Pakistan’s deepening political polarization makes it harder for new government to deliver
Newly elected prime minister Shehbaz Sharif has been an old hand in Pakistan’s power politics. He has twice been the chief minister of Pakistan’s most powerful province of Punjab. But it may not be the same for him to run the affairs of the state. Notwithstanding his vast experience in administration, it will not be easy for him to govern with an unwieldy coalition comprising more than half a dozen disparate political parties that have formed the government.
With a few exceptions, they are all old faces in the cabinet dominated by two major political parties – the PMNL (N) and the PPP with some regional parties also being accommodated. All these parties may have joined hands to oust the Imran Khan government but they have their own political agendas. It remains questionable whether this motley alliance can survive for long.
It’s never easy for a coalition to rule but it is even harder for the new prime minister presiding over a cabinet with varied interests to deliver with the general elections less than a year away. A major challenge for the new government is to ease political polarization and to bring political stability in the country.
It’s evident that the formation of a new government has not ended the political crisis that has gripped the country for the past several weeks. What happened in the Punjab assembly last week during the election of a new chief minister illustrates the breakdown of the political system in the country’s biggest province.
For the first time in the country’s parliamentary history, police were called to restore order in the house as rival members engaged in physical combat. Amid the bedlam, the assembly elected the prime minister’s son Hamza Sharif as the chief minister. This kind of concentration of power within a family is not new in Pakistan’s dynastic politics.
The PTI’s decision to resign en masse from the national assembly will have serious consequences for the democratic process.
Yet the father and son duo holding the two most powerful political offices in the country demonstrates strengthening of dynastic rule. The development is certainly not a good omen for the growth of democratic culture in the country. Unfortunately, most political parties in Pakistan have been turned into family enterprises, which is also the reason for lack of institutional democracy.
Meanwhile, the PTI’s decision to resign en masse from the national assembly will have serious consequences for the democratic process. The resignation of over 120 members could paralyze parliamentary proceedings. The PTI originally had 155 members in the lower house of the parliament but some two dozen members have defected to the other side of the isle. Some reports suggest that most PTI members have reservations on the decision to quit the assembly.
It’s apparent that Imran Khan is not willing to accept his ouster gracefully and he would rather wreck the entire political system. He is now out on the streets seeking to bring down the Sharif government which he describes an “an imported government” brought into power by a “foreign conspiracy.”
His entire conspiracy narrative has been built around a cable sent by Pakistan’s former ambassador. The National Security Committee that includes senior civil and military leadership has refuted that there was any American conspiracy for regime change. But the former prime minister will not step back from his claim.
Khan’s ultra nationalist narrative seems to have galvanized his support base. His rallies across the country are drawing huge crowds. His main support comes from educated urban youth disenchanted by dynastic control of power politics. A major objective of the PTI’s campaign is to force the government to hold elections sooner. According to opinion polls, Khan’s popularity has increased significantly after his ouster. That has compounded the Sharif government’s predicament.
Prime minister Shehbaz Sharif has set a clear agenda for his administration, which may continue till the end of the year before general elections are called. Rightly, the economy is on top of the list of priorities. A major challenge for the Sharif government is to bring down inflation and prevent a possible economic meltdown. For that the government needs to take some tough and unpopular measures.
Given the gravity of the situation, they cannot be delayed. The government is already engaged with the IMF for the continuation of a bail-out package. Some analysts warn that a Sri Lankan type of economic breakdown can happen if timely decisions are not taken. But with an eye on the coming polls, the coalition government appears to be extremely careful not to take steps that could affect their electoral prospects. The deepening political polarization has made the task of the government more difficult.
— Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson Centre and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with Militant Islam and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan. Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ. His latest book ‘No-Win War’ was published this year.