Pakistan’s moment of peril

Published May 22, 2023
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

NEVER before in its turbulent history has Pakistan witnessed what came to pass in recent weeks. Violence and wanton destruction of government buildings and military property by PTI followers after their leader’s (temporary) arrest.

An angry protest demonstration by ruling coalition parties outside the Supreme Court, which called on the chief justice (CJ) to resign for ‘favouring Imran Khan’; some leaders even threatening “dire consequences” from any court action against Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif.

The overarching political reality today is resistance by political parties to play by the rules. For months the government-opposition confrontation has been so fierce and unrestrained that no longer are any rules respected by the warring sides. Meanwhile, the military, furious at allegations by opposition leader Imran Khan and vandalisation of army installations, lashed out at “politically motivated” attacks and pledged to bring the perpetrators of violence to justice under army laws.

For his part, Khan alleged a ‘planned conspiracy’ to defame his party and create the justification to ban PTI. When a crackdown was launched against his party cadres and several members began to quit PTI, his tone softened but he still claimed he was being targeted to prevent his return to power. In another twist in the crisis, the Lahore High Court struck down decisions of the Election Commission and National Assembly Speaker on the resignations of 72 PTI lawmakers, who Khan then asked to return to parliament to protest there.

The raging political crisis has dragged all state institutions into the eye of a perfect storm. Polarisation has reached an unprecedented level, with any middle ground in politics eliminated as a consequence.

Even a semblance of national unity lies shattered. With neither side willing to back down, the political system is broken and democracy imperilled by the no-holds-barred power tussle. Endless political turmoil has pushed the country to the edge of the abyss.

The authority of state institutions is being eroded in a no-holds-barred political battle.

All state institutions have come under assault. The ruling coalition defied the Supreme Court order on holding Punjab elections and made the chief justice the target of virulent attack to force him to step down. To pre-empt any contempt action by the court it is also planning a ‘reference’ for ‘misconduct’ against the CJ, as indicated by a resolution adopted by the National Assembly last week.

The government has also declared it won’t accept any verdict by the apex court, accusing it of being partisan. In its confrontation with the SC, it has wrapped itself in the principle of parliamentary supremacy, throwing the very notion of separation of powers out of the window. It also adopted legislation to curb the CJ’s powers.

For its part, the PTI leadership has questioned the military’s role with Khan hurling one allegation after another at the army leadership, including the accusation that it seeks to disqualify and eliminate him from politics. Such attacks prompted a predictably strong response from the military’s public relations wing.

The ongoing political crisis has also entailed unseemly clashes between institutions — the executive and parliament with the higher judiciary, the government with the presidency and the Election Commission with the Supreme Court. In each instance one institution has accused the other of overstepping its constitutional authority.

When the pillars of state clash or come under attack by political leaders, then whatever the aim, the consequence is to bring their credibility into question and reputation into disrepute. This can involve lasting institutional damage which, as history has shown, takes a long time to undo.

By undermining public trust in institutions, political actors ignore its deleterious consequences. The authority of these institutions rests principally on their legitimacy. When this is undermined, whether intended or unintended, the state’s authority is eroded. And when brinkmanship rather than restraint is on display the entire edifice of governance is exposed to the risk of paralysis and breakdown.

This has important implications for economic governance, which is the core task of the state. The economy cannot be effectively managed in an environment where there is erosion of institutional authority and nonstop political turmoil.

The implementation of economic decisions, especially the tough decisions needed today, rests on public compliance and acceptance of the legitimacy of government actions in this regard. But in an atmosphere where all state authority is being challenged, economic decisions too come into public question. This can lead to weak compliance or non-compliance with policy decisions, which in turn can jeopardise economic recovery.

At a time when the worst economic crisis in Pakistan’s history needs to be seriously confronted the country can least afford the erosion of state authority. Already the political battle has proved to be a fatal distraction for the government, preventing it from taking timely and prudent decisions to avert an economic breakdown.

Heightened political instability is exacting a heavy toll on the economy. The country remains on the verge of default while a cost-of-living crisis is creating conditions for possible public unrest down the road.

In this complex situation, questions are being raised by some quarters whether general elections, due in October, can be held in such a toxic and fraught atmosphere. There is certainly a need to bring down the political temperature and establish a modicum of calm for the peaceful conduct of elections.

But any move to postpone elections beyond the constitutionally stipulated timeframe will be a recipe for disaster and cause more, not less, political turmoil. In fact, announcing a date for elections is still the only way the country can extricate itself from the escalating political crisis, which is endangering both the economy and national unity.

Ideally, a political ceasefire and minimum consensus is needed between rival parties and leaders on an agreed path to elections and rules for its conduct. But the failure of talks between the government and opposition have put paid to such an outcome. The widening crackdown against the opposition has now made any resumption of dialogue impossible.

Even so, the only way out of the present political quagmire is for the government to put the country’s interests before its own and fix a date for elections, to enable people to decide who should govern them. In the absence of this, the country’s very future will be at stake.

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

Published in Dawn, May 22nd, 2023

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