Pakistan’s top priority now: Inclusive political transition
The political landscape in Pakistan has changed dramatically. Imran Khan is out of the hot seat and Shahbaz Sharif is in from the cold. The government and opposition have reversed roles – as have Khan and Sharif, from prime minister to opposition leader and vice versa. The big question is how this political role-flip will play out. Even though Khan and his party legislators lost not just the government but also quit the National Assembly in a huff, the former ruling party will remain the principal political opposition outside parliament. Khan and Sharif will have to deal with each other whether they like it or not.
The litmus test of the success of the role reversal will be if relative political stability is achieved over the next few transition months. After all, it is political instability that has triggered this role reversal. If Pakistan’s political tradition is any guide, this will be easier said than done. Both Khan and Sharif want a full five-term – the former immediately and the latter after getting the country ready for elections which may take several months. Both the opposition and the government in their reversed roles will still be dictated by their instincts about each other – bitterness will be hard to let go of at least in the short term as accusations of ineptitude and non-cooperation are flipped.
Whether new national elections happen on time as scheduled in late summer next year or within this year, both sides are expected to challenge each other politically. But if political stability is a priority – it is critical to economic stability, which is precarious – then stability will only come through a healing touch from the government. Sharif in his maiden speech in parliament has extended an olive branch by offering to establish a commission to remove misgivings of an alleged conspiracy to topple the previous government, but Khan’s party has rejected this off-hand.
The new coalition government – dominated by Sharif’s party but including otherwise traditional political rival parties of Bilawal Bhutto, Fazlur Rehman, Maqbool Siddiqui and others, should theoretically have less imperative to practice vindictive politics like their predecessor. Khan’s party, however, is hurting and angrier than before, for having lost out a make-or-break political fight and is looking to undermine the new replacement dispensation. Indeed, Khan is about to launch a public mobilization campaign to whip up support for immediate elections.
A consensus will allow an issue-based manifesto-driven political campaign for the next elections rather than bitter polarizing personality-centred politics that have ended up costing Khan his majority in parliament.
To navigate this treacherous transitional political terrain, the Sharif government must go beyond offering to settle conspiracy theories and instead float a more tangible offer of collaborative election planning, to allow the new opposition a role in reducing polarization. It helps that the new government is not here to rule for a long time – Sharif intends to clear the politico-legal path to new elections over the next several months.
A key element of any transition from being enemies to being frenemies – essentially a working relationship while remaining political rivals – will be collaborative transition management of a mutually agreed minimum agenda that both Khan and Sharif and their allies covet. Since new elections are sought by both sides, agreeing to a transition agenda of fair elections and some semblance of economic stability must be worked out.
Collaborative strategization and management of the political transition will be key to a new era of political stability. This must start with Sharif reaching out to Khan to jointly develop a charter of legal and political reforms aimed at expanding ownership and legitimacy for both sides for the pre and post election periods.
Such a common agenda of political reforms and economic recovery can work best if both sides agree that they don’t become over ambitious politically and agree to only focus on electoral and other legal reforms that can strengthen legitimacy of elections. They should also agree to not undertake any other radical decisions and leave them to the three-month neutral caretaker government – mandatory under Pakistani law – which can instead prioritize economic recovery initiatives.
Such a consensus will allow an issue-based manifesto-driven political campaign for the next elections rather than bitter polarizing personality-centred politics that have ended up costing Khan his majority in parliament thanks to an exclusionary style of politics alienating even his own party legislators, some of whom have refused his advice to resign from parliament.
Inclusion and common ground are the answers to Pakistan’s current political morass. Pursue détente, agree on a common minimum electoral reform agenda, operate within the confines of the law, throw away the rear-view mirror and look ahead. Graduate from being enemies to frenemies.
- Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science.