At loggerheads: What is shaping political confrontation?

At loggerheads: What is shaping political confrontation?


There is a stale stench of politics of the same kind; only actors, context, issues and style of political conflict have given way to the new player. For well over a century, and even more, Pakistan politics has acquired many lasting patterns, but one is the most defining one, and that is confrontations between a governing party or coalition of parties and the party or coalition in the opposition. Barring a few occasions of working together —adoption of the constitution or amending it — the parties and their leaders have either been holding a stick of power to beat the opposition, or the opposition taking to the streets to pull down an elected government. The dictum according to which the Pakistani elites have played the musical-chair type of power politics is simple and equally self-destructive — if we don’t have a piece of the cake enough to satisfy our appetite, we wouldn’t let you have it, and eat it too. But how can a parliamentary democracy, with a principle of winner-takes-all, share power with the opposition party or parties? When it comes to holding a public office on account of a popular mandate determined by the majority, you would have a singly center of power, an agenda, a set of policies, and more importantly, control over public resources to affect politics and direction of the country. 

A regular, well-accepted norm and a concept behind it is a political system which has two parts; the government and the opposition. Further, repetition of the first-passed-the-pole electoral system by design and necessity of practical politics jells into a two-party system. The institutional framework of the parliament, its committee system and the conventions formed over the centuries has defined the relationship between the opposition and the government. Actually, the term ‘loyal opposition’ means the second largest party in the parliament would act as an official opposition and function as a government-in-waiting. The parties elect leadership, including the prime minister and the opposition leader, the two key players, through the party system within the parliament. True, they play the game of power politics, which the problems of the time—for instance, in Britain today, Brexit—shape, not the issue-less opposition for the sake of opposition.

The problem with the Pakistani parliamentary democracy is that it is being run in a very different societal context. Other post-colonial, developing democracies face the dilemma of western democratic transplant in a feudal, tribal and traditional social climate that lacks the benefit of deep history of institutional development of industrial democracies. That is the main reason for dysfunctional democracies around the world, and specifically in Pakistan. A legitimate electoral and political party contest often gets degenerated into personalized hostility, character assassination, abuse, belittling, and mutual exchange of insults. That leaves building working parliamentary relations, political trust and accommodation, even protecting the best of national interests quite an impossible task.

Barring a few occasions of working together —adoption of the constitution or amending it — the parties and their leaders have either been holding a stick of power to beat the opposition, or the opposition taking to the streets to pull down an elected government.

Rasul Bakhsh Rais

This is exactly what we are witnessing in Pakistan today. What we have discussed above are the contextual factors, deeply rooted in the political culture of Pakistan and in its political sociology. There are three specific issues that have shaped the current political confrontation, which is getting so bad with the passage of every day; one cannot miss portents for instability and political disorder. First, Imran Khan’s narrative of corruption against the two major—family-run—political parties, the PPP and the PMLN, has exposed, and continues to do so, the major characters of these parties that have ruled Pakistan alternatively for forty years. He rightly or wrongly holds them responsible for all the ills of the society, politics and the economy. This is another matter that during and after the last elections he made peace with some of the ‘corrupt’ political elements, warmly welcoming them into the fold of his party or as coalition partners to get the numbers to form his government at the center and in the largest province, the Punjab. Even when he is in power, Khan never misses an opportunity of questioning the integrity of the leaders of the two parties.

Second, it is not just easy to believe stories of so much corruption of the two major parties, but the actual accountability process that is underway against them. To be fair, the judiciary and the National Accountability Bureau — the watchdog institution against corruption — started investigating and prosecuting corruption cases when the PMLN was in power. What triggered the process was the leaking of the Panama Papers that has exposed the corruption of not only Pakistani business and political elites but also many around the world. Since values and principles are for someone else, the opposition parties, and even those within the government would not like to play by them. The opposition is confrontational because it thinks a stable and effective government with a focus on holding the corrupt accountable would end the role of the two political dynasties—Zardari and Sharif. Reactively, they are employing every trick of the political trade to malign, weaken and destabilize Khan’s government. Khan has resolved to addressing a host of legacy issues, like deficit, revenue generation, health and other reforms that remained hostage to political expediency for decades. As the reforms efforts, like the withdrawal of subsidies, affects the some sections of the society, the opposition finds a good opportunity to hold Khan responsible. The opposition’s strategy is clear in taking him down before he the rest of the country can see the rewards to reforms, which may take quite a few years.

Finally, the Tehreek-e-Insaaf as the new political party with a solid base among the youth and a message of change and hope has succeeded in shaking the foundations of conventional politics. Since the two parties have very little to show in terms of achievements on which to stage a come back, they have only one option, which is to confront and paralyze the functioning of the government, eventually characterizing it as a failure. This is the war cry of the opposition since day one. We already have the battle plan drawn out and the old foes becoming new partners and vowing to launch a movement against the government. It seems we may witness more of the same politics, but also test the leadership of Khan and how good he is in handling the looming crisis.

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