Challenging times

Published May 16, 2022
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

THERE is a long history of Pakistan’s state institutions being criticised and challenged by different political parties and actors. This is unsurprising for a country that has seen repeated military interventions in politics and controversial judicial decisions invoking the doctrine of necessity. But now when both the judiciary and military are acting according to the Constitution, they continue to face criticism.

Today this criticism comes almost entirely from the former ruling party that wants both institutions to act in its support. When it finds that this is not happening and judicial verdicts are not to its liking its leaders intensify their critique to mount pressure on them to act otherwise.

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This prompted a statement by the Inter-Services Public Relations warning against dragging the army into politics. It took strong exception to “unlawful and unethical practices” and efforts to involve the military leadership in the “political discourse” by “direct” or “insinuated references”.

The higher judiciary too reacted to the criticism. During a hearing last week, Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial said it didn’t behove someone to make insinuations just because a certain judgement did not please him. He said the Constitution unites the federation and the apex court being the defender of the Constitution would continue doing that despite any criticism.

In similar vein, the chief justice of the Islamabad High Court, Athar Minallah, asked PTI’s counsel to seek instructions from his party leaders whether they had any confidence in the judiciary. He said from statements made by the petitioner and his party leadership it seemed they had doubts about the IHC’s impartiality and independence.

Criticism by PTI leaders is not a random act of verbal excess committed out of pique and anger. It is a deliberate political tactic whose aim is to raise maximum public pressure to put both the judiciary and the military establishment on the defensive so that they accede to their demands or, in the case of the courts or Election Commission, rubber stamp the party’s desires.

This is politics by intimidation involving as it does criticism directed at state institutions at big public rallies to chants of approval by the crowd. In fact, inferences by the PTI leadership that these institutions may have colluded in the ‘foreign conspiracy’ to oust its government has the effect of denigrating these institutions. Imran Khan has also demanded that the chief election commissioner should resign and accused him of partisanship. He has been mocking sections of the media and often accused those criticising him of doing it at foreign behest.

The question is whether the former prime minister and his loyal base realise the consequences of pursuing this political strategy, which is assuming a particularly offensive form in social media and messaging on other digital channels by PTI activists. Defiance of court orders and constitutionally prescribed procedures by PTI holdovers occupying high public offices shows that both in words and deeds there is reluctance to play by the rules and in accordance with the Constitution. This goes beyond a challenge to democratic norms. It is a challenge to the democratic system.

When a significant section of the country is encouraged to deride and mistrust institutions that puts the entire political system at risk. Wittingly or unwittingly, this conduct is putting the party on a destructive path where not just faith in institutions is being undermined but institutions themselves are being delegitimised in the eyes of its supporters, primed now to reject anything at variance with their leaders’ whims. This has serious implications for the constitutional and institutional framework in an intensely polarised country. It is further weakening what distinguished lawyer Salman Akram Raja calls the long-standing tenuous relationship of the urban middle class with constitutionalism.

The country’s history of disputed and divisive elections can cast a shadow on future polls.

This has a direct bearing on the general election that is widely seen as a panacea for the current political turmoil and the government-opposition confrontation that has all but paralysed the political system and is rendering it dysfunctional. Immediate elections are, of course, PTI’s principal demand.

Many independent observers also regard elections as the only way to resolve the country’s growing political crisis. But the key question raised by the ongoing attack on institutions, including the Election Commission, is whether the electoral outcome, whatever it turns out to be, will be accepted by the losing side. If a party and its leaders cannot accept a parliamentary outcome in which its loss of majority led to its ouster; if it cannot accept a judicial outcome, which revived the National Assembly it had dissolved, what is the guarantee that it will accept an election result in which it is rejected by voters?

There are many precedents of disputed elections. In fact, almost every election outcome has been disputed. In the 2013 elections, when Khan’s PTI lost to PML-N, he alleged vote rigging and called the polls the “biggest fraud” in Pakistan’s history. He demanded investigation into the alleged fraud, launched protests and held a prolonged sit-in for over four months in Islamabad. The roles were reversed in 2018 when Khan won the election. Both PML-N and PPP claimed the people’s mandate had been stolen and ballot rigging deprived the PTI government of legitimacy. In the 1990s, PML-N and PPP took turns to cry foul and accuse the other of winning by unfair means.

It is not just this history of disputed and divisive elections that casts a shadow on future polls. The country’s unprecedented polarisation makes even the process leading up to elections highly contentious and uncertain. Consensus on composition of the interim government, which has to be established under the Constitution, will pose the first major challenge. Agreement on the code of conduct and rules of the road will present a greater challenge, especially if PTI continues to voice lack of confidence in the Election Commission. The most consequential question is whether all political contenders will accept the election result so that a way can be found to end the country’s predicament.

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

Published in Dawn, May 16th, 2022

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