Political meltdown

Published August 1, 2022
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

THE high drama of Punjab’s constitutional crisis reached a climax with the Supreme Court ruling that struck down the deputy Speaker’s action in the provincial assembly and held this to be “without lawful authority.” The SC declared Hamza Shehbaz’s election null and void and opened the way for PML-Q leader, Pervaiz Elahi to assume the coveted office.

Has the judicial verdict, which led to a PTI-backed government being installed in Punjab helped to end the country’s political crisis? Or ease tensions? Far from it.

The latest turn of events has been a huge setback for PML-N as it has lost its provincial stronghold to its political opponents. But these developments have also plunged Pakistan into uncharted territory which could presage more instability ahead. Two governments, at the centre and in Punjab, don’t recognise the other as legitimate and may head towards a collision course.

Those who thought PTI leader Imran Khan, who has been demanding immediate elections, will ask his ally Elahi to dissolve the provincial assembly to force the coalition government’s hand, were mistaken. Elahi shows no intention of doing this and Khan seems to prefer having control of Pakistan’s largest province to call the shots from there. The PTI is now intent on undermining the federal government from that vantage position and chip away at its authority to bring about its collapse.

The country is in fact witnessing a political meltdown.

Parliament has become all but dysfunctional in the absence of the opposition that chose to stay out of the National Assembly to delegitimise it. This is symptomatic of the breakdown of politics. Politics breaks down when political disputes or crises cannot be resolved by political means — and when there is open-ended gridlock with no solution in sight. Political institutions are then paralysed and have no role to play in addressing much less mediating political conflicts.

Confrontation between the coalition government and PTI and the lack of dialogue between them rules out negotiations to resolve the ongoing crisis. Both look towards the courts to settle essentially political issues and conflicts. This may not be new in the country’s chequered political history but is now occurring with a frequency that underlines the breakdown of politics amid escalating tensions.

Its impact goes beyond this. It drags the judiciary into the political sphere where it becomes an arena of political contestation and partisan fights in a polarised setting. Because it is asked by both sides to resolve political disputes its decisions are portrayed by one or the other in a controversial light.

Since his ouster from power, Khan has repeatedly questioned the higher judiciary’s integrity and impartiality. In many speeches he directly addressed the judiciary to mount pressure for favourable rulings. When the SC ruled in favour of his ally Elahi he enthusiastically welcomed it.

Editorial: An expected change in Punjab

PML-N leaders have also made statements to pressurise and criticise the Supreme Court. The most telling illustration was the joint press conference by leaders of the ruling alliance on the eve of the SC hearing. Casting doubt on the impartiality of the three-judge bench hearing Elahi’s petition, they voiced their no-confidence in it. Several leaders also recalled ‘selective justice’ it meted out in the past. This expedient rhetoric was designed to serve political ends.

Politics breaks down when political disputes cannot be resolved by political means and total gridlock follows.

At the same time both political rivals have accused each other of ‘blackmailing’ the judiciary and bringing it into disrepute. This risks making the higher judiciary a casualty of the power game and erode its role as arbiter.

Adding to controversy, albeit on a different issue, is questioning of the chief justice’s decisions on judges’ appointments by Qazi Faez Isa, senior Supreme Court judge. In a lengthy letter, he said the chief justice was exercising powers “not permitted by the Constitution” and taking ‘unilateral’ decisions.

Days later the Judicial Commission of Pakistan rejected all the chief justice’s five nominee judges for the apex court — an unprecedented development. Bar associations across the country had demanded that the seniority principle should be respected and they also called to abridge CJ’s powers to constitute a bench.

Controversies and division in the apex court on such issues erode public trust in institutions. Another institution that is also being targeted is the Election Commission of Pakistan. Khan continues to attack the ECP and demand the chief election commissioner’s resignation.

The coalition government for its part is mounting pressure on the ECP to announce its decision on the foreign funding case without delay. The Financial Times report about overseas funds received by the PTI has added grist to its mill. But the government is also insisting it doesn’t want any clash of institutions.

With every week witnessing shifts in political fortunes between the coalition government and PTI the prospect is of political tensions continuing. Clearly a deeply troubled economy cannot afford this as it will accelerate its slide into a full-blown crisis with grave consequences for the country.

Foreign exchange reserves are continuing to deplete. The rupee is in freefall. Its value has sunk to an all-time low of Rs240 to a dollar. Economic confidence is eroding by the day. Markets are discounting official statements aimed at calming jittery sentiment.

With political confrontation showing no sign of abating and the temperature continuing to rise the repercussions for a struggling economy can be even more deleterious in the coming days. The confluence of political and economic uncertainty is taking a heavy toll on the country’s stability.

The danger now is of the political confrontation taking the form of the centre vs Punjab government stand-off. This could paralyse both the federal and the provincial government leading to a systemic breakdown.

Statements such as that by the federal interior minister of imposing governor’s rule in Punjab if he is barred from entering the province, are fueling a combustible environment. So are provocative declarations by PTI leaders in the wake of the SC verdict and after assuming control of Punjab. Both sides are doubling down on their positions. This foreshadows a dangerous collision course from which neither side can hope to gain but the country will certainly lose.

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

Published in Dawn, August 1st, 2022

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