Worsening poll uncertainty

Published July 12, 2023
The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

IT seems that the ruling coalition has still not made up its mind about the election date, even though only four weeks are left for the current term of the National Assembly to expire. The confusion is unsettling. The conflicting statements emanating from the prime minister and some senior members of allied parties on the matter are baffling.

There is no indication yet of the political parties gearing up for the hustings. The usual electioneering that should have started by now, with just weeks left for the dissolution of the National Assembly, is absent. It is all quite inexplicable. So, what’s cooking in the corridors of hybrid power? The indecision is intriguing and it is intensifying the political uncertainty in the country.

Meanwhile, the old game of political engineering is on, raising questions about the fairness of the entire electoral process. The ruling coalition seems to have completely aligned itself with the powers that be in the ongoing project that is apparently meant to obtain a ‘positive outcome’ from the elections, whenever they are held. With the die already cast, the fear is that we may witness more of a pretence of a democratic transition.

Curiously, the present hybrid rule doesn’t appear very different from the power arrangement that existed at the time of the PTI government. What was previously deemed wrong has now become kosher, with only a change in alignment. The shadow of the establishment has hardly receded.

With just weeks left before the NA’s term ends, there is no sign of electioneering.

In fact, the role of the security agencies is far more pronounced, with increasing incidents of midnight knocks. The forced disappearances, which have long been a norm in the smaller provinces, have now come to the heartland. Political victimisation is the rule of the game and state oppression is justified in the name of national security.

Freedom of expression and democratic rights have been virtually suspended. The ban on the broadcast and publication of statements of the main opposition leader makes the whole situation a mockery of democracy.

However, such curbs don’t work in the age of social media. One may completely disagree with the destructive populist politics of former prime minister Imran Khan, but such restrictions are counterproductive and only increase public resentment and intensify the politics of confrontation.

It may be true that almost all major political parties, which are part of the present dispensation, have experienced persecution in the past. But now in government, these parties are using the same coercive power of the state, which they were once a victim of, against their opponents.

It seems that Pakistani politics is stuck in a vicious cycle of vengeance. Now it is the turn of the former prime minister to face persecution in the same way the former opposition leaders had suffered under his rule.

Khan is facing scores of cases on charges ranging from murder to terrorism and corruption in various parts of the country. It is a ridiculous situation. It seems that our political leadership has never learnt any lesson from history. We may have witnessed similar or even worse political repression in the past, but what is happening now has polarised the country much more.

One must see beyond this false sense of stability: the ongoing political confrontation and the use of coercive power by the state could lead to further political instability. The entire power structure has been shaken, with deep cracks emerging within the ranks of the power elites.

Never before in Pakistan’s history have state institutions been so divided. The country is fast moving towards a state of disarray, with the virtual collapse of the rule of law.

Interestingly, there is a sense of euphoria in the government with the IMF deal coming through. The $3 billion Stand-by Arrangement spread over nine months may have given some breathing space to the country and helped avert immediate default on external debt repayments, but there is nothing to celebrate as there are a number of challenges for our heavily debt-ridden economy.

It is true that borrowed funds from friendly countries may keep us afloat for a while, but long-term structural reform to move forward is urgently needed — and that is hard to achieve in the ongoing unstable political situation. We are lurching from crisis to crisis. Economic stability is directly linked to political stability. The lack of firm commitment from the government to hold elections within the stipulated timeframe will only add to the uncertainty.

What is needed is the will to bring down the political temperature and create a conducive atmosphere for political reconciliation. It may be true that Imran Khan’s confrontational politics is largely responsible for destabilising the democratic process and that it has also been the reason why some senior PTI leaders are abandoning the PTI.

However, one only hopes that Khan has learned some lessons from the political cost that he has had to bear for his reckless and confrontational politics.

But it is mainly the responsibility of the government to take steps to ease the tension. It could not be possible with Khan and other PTI leaders being implicated in fabricated cases. Surely, the May 9 violence is deplorable but it does not help to use this incident as an excuse to dismantle the PTI.

The spectacle of PTI leaders reading from the same script denouncing the May 9 attacks and resigning from the party exposes the government’s real game plan. There must be an open inquiry into the incident rather than using it as a pretext for political repression.

There is also talk about banning the PTI and disqualifying former prime minister Imran Khan. But such a move is not going to break the party. Both the government and the establishment have failed to realise the volatility of the situation. The use of brute force cannot deliver.

Elections may not provide the solution to all our problems but they are the only way out of the present political morass. Indeed, it is imperative for all stakeholders to reach a consensus on a mechanism that can ensure the conduct of free and fair elections. And it should be remembered that any move to delay the elections on any pretext will be disastrous for the country’s stability and unity.

The writer is an author and journalist.
zhussain100@yahoo.com
Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, July 12th, 2023

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