When politics breaks down

Published November 14, 2022
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

POLITICS seems to have broken down completely in the country. Amid intensifying polarisation and heightened tensions, political disputes are no longer amenable to resolution by political means. Political rivals either resort to the courts or appeal to the army to promote their objectives.

It was telling that the then chief justice of the Islamabad High Court Athar Minallah urged political leaders, during a full court reference last week, not to bring their conflicts to the courts and instead strengthen parliament by resolving these issues in a democratic forum.

Prudent advice. But parliament today is a forlorn place with Imran Khan’s PTI staying out and coalition government parties mostly talking to themselves in the National Assembly. That too when a quorum can be ensured there. The absence of the opposition in the Lower House makes it all but dysfunctional.

But it is the lack of communication between the coalition government and the opposition — except through bitter and inflammatory exchanges on television — that rules out political resolution of their differences.

This gridlock is undermining the political system by marginalising parliament and of course driving politics onto the street. It also poses a threat to democracy. When politics fails and searing divides make it impossible for the political impasse to be overcome, democracy cannot function. The shell of democracy remains but it is then shorn of substance.

This has pushed the country on to uncharted territory especially with opposition-run provinces pitted against the centre. The political confrontation between the PTI and the federal government is now driving the top echelons of Punjab’s administrative and police system into a state of disorder.

It has left the country’s largest province without a full-time chief secretary and an inspector general of police who has expressed his reluctance to serve there while the political wrangle over him continues.

The drama over filing an FIR of the armed attack on Khan only underlined how chaotic the system has become. In fact, the Punjab government is in a state of virtual paralysis. It continues to make a lot of noise but fails to govern.

Instead, the provincial government has extended administrative support to the opposition’s long march, an unedifying example of a government engaging in disruptive and agitational politics. The province-centre tussle is increasingly taking an ugly turn.

The raging political crisis has brought institutions under unprecedented pressure. The superior courts are now expected not just to adjudicate on legal and constitutional issues but also decide matters ranging from allowing the opposition’s long march, stopping it, where a protest demonstration should be held in the capital and how to keep major roads open.

Read more: Army sends out big guns to plead its case

This is turning the courts into arbiters of politics, rather than arbiters of law, which is their fundamental role. On issues such as the attempted assassination of Khan and the mysterious murder of journalist Arshad Sharif, the chief justice of the Supreme Court has also been urged by the federal government to constitute judicial commissions for probes that should arguably be undertaken by other institutions.

But as public confidence is low in the capability of these institutions to conduct impartial investigations, the pressure comes on the apex court. This places courts in the cross hairs of political storms. This of course is not new.

The country has a long history of courts mediating in constitutional disputes which is what they are supposed to do. They have also mediated political disputes in times of crisis dealing with matters that ostensibly have constitutional implications. But the frequency with which warring political sides are now resorting to the higher judiciary is placing an unprecedented burden on them.

It was therefore no surprise that Supreme Court Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial recently reminded petitioners that the court cannot assume the role of the executive branch of government even if the suo motu jurisdiction empowered it to look into issues involving the breach of fundamental rights.

The showdown may be nearing a climactic point but its outcome is hard to predict.

Meanwhile Imran Khan’s azadi march has resumed, which has been preceded and accompanied by PTI protests and road blockades that have disrupted life in several cities. His provocative statements about the establishment have served to up the ante on the military leadership to force their hand.

While hurling allegations against the army — even accusing a senior army officer of complicity in a plot to assassinate him — he is, at the same time, seeking the army’s support to help meet his demand for immediate elections and remove the coalition government.

In essence, Khan’s criticism of the establishment isn’t that it wields too much political influence but that it is no longer willing to back him. That is why he keeps taunting the military for its ‘neutrality’. Far from opposing military intervention in politics, he appears to want the army to intervene on his behalf.

Exclusive: Imran's candid take on 'bad romance' with military

The danger now looms of the tense situation snowballing into civil strife. The showdown between the government and opposition may be nearing a climactic point but its outcome is hard to predict. In view of this, many believe that calling elections sooner rather than later can avert what appears to be certain political chaos ahead.

A recent survey by the Institute of Public Opinion Research showed that a large majority of respondents, 63 per cent, support immediate elections and only 29pc want the present assemblies and the coalition government to complete their term. Significantly, and perhaps paradoxically, over half of those surveyed want his party to return to the National Assembly to achieve its political objectives. A significant majority of respondents, 59pc, do not support Imran Khan’s long march.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif after consultations with Mian Nawaz Sharif in London announced that his government will not accede to the demand for early elections. With neither side prepared to back down, the battle lines are sharply drawn, making the situation untenable. That only portends more escalation in political tensions with increasingly uncertain consequences for both a fragile democracy and a shaky economy.

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

Published in Dawn, November 14th, 2022

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