The politics of revenge: Inflaming Pakistan’s political situation

The politics of revenge: Inflaming Pakistan’s political situation

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Pakistani politics is stuck in a vicious cycle of vengeance, which is impeding democratic culture. Now it’s the turn of former prime minister Imran Khan to face persecution in the same way opposition leaders had suffered under his government. Khan, whose government was removed through a vote of no confidence almost a year ago, is now facing dozens of cases on charges ranging from terrorism to corruption to receiving illegal funding from foreign donors, in various parts of the country.

Last week a court in Islamabad issued a warrant of arrest against him for skipping the indictment in one of the cases. But the attempt to arrest the former prime minister was resisted by his supporters, forcing law enforcement agencies to retreat. The neighborhood in Lahore where Khan resides was turned into a veritable battlefield with his party supporters turning violent. PTI supporters also took to the streets across the country.

Imran Khan finally got relief from the high court on the plea that he would appear for the next hearing. But the ugly episode has turned the political atmosphere extremely volatile, raising questions about the polling for the Punjab assembly being held peacefully on April 30. Any move to arrest the former prime minister could aggravate the situation and push the country towards civil strife. Almost the entire top leadership of the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is now facing criminal cases. 

These politics of reprisal are not new in the country, making a mockery of democracy and the rule of law. During Khan’s nearly four-year term in office, almost all the top leaders of Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) faced imprisonment on criminal and corruption charges.

The incumbent prime minister Shahbaz Sharif who was then leader of the opposition in the National Assembly and his family members spent months in detention for corruption without being charged by any court of law. Similarly, the current home minister was booked for drug trafficking. The crackdown on the former ruling party seems to be a tit for tat action-- so familiar in Pakistan’s checkered political history.

What is more worrisome is that the unfolding political power game has sharpened the clash of institutions, resulting in systemic collapse.

Zahid Hussain

Ironically, the current government has not learnt any lessons from the past and is resorting to the same tactics of intimidation against its rivals. Sedition cases are being filed against opposition leaders. Such tactics have not worked in the past and will certainly not work now.

But what’s happening now is much more serious. The persecution of the opposition PTI and the violent reaction from Khan’s supporters has intensified political confrontation at a time when the country is close to an economic meltdown. Any move to arrest or disqualify arguably the country’s most popular political leader could inflame the situation.

These kinds of coercive measures will intensify political polarization, further weakening the democratic political process in the country. What is more worrisome is that the unfolding political power game has sharpened the clash of institutions, resulting in systemic collapse.

Interestingly, the crackdown seems to have increased the popular support for the former prime minister. According to a recent Gallup survey, Khan’s popularity has catapulted in the past few months, taking him far ahead of all other political leaders. The government’s own incompetence and its failure to check the economic slide has added to its growing alienation.

Almost one year into power, the coalition government led by PM Shehbaz Sharif has failed to deliver on any of the key policy issues. A bloated cabinet is not only a huge burden on the exchequer, it also makes a mockery of the entire system. The situation is becoming increasingly untenable given the shrinking mandate of the federal government. The 11-month coalition rule has taken the country further downhill.

While the government has already hit the rocks, the opposition is also on a warpath. There seems to be no way out of the current stand-off. With no political solution in sight, the situation is fast heading towards a roadblock.

What is most worrisome is that there is no indication of the government willing to hold elections on time. Some leaders of the ruling PML(N) have called for ‘accountability before elections.’ It’s apparent that a weak government with a limited mandate cannot bring stability to the country. The politics of revenge has created an extremely dangerous situation threatening to derail the entire democratic political process.

It is one of the most serious crises that the country has encountered in its turbulent political history. There is need for political reconciliation. Instead of resorting to intimidation, the Sharif government should try to defuse the deepening political polarization.

- 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. Twitter: @hidhussain

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