State of turmoil

Published August 15, 2022
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

OPPOSITION leader Imran Khan’s political strategy seems to be mired in confusion and contradiction. But on closer examination it is driven by a single aim — to keep his support base in a state of constant mobilisation in readiness for general elections, whenever they are called.

Khan directed his party legislators to resign from the National Assembly. But PTI contested by-elections for the very seats they vacated. Khan has also announced he will be the candidate in all upcoming by-elections for nine NA seats. The purpose is to demonstrate his personal electoral appeal. His legislators continue to retain membership of the Senate. He backed his ally Parvez Elahi in the election for Punjab chief minister and PTI members are now ensconced in the provincial cabinet.

This strategy appears contradictory. But it is a politically expedient one designed to serve the objective of mounting maximum pressure on the coalition government — from within and outside the system.

What has been a surprise is that he did not ask Elahi to dissolve the Punjab Assembly, in addition to dissolving the PTI-controlled KP Assembly, which would have forced the federal government to call elections.

Immediate polls have been Khan’s principal demand since his ouster from power. While he continues to issue ‘ultimatums’, he seems content, after seizing control of Punjab, to wait and use the time to galvanise his base, build political momentum and try to weaken the coalition government. He probably figures that the PML-N-led government is losing political ground in the face of tough IMF-dictated economic measures it has been compelled to take. This may help the country to avert default but it is exacting a heavy political price.

The ECP’s ruling on the foreign funding case has of course delivered a big blow to Khan and his party’s credibility. To have received “unauthorised funds” from foreign nationals, prohibited by law, has undermined PTI’s self-righteous claims of having the only leadership with integrity that abides by the law. Its response to the verdict has been characteristic — a combination of legal challenges and demonstration of ‘people power’. That, however, may not be enough to end Khan’s troubles on this count which could involve a bruising and long legal battle.

Whatever political manoeuvres his party engages in — accusing the chief election commissioner of political bias and protests against ECP — there is no escaping the fact that Khan cannot place himself above the law. The misdeclaration he made to the ECP has consequences.

The coalition government has directed FIA to launch an investigation into the prohibited funds case. But it is overreaching with claims by some federal ministers that the ECP verdict is enough to proscribe PTI.

As many constitutional lawyers have pointed out there is no legal basis for such action. Politically such a move would be disastrous. Pakistan’s history testifies not just to the futility of such action but to its lasting deleterious repercussions for the country’s politics.

Political leaders should set aside their partisan interests to agree on a pause in their confrontation.

That doesn’t mean PDM parties will resist using the ruling to move the Supreme Court for a determination of whether Khan is ‘sadiq’ or ‘amin’ — invoking the very constitutional clause used to disqualify former prime minister Nawaz Sharif for life. If it was a questionable and politically motivated determination then, invoking it now would be just as controversial.

Having said that the law has to follow its course which obliges PTI to respond to ECP’s show cause notice to explain why it should not seize the prohibited funds.

Read: Risk of a perfect storm

Meanwhile, Khan’s strategy to take on all the country’s institutions is proving to be imprudent and counterproductive. He has criticised the judiciary when it has given an unfavourable ruling, assailed the ECP and launched virulent attacks on those he calls ‘neutrals’ ie the army.

Encouraged by his combative rhetoric, his chief of staff’s vitriolic utterances crossed a red line on television by calling on members of the armed forces to disobey their high command’s orders. The private news channel that broadcast his comments was issued with a show case notice for airing “hateful and seditious” content tantamount to “incite the armed forces towards revolt”.

The channel was taken off air and Shahbaz Gill was arrested. If this is part of PTI’s strategy to mount pressure on the establishment it is clearly backfiring.

Against this unedifying backdrop, the country celebrated the 75th anniversary of its independence with the future clouded in uncertainty and the prospect of more political turmoil. Rarely has the country been so divided. Its diamond jubilee should have been marked by a demonstration of national unity and solidarity. Instead, Pakistan celebrated this historic milestone in an environment of political polarisation and economic fragility.

At this important juncture, no political leader in and out of government, has taken the long view and gone beyond immediate political considerations, to offer a vision or road map of where they want the country to go from here.

All governments in the recent past have been preoccupied with politicking and operating in crisis management mode, postponing reform and looking for pain-free, short-term economic ‘solutions’ rather than a longer-term approach to deal with the country’s festering structural problems.

The interplay between politics and the economy is consequential for the country. For decades, dysfunctional politics and fiscally irresponsible economic policies have reinforced each other to contribute to the crisis Pakistan faces today.

The only way out of this crisis is for political leaders to set aside their partisan interests and agree on a pause to their confrontation. Their focus should instead be on the formidable challenges confronting the country.

Most overlap and have been feeding off and reinforcing each other in an unbroken, vicious cycle over the past many decades. They include the structural crisis of the economy, erosion of the state’s institutional capacity, the education deficit, unrestrained population growth, environmental degradation and growing intolerance in society. Security challenges also endure with an unstable Afghanistan on the western frontier, a hostile India on the country’s eastern flank and resurgence of militant groups within the country.

Can the country afford the political turmoil and power struggles in play today when such imposing challenges wait to be addressed?

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

Published in Dawn, August 15th, 2022

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