings of the powers. Pakistani politics has never managed to break out of the vicious cycle of back-room deals. The rhetoric one hears from political leaders is extremely deceptive. With the general elections approaching, the political atmosphere has become more pernicious.
While the PTI government is riven by internal discord, the opposition parties are too much in a state of disarray to present any serious threat to the current dispensation. But nothing is certain given the ever-shifting sands of Pakistani politics. If conspiracy theories are to be believed the game is on.
Not surprisingly, the security establishment remains the final arbiter of power as the squabbling political forces vie with one another to earn its blessings. Interestingly, the entire political discourse revolves around whose side the establishment is on. The rumours about the establishment stepping back from its support to the Imran Khan government seem to have given the opposition significant political impetus.
Some opposition leaders have become excited over the perceived neutrality of the military. Some of them have even indicated that a deal with the PML-N is already in the offing. Such statements are also aimed at keeping the party together. It’s particularly important for those who are in constituency politics.
More troubling for the PTI are the growing voices of dissent within the party.
Editorial: Pakistan's power matrix continues to revolve around the establishment
Matters have become more vitriolic in recent days following the statements of some federal ministers that the PML-N is desperately trying to mend fences with the military leadership. The information minister revealed that certain senior PML-N leaders recently met a ‘top person’, a euphemism often used for the army chief, and offered themselves as a replacement for the Sharif family. The names of those allegedly trying to make that deal have not been disclosed, raising questions about the veracity of the claim.
Given our political culture one cannot rule out the meeting having taken place. Yet one cannot be sure about the offer they might have made on distancing themselves from the Sharifs. The ongoing power tussle within the party and the widening rift over Nawaz Sharif’s anti-establishment narrative may, however, give plausibility to the inference.
PML-N leaders have obviously rejected the information minister’s statement. The military spokesman too has dismissed the report about a deal with the opposition. But that will not make speculation go away.
While our politics continues to pivot around the security establishment, a political development could determine the future course and shape of our politics in the coming months. A recent opinion poll provides insight into the current political trend in the country.
There may not be any surprise about the PML-N being ahead in the polls but the PTI is not out of the contest as is being predicted by a section of political pundits. Of course, the trend varies from province to province. While the PML-N seems to have increased its support in Punjab, the situation in the other provinces does not seem to have changed much. It is, however, too early to predict anything considering the fast-changing political dynamics.
Prime Minister Imran Khan was relieved at the passage of both the supplementary finance and State Bank amendment bills by the National Assembly. The combined opposition failed to block the bills. It will not be difficult to get the Senate vote as well. That may remove the last hurdle in getting the IMF loan approved.
Yet the predicament of the PTI government is far from over. The events of the past few weeks have exposed the widening fault lines in the coalition. It is evident that the coalition partners have upped their stakes sensing the government’ vulnerability.
But more troubling for the PTI are the growing voices of dissent within the party. What happened in the PTI’s parliamentary meeting last week is indicative of the falling confidence in the government’s policies. Pervez Khattak’s outburst was certainly not a one-time episode. Some other party members have also been questioning the PTI’s policies and the government’s failure to deliver.
The setback in local bodies’ elections in the party’s bastion of KP has dealt a huge blow to the morale of PTI supporters. The split in the provincial party may have been the major cause for the debacle but bad governance and the rising cost of living have also contributed to the fall in its support.
It will be hard for the party to regain lost political space in the province. It’s not surprising that the dissent is much more pronounced in KP. A major challenge for the PTI now is how to improve the party’s performance in the second phase of the local bodies polls in the province. The prospects do not seem promising.
A weak provincial party and government leadership may not be able to reverse the trend. Surely the local bodies elections have completely different dynamics but they do cast a shadow over the general elections. The move to dissolve the party organisation and instal a new set-up has a more demoralising effect.
But it is in Punjab where the PTI has lost much more political ground. The party’s dismal performance in the by-elections does not give much hope for its success in the forthcoming local bodies elections in the province. Surely a lacklustre provincial party leadership is the major problem but the government’s failure to control the rampant inflation that has been affecting not only the poor but also the middle classes has also been a major reason for the party’s shrinking support base here.
In this situation, the ruling party cannot continue to solely depend on the support of the security establishment to stay in power. Failure to deliver on both the political and economic fronts has already caused a decline in its political support base. Reliance on the security establishment cannot improve governance. It is also important for the opposition parties to mobilise support on the basis of a political and democratic programme rather than seeking a deal with the establishment.
The writer is the author of No-Win War — The Paradox of US-Pakistan Relations in Afghanistan’s Shadow.
Published in Dawn, January 19th, 2022