No capacity for dialogue

Published May 21, 2023
The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

IN the ongoing political crisis, Pakistan’s power elites have squandered the little space that was left for reconciliation. Another cruel phase of political engineering is in the offing. Apparently, the establishment seems fully intent on cutting those challenging its supremacy down to size. The establishment is trying its utmost to resist. Irrespective of who ‘wins’ this war of attrition, the country and its people will be the ultimate losers.

One can understand the frustration of the establishment that the challenger is none other than their former blue-eyed prime minister who is trying to disrupt the order they want to establish. It is not happening for the first time. The establishment has bitter memories of similar cases that it dealt with in its own way. However, Imran Khan has taken resistance to another, unprecedented level. As the events of violence unfolded after his arrest, the establishment showed zero capacity for dialogue or reconciliation. A few observers are comparing the situation with post-Arab Spring Egypt and the ongoing political crisis in Myanmar. In Egypt, the military eventually crushed the Ikhwan, and the military junta relegated Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy to the margins in Myanmar. One hopes something like that won’t happen here. Pakistan’s context and circumstances are entirely different.

People also tend to compare such situations to the 1971 tragedy, as political rationale always touches an extreme point during crises. History could have been different if the political and military leadership had chosen the path of reconciliation. This is how the common man thinks, perhaps rightly so. The current political chaos is different from that of 1971, but the economic and diplomatic challenges are worse. Pakistan’s close friends, who had extended a helping hand to the country in the 1970s, may also be worried about the situation. However, everyone has bitter memories of their relationship with the power elites of the country, who live under the mistaken impression that no one is smarter than them.

Nations derive their strength from internal cohesion. Fractured power elites cannot create cohesiveness among their ranks or in society. They derive power from divisions and the powerful among them craft a power-sharing mechanism that always favours their own interests. Negotiation or dialogue is a tool for effectively distributing power, but the powerful do not want to sacrifice their strength. The establishment and Imran Khan both believe they are powerful. The establishment wants to avoid opening an overt conversation channel with Khan, and he is unwilling to talk to the PDM-led coalition government.

There are no clear-cut winners or losers in this battle for supremacy.

Khan relies on his inflated self-belief, and has created an impressive support base by using populist narratives. He does not want to strengthen political institutionalisation in the country, which could help the political elites to better negotiate with the establishment. He does not want to share his political capital. With his toxic narrative, he has pushed PDM deep into the establishment’s domain.

Khan seems to be employing a deliberate strategy as he binds the establishment and PDM together in his anti-corruption narrative. He wants to push the establishment to a point where it is left with few options but to roll back the Constitution. Of course, the establishment is an experienced political actor and will try everything to curtail the powers of Imran Khan. Whatever the result, political pundits are not off the mark when they say that there are no clear-cut winners or losers in this conflict.

The ongoing vendetta is a hurdle in the reconciliation process, and the PML-N would be happy to see the ‘engineering process’ target the PTI the same way it targeted the PML-N in the 2018 elections. When political parties do not have democracy within their own ranks, their dependence on the establishment increases and they make shortsighted choices.

The small parties do not effectively intervene in such scenarios and always look for opportunities hidden in the crisis. Who knows the value of reconciliation better than the PPP whose late leader not only wrote a fabulous account in Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West but also negotiated a Charter of Democracy with the party’s main political opponent, the PML-N, and created political space through reconciling with military dictator Gen Musharraf? However, the party is now cautious as it sees itself as a smart political player and advises reconciliation in a softer tone, all the while looking upon itself as the future choice of the establishment.

It is ironic that political parties do not learn a lesson from the fallout of political engineering of other parties. A vicious cycle is weakening society and its cultural ethos. Each political actor, including the establishment, capitalises on its interest, without realising that the state and its institutions are deteriorating and losing confidence that is essential for cohesion.

A power game is being played by the elites, who are using support by the public to maximise their gains. If the masses lose hope in the system and become only spectators, it will further alienate them; religious extremism could then aggravate the situation. So far, the militants and extremist parties have been simply taunting the establishment and political actors, but when they see a wider vacuum being created they will not hesitate to jump in. This is the nightmare of many of Pakistan’s friends. They may have apprehensions about the power elites’ attitude towards the country, however, extremism will erode society’s potential to think rationally, and power elites will become more fractured.

If asked, some political economy analysts explain that a fractured elite is more dangerous than extremism, as small factions of elite elements gang up against the weak and block democratic institutionalisation. Anyone who is still optimistic, despite the country’s deepening political crisis, should take a close look at the Fragile States Index. States with fractured elites may not necessarily disintegrate, but their social and economic indicators remain weak.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, May 21st, 2023

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