“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (the more things change, the more they remainthe same) — Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr
THE above saying could well apply to the latest political changes in Pakistan. A coalition of more than half a dozen disparate political parties that have formed the new government illustrates the return of the old order.
With a few exceptions, they are all old faces in the cabinet — tried and tested. The status quo remains, and dynastic politics has strengthened its hold. It’s never easy for a coalition to rule, but it is even harder for a new dispensation with such varied interests to deliver, although it has a short lifespan before the next general election.
With an eye on the coming polls, the allied parties appear to be extremely careful not to take measures that could affect their electoral prospects. In fact, with ousted prime minister Imran Khan drawing big crowds at his rallies, their predicament has worsened.
The new government remains a prisoner of its own rhetoric.
It is back to ‘cult versus dynasty’. Growing polarisation has deepened the political crisis. What happened in the Punjab Assembly last week is a sad commentary on our degenerating political culture. The spectacle of members engaged in physical combat during the election of the new chief minister was most shameful.
For the first time in the country’s parliamentary history, police were called to the House to restore order. Amid the mayhem, Hamza Sharif was elected as the new chief minister of Punjab, yet the governor refused to administer the oath of office to him. There is certainly no rational reason for this odd behaviour on the part of the governor but it is what Imran Khan’s politics of confrontation has led to. Now it has been left to the high court to resolve the crisis.
With the virtual collapse of the democratic parliamentary process, the judiciary is increasingly being used for political arbitration. But the growing involvement of the courts in political matters has its own perils. Every ruling drags the institution deeper into political controversy in this highly polarised environment. Political parties only accept judgements that are favourable to them, increasing the pressure on the courts hearing constitutional petitions.
Imran Khan’s campaign against the top judges is one such example. His destructive politics has further weakened the democratic political process. This situation is extremely alarming for state institutions. It is now a crisis of state and not just a political mess. What we are witnessing is the collapse of the rule of law.
It is the first time in the country’s political history that a father and son duo is holding the two most powerful political offices in the country. After the ascendancy of Shehbaz Sharif to the office of prime minister, his son Hamza will now be ruling the country’s most powerful province.
Such concentration of power within the family is certainly not unprecedented. In the recent past, two Sharif brothers occupied those posts. Yet the very notion of father and son at the helm, both at the centre and in Punjab, makes a travesty of the very concept of inclusive democracy.
It is evident that the latest political development has led to the return of the Sharif political dynasty, though with a difference — it is now the younger brother who is controlling the government. Yet, the real political power still lies with Nawaz Sharif, despite his conviction that has barred him from holding elected public office.
From his London home, he continues to call the shots. With his daughter Maryam also having been disqualified, he didn’t have any option but to agree to the new power equation that would still keep the dynastic hold intact. Ironically, the PML-N has more capable people in its ranks who have been associated with the party for decades and held important government positions. But power, it seems, has to be kept within the family.
All that illustrates the personalised control of political parties that have no internal democratic culture. With a few exceptions, all political parties are essentially family enterprises. That has been one of the major reasons for the weakness of the democratic process. The very composition of the latest cabinet shows how deeply entrenched dynastic politics is.
It is shocking that a handful of families continue to exercise political power in the country. This has also been the reason for not seeing any fundamental change in the country’s power structure, despite the economic and social transformation that has been taking place over the past seven decades.
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This state of affairs seems to be one of the reasons for the younger generation getting increasingly disenchanted with power politics. Imran Khan’s political rise is also attributed to the youth looking for change. But his authoritarianism and hubris have proved disastrous. His cult following has damaged democracy more than even dynastic politics.
Meanwhile, the country faces the dark prospect of financial collapse. The spectre of a Sri Lanka-like economic meltdown makes it imperative for the new government to take urgent measures to stop the slide. It’s time to shed populism and to take some tough decisions before it is too late. But it seems that the new government remains a prisoner of its own rhetoric.
In his very first speech, the prime minister raised the pensions of retired civil and military officials without waiting for the budget. He also rejected the proposal to increase petroleum prices that have been heavily subsidised for political reasons. According to estimates, the government would be bearing a loss of over Rs40 billion each month for keeping prices low, despite rising international oil prices.
It may not be right to expect the present transitory set-up to carry out fundamental structural reforms in a short period of time, but there is still a need to take steps to stabilise the economy. Given the gravity of the situation, it cannot be delayed. It is certainly not an easy task for a coalition government, with parties already gearing up for elections. Yet the future of the country is more important than power games.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, April 20th, 2022