Pakistan has seen several extreme levels of confrontation between political actors in its 75 years of existence. A mammoth people’s movement had mobilised against the 10-year-long rule of then president Field Marshal Ayub Khan in 1968 when his government was busy celebrating the ‘decade of development’. Almost all opposition political parties had banded together and the agitation gradually spread across both East and West Pakistan. Hundreds of protesters died in the mass uprising. Ayub Khan was considered a military dictator and his government was branded as the most corrupt by the opposition parties. Ayub Khan considered most opposition parties anti-Pakistan. Despite the huge gulf that separated the two parties, they were able to sit face-to-face at a roundtable conference in February 1969 to resolve thorny constitutional issues.
Included among Ayub Khan’s interlocutors was Sheikh Mujib ur Rehman, who was in prison facing a sedition trial in the then East Pakistan but was released under special arrangements to be a part of the dialogue. The only notable absentee was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who thought that his politics would be better served by boycotting the roundtable conference. The roundtable was successful, as Ayub Khan accepted almost all the demands of the opposition, including withdrawing as a presidential candidate in the next election; however, by then the army chief Yahya Khan had developed his own ambitions to succeed Ayub Khan and did not allow a smooth transition to the next civilian set-up. He imposed martial law and took over the reins of government.
Another public uprising developed in 1977 against prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhuttto, after what was popularly believed to be massive rigging of the general election. The agitation turned violent. Martial law in a few cities and deployment of the army could not stem the tide of the anti-Bhutto movement. Despite bitter relations between Bhutto and the opposition Pakistan National Alliance, the two sat together and almost agreed on re-election and the associated details. The Saudi ambassador in Islamabad at that time, Riad al Khateeb, played an important role in mediating between Bhutto and the opposition camp, which led to the dialogue. Sadly, the confrontation, despite the dialogue, culminated in yet another martial law.
Even when Gen Ziaul Haq held almost absolute powers as president and army chief, an apparently weak prime minister, Muhammad Khan Junejo, took the daring step of inviting opposition leaders, including Zia’s arch-rival Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, to an all-parties conference in March 1988 for consultation on a peace agreement in Afghanistan. Benazir Bhutto, despite her opposition to the Zia regime, actively participated in the conference.
Is there any entity which can facilitate a political dialogue between the warring sides?
Even as recently as December 2014, in the aftermath of the Army Public School tragedy in Peshawar, all political leaders — including Imran Khan, who was spearheading an extended sit-in in Islamabad against the Nawaz Sharif government at the time — came to an all-parties conference to agree on a National Action Plan to fight the scourge of terrorism. Then army chief Gen Raheel Sharif played a key role in convincing Imran Khan to call off the sit-in and attend the conference.
Parliamentarians from parties as diverse as the ruling PML-N, the main opposition party PPP and even PTI sat together in a parliamentary committee on electoral reforms to approve the Elections Act, 2017, through consensus. A key PTI legislator at the time (and now president), Dr Arif Alvi, even chaired a sub-committee to develop recommendations for the use of technology in the elections. All this took place after a bitter assault by the PTI and its ally PAT on Islamabad in August 2014 to dislodge Nawaz Sharif’s government.
A sea change in the national political scene seems to have taken place in the aftermath of the dramatic developments of 2017-2018, when Nawaz Sharif was removed as prime minister and Imran Khan took oath of office in August 2018. There has been no face-to-face contact between the top leadership of the PTI and that of the PML-N/PPP since then. Imran Khan did not participate in an important meeting with the opposition in February 2019, after Indian planes had bombed Balakot and the two countries had come perilously close to a nuclear showdown. The Constitution requires consultation between the prime minister and the leader of the opposition to appoint the chief election commissioner and members of the Election Commission, but Imran Khan has consistently refused to meet the opposition leader, and instead, decided to hold consultations through the exchange of letters.
Is there common ground between the government and the opposition parties today? Is there a platform both can avail to sit across the table and discuss the contentious issues which divide them? Is there any entity which can facilitate a badly needed dialogue? Pakistan is faced with the prospect of staggered elections of the national and provincial assemblies, with the associated financial and political implications at a time of the gravest economic crisis in the country’s history. Cant the two parties agree on a date when elections to all assemblies can take place concurrently, saving billions of rupees and making greater political stability a possibility?
In the past, the security establishment played an important role in bringing feuding political parties to the table like they did in December 2014. It doesn’t seem to enjoy that convening power anymore. Friendly countries like Saudi Arabia mediated in the past when no one was influential enough within the country to make two parties talk to each other. Today, there is hardly any friendly country that enjoys clout with both sides. We don’t have a statesman of the stature of Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan, who had the knack of bringing together warring political parties like the PML-N and PPP in the 1980s.
Today, it is only public pressure, helped by the media, that can nudge the political parties into talking to each other. Can the people, civil society and media assume a non-partisan role to provide common ground and make the impossible possible? We should not forget the price of the failures we paid in 1969 and 1977.
The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.
Published in Dawn, February 17th, 2023