Pakistan’s angry politics has frozen policymaking

Pakistan’s angry politics has frozen policymaking

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In his phone-in engagement with the public on television on a cold evening this week, Prime Minister Imran Khan warmed up the airwaves speaking out against many things, including his challenge of dealing with the leader of the opposition. “I consider him a criminal, not opposition leader,” he said about Shehbaz Sharif, his counterpart across the aisle in the National Assembly.

From both a political and a citizen’s perspective, this is problematic for many reasons.

From a political perspective, the primary responsibility of the prime minister under Pakistan’s constitutional parliamentary system is to be accountable to the house that elected him, including both the treasury and opposition benches. The responsibility of leading this accountability officially lies with the opposition leader. The only edge the leader of the house – the PM – has over the leader of the opposition, is his official assignment to govern the country. The leader of the opposition is his equal in the house as one of two members given the responsibility of running parliament together.

From the citizen’s perspective, Sharif is as much a representative of the people as Khan is. Both were not only voted into parliament by the electorate, both gentlemen also secured mandates through majority votes from the treasury and opposition benches respectively. Under law this arrangement mandates them to work together to assert the sovereignty and supremacy of parliament in implementing the people’s popular mandate of a functional democracy.  

This latest TV appearance was not the first such incident.

It deeply impacts both the spirit of politics, the procedures of democracy and the duty of inclusive policymaking by suspending a working relationship in parliament.

Adnan Rehmat

In a democracy, politics is all about competing narratives and strategies on representing the electorate. In a messy democracy like Pakistan where unfounded allegations are par for the course, many get away with what would amount to conviction for defamation in a functional democracy. But even accounting for low Pakistani standards of political decency, unbridled personalized attacks against official counterparts in parliament is a negation of official duty.

It deeply impacts both the spirit of politics, the procedures of democracy and the duty of inclusive policymaking by suspending a working relationship in parliament.

The fact is, Sharif is the elected opposition leader, who also happens to head the largest opposition party and has not been convicted by any court of law.

How can Sharif – or indeed anyone for that matter – be a criminal without being convicted? The prime minister must understand and accept this.

A leader’s inability to differentiate the imperatives of politics in opposition and while in power can cripple politics into non-delivery. The prime minister’s refusal to sit with the opposition leader, as mandated in law, to jointly appoint commissioners of the Election Commission, chairman of NAB and chairman of the Public Account Committee has already created crises. Policymaking is essentially frozen. Pakistan’s first formal National Security Policy has received a poor welcome precisely because the government did not consult the opposition, leaving its political ownership severely restricted.  

If the PTI leadership continues this course, Pakistan is headed for the mother of all political crises when it may come time to appoint a caretaker prime minister for an interim government before the next elections. Everything hinges on negotiating with the opposition leader. Without an opposition leader, there can’t be a prime minister. One can’t be both. Non-inclusive politics make for dictatorships, not democracy and that would be a poor legacy indeed.

– Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science.

Twitter: @adnanrehmat1

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