Transitions and instability

Published April 23, 2024
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

A CLIP from a recent television talk show is doing the rounds on the banned platform, X. In it, a journalist/ commentator discusses how rumours of a possible extension for the Supreme Court chief justice have cropped up time and again.

The option was ‘discussed’ during the tenures of Saqib Nisar and Asif Saeed Khosa, he says. The present times are no different, it appears, for he mentions how the rumour has come up again and how he would be in favour of the current Chief Justice Qazi Faez Isa accepting an extension.

However, he does hasten to emphasise that this was his personal opinion and nothing more. It is an important caveat because there are no reports of the chief justice being interested in such a move but this has not put an end to these rumours.

Such chitchat, like the monsoon cycle, is a seasonal occurrence. Whenever the moment is ripe, it seems to appear out of nowhere and pervades the air in Islamabad as does the humidity in those rainy days, before vanishing one day. Those of us who do not speak to the most powerful can never really understand how the rumours begin or end. But we do hear of them, as do most others.

This seasonal occurrence is not limited to the job tenure of those leading the robed men on Constitution Avenue. There are other positions of power, too, where during times of transition, rumours of an extension swirl around, sucking all the oxygen out of Islamabad and politics, as well.

How and why have these moments of transition turned into longer periods of instability?

It would not be wrong to say transitions at key positions have now become so critical that they turn into moments of instability for overall political and governance structures. And in these moments, little else is taken seriously.

Consider simply the previous transition last summer during the last few months of chief justice Umar Ata Bandial; the skirmishes between him and his successor took place in public. Letters were written by both sides, judges refused to sit on benches, cases of a political nature dominated the discussions and so on. There was considerable uncertainty and consequently, the Supreme Court appeared more like a public spectacle than a serious appellate forum.

The confusion and uncertainty only died down when the transition took place — and that too for just a short while. One reason for this could be the larger political situation but also because the current chief’s tenure is such a short one that it took barely a few months before the rumours of an extension erupted again. And along with it come the stirrings from within to reduce the chances of such a move. For many argue the dissent is more than just opinions about certain decisions or policies.

As mentioned, these uncomfortable transitions are not limited to the big white building on Constitution Avenue. They extend to other institutions too. Indeed, the military has proven to be just as vulnerable at times. Simply consider the tenure of Gen Bajwa; one interpretation of the political engineering of 2017 onwards is that the PML-N government under Nawaz Sharif may not have agreed to an extension, which was at the time easier to manage through a weak PTI government seen to be more dependent on the machinations of the establishment than solid public support.

And by then, even a weak and cornered PML-N was willing to back such a move, in order to repair its relationship with the powers that be. If this interpretation is to be accepted, the magnitude of the intervention in comparison to the goal is mind-boggling.

A similar explanation can also be found of the events leading up to the vote of no-confidence and its aftermath in 2022 — that it was manufactured (which many within the PDM government have now acknowledged) to ensure the PTI and Imran Khan were not in power to make the crucial decision in the November of 2022.

The point here is that one reason Pakistan is facing longer periods of instability is the frequency with which we experience longer and longer periods of uncertainty and jostling at the time of each critical transition. Ideally, this uncertainty should be limited to the political transition through elections, which would then yield a government to supervise the constitutional manner in which other transitions are managed.

However, what has happened instead is that the players are perhaps now all planning moves to influence or shape one transition in order to manage or orchestrate their own. The right chief can ensure the right election and the right election which brings to power the right set-up can then ensure the right chief.

And what this means is that, to a five-year period of an election cycle has now been added a three-year period of a chief’s tenure along with the possibility of an extension. If the transition at the Supreme Court also is beset with similar problems, we may just add a third cycle of uncertainty.

What this means is that the periods where the focus should be on governance and policymaking will end up becoming shorter and shorter. This does not bode well for a country whose crises continue to grow primarily because the political instability allows little time for mid- to long-term planning and implementation.

However, the larger issue here is to identify how and why these moments of transition have turned into longer periods of instability. It is not as if controversies were not present earlier — they were there, as were rumours of possible extensions. They have, nonetheless, become more intense now, as has the jostling.

Is it because the rules governing the transitions have weakened further (as has much else in society)? Or has more power been centralised in these positions, which, in turn, makes the appointments all the more crucial? Or is it that the jostling during these transitions has increased? It is hard to find a simple answer. As is the solution.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, April 23rd, 2024

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