The political tinderbox of Pakistani politics and the many flames looming
It took the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) eight long years to investigate and charge former Prime Minister Imran Khan and his PTI party of receiving political donations from foreign nationals and companies - illegal under Pakistan’s electoral laws. This is a charge that could lead to the dissolution of the party and a possible life-time ban on Khan from holding public office. And all this at a time when the ex-premier is riding a massive populist wave and his party seems on its way to becoming an unstoppable power juggernaut.
The question arises: why this, why now?
Alarm bells are going off in Islamabad. Because nothing happens in Pakistan by ‘coincidence’ and the ECP’s ruling has added dangerous fuel to the already volatile political environment. Pakistan is right now a political tinderbox and all it needs is one naked flame.
With rising inflation and the economy in a gradual slow sink, public patience is running low. Khan is using this volatile moment to try to force early general elections at any cost, while the ruling coalition is determined to stay on till mid next year. Khan controls four provincial governments while the coalition runs the federal government. And if all this wasn’t chaotic enough, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif could possibly get indicted in a money laundering case in a few weeks time. Add to the political mayhem, the crucial matter of the selection of a new army chief, or another extension for the current chief, within the next 90 days.
The army has always had a major role in shaping Pakistani politics. And depending on the personality or ambitions of its top boss, it has in the past played the role both of a stabilizer and a disruptor. This is why the appointment of the army chief is a matter of critical importance for elected prime ministers, who prefer having their ‘own trusted appointee’ in the job. Ironically, though, the tradition is that prime ministers are shown the door by their ‘own’ trusted appointees.
Traditionally, it is impossible to govern Pakistan, with any semblance of stability, without having a grip on Punjab's power levers.
Understandably, both Sharif and Khan would like to have a defining influence in this appointment. The moot question however is: what does the present army chief want himself? A safe graceful exit after facing a targeted venomous smear campaign on mainstream and social media? A third tenure extension? A definite say in choosing his successor? Or another shot at forcing warring political sides into a negotiated settlement? The last option is being feared by many skeptics as a possible first step towards the Bangkok Formula - a hybrid regime, a civilian facade with the army in the driving seat.
It is widely believed that politics in Pakistan is largely subservient to the whims of its mighty establishment - for the large part its army, historically supported by a compliant judiciary (though some short periods of exceptions did exist).
Most events here are considered pre-scripted, played out on the political screen by warring sides trying to gain the umpire’s approval to generate favorable decisions. Historically, ‘umpires’ have been valiantly brutal in picking favorites, rigging the canvass and creating victors per choice. But as is in all artificially generated realities, such permutations have short half-lives and internal decay doesn't take long to set in. It's always difficult for such dispensations to last a full term. Imran Khan's government was no exception.
Khan was brought on the wings of a fragile, and what many believe to be a manufactured, mandate. But power is delusional - even when it's artificial! It did not take him long to begin to believe that he was the genuine victor and his own 'master,’ who owed nobody anything. The farce, alas, could only last for as long as it did - 3 years and 10 months of the mandated 5-year term, after which Khan's fragile parliamentary existence was chewed up. The replacement? An even weaker coalition of divergent interests: a coalition peppered with stained, compromised characters, recycled figures, flirting with the twilight of their respective, inglorious political journeys.
This brings us to recent developments:
Khan resisted his ouster with an unexpectedly well-crafted strategy coupled with an expected shot of bravado. He won a bunch of by-election contests against the will of the establishment and gained power in Punjab, an all-decisive battleground. Traditionally, it is impossible to govern Pakistan, with any semblance of stability, without having a grip on Punjab's power levers.
And here we are today, Pakistan with a central government in Islamabad's federal territory, surrounded by four regional governments headed by Khan's PTI, that incidentally has now been found guilty of taking illegal donations (some undisclosed) from foreign entities.
The verdict has been delivered by a chief election commissioner who Khan accuses of being a stooge of his political adversaries. Still, the consequences of this decision could be far reaching, including that Khan's party could be disqualified from politics.
That said, the two other major political parties, PMLN and PPP, Khan's rivals, face similar cases which in the near future are likely to produce similar decisions. All of this will ultimately land in the courts - where the country's judiciary, incidentally, seems to be grappling with its own very serious internal fissures.
Meanwhile, Pakistan's economy has entered an extremely volatile phase - by some assumptions is flirting with hyperinflation - in a country where economic figures are more often than not fudged. Relations with neighboring India are at an all-time low and diplomatic isolation with the West is uncomfortably palpable.
The powerful army chief, General Qamar Bajwa, slated to hang his hat in November this year, might want to stay around a bit longer some say, while others argue he wouldn’t want to stick around to run a country facing multifaceted crises. And with widespread frustration among the masses, there is the fear that whosoever is perceived to have been a facilitator of Pakistan's present journey to the precipice, will be made to carry the cross. A timely exit would be a smart strategy here.
With Pakistan’s politically shrinking federal government hanging by a thread, Khan's anti-western, anti-establishment populism ominously gaining ground and the army chief’s future uncertain, a political vacuum is emerging on the horizon.
The permutations and combinations of what is to come next are many - sadly, none look pretty, for now.
- Mohammad Malick is an old school journalist with a long career as a newspaperman and primetime talk show host. The views expressed here are his own. He can be reached at [email protected] and tweets @MalickViews