Another cutting edge: Pakistan’s decaying democratic journey

Another cutting edge: Pakistan’s decaying democratic journey

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Another decade, another precipice, another cutting edge experience.

Pakistan’s political managers-- its powerful military establishment-- continue to significantly influence Pakistan’s decaying democratic journey. The exercise of extra constitutional authority, continuing tribal-type battles among political parties (and the parties’ willingness to play B-team within the establishment’s extra-constitutional plans), keeps Pakistan squarely in the zones of instability and terrible governance. 

Added to the context within which Pakistan’s establishment wields power is the May 9 indirect Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and army confrontation. Hours after Imran Khan was arrested, angry PTI supporters responded by attacking military properties and installations including the corps commanders house, the national army headquarters, the air force base, intel offices and defaced images of martyrs etc. While the need to roll back all challenges in the forms of violent attacks on the state need unequivocal pushback, and harsh deterrents, especially punishments for proven protesters, attackers and planners is a must, it seems the army-led response to PTI’s May 9 attacks has dovetailed into the broader PTI-establishment battle which began post February 2021. 

Currently, the near winding up of the Imran Khan experiment is overlapping with the initiation of another experiment. PTI is to be replaced with Istehkam-e-Pakistan Party (IPP). 

- Nasim Zehra

Significantly, May 9 did throw up a severe encounter between a political party and the state which protects the legal, security and administrative framework within which democratic politics functions and operates. The state’s response is the dismantlement of PTI. 

Currently, the near winding up of the Imran Khan experiment is overlapping with the initiation of another experiment. PTI is to be replaced with Istehkam-e-Pakistan Party (IPP). Khan’s own former deputy, a successful businessman who entered politics during military ruler general Parvez Musharraf’s regime, will lead IPP. 

More than 100 former PTI politicians, including PTI’s core members, federal ministers and parliamentarians have become IPP’s founding members. Their re-launch path has been fairly straightforward. From arrest to release, from release to abandoning PTI and Khan, declaring a break from politics; and from declaration to rapid return to politics and into the IPP fold! 

All this is happening against the backdrop of too much in flux- the economy, judiciary, inflation-struck people with millions tumbling below the dreaded poverty line, the rupee rapidly losing purchasing power-- all with no quick fix in sight. 

Alongside a few desperate efforts by the government to fix critical economic problems, political hostility has been in full swing. PTI’s top and mid-level leadership and party structure have nearly disappeared. The bridge between Imran Khan and his supporters has nearly collapsed and communication channels are being pushed back though PEMRA orders or network restrictions. PTI now stands as a greatly wounded entity. 

The political undoing was initiated in 2021 by personal and policy differences, accentuated by Khan’s largely simplistic and contentious brand of politics that rebuked and never engaged with opposition parties. A change of command in the Pakistan army brought to the top the very man Khan had unceremoniously removed from the top slot of Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency. Was the PTI-establishment battle then inevitable? This will remain a question that many ponder for a long time. 

While the divide between the two has grown wider, placing PTI outside of Pakistan’s mainstream political landscape, there were occasions when Khan could have led PTI’s political ‘comeback’ into electoral politics. But on Khan’s own instruction, this engagement never materialized.

Most important to mention are the government-PTI talks on holding elections. Dates for dissolving the National Assembly in end June and holding elections on either September 31or October 1 was decided. However, Khan instructed his team to call off the talks unless there was immediate dissolution of the National Assembly- a demand that surprised even his own negotiators.

As if to seal the fate of the talks, on May 28, the newly appointed PTI President Parvez Elahi’s house was raided to arrest him. And Imran Khan took the bait.

Recently came the notable release of Imran Khan’s political deputy, the experienced and cautious politician Shah Mahmud Qureshi and the inheritor of his political mantle, without disavowing of either the PTI or Imran Khan, which raised many questions about the future of the PTI.

If Pakistan’s own history is any guide, the establishment failed to erase the Bhuttos or the Sharifs and even the Bizenjos, the Mengals, Marris and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s progeny from Pakistan’s political landscape. 

For the PTI however, Pakistan’s powerful quarters may not seek a reincarnation in any mode. The emergence of the Tareen-led IPP emphasizes plans to reduce PTI to naught. 

With PTI’s dismantling underway, through legal, quasi-legal and illegal ways, the May 9 saga does introduce a new dimension to an existing challenge for all democratic societies: How do you align the two: The compulsions of the constitutionally-consented framework essential for survival, with democratic freedoms now virtually unbridled in the digital era?

For Pakistan specifically, the question is whether unbridled power-play will remain dominant in determining Pakistan’s political landscape, or will rule of law become the dominant factor defining the exercise of authority, democracy and governance.

- Nasim Zehra is an author, analyst and national security expert. Twitter: @NasimZehra


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