Volume 5, No. 5, May 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
Pakistan’s deepening crisis
What the events in Pakistan since Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government was removed through a no-confidence motion in April 2022 show is the deep, and deepening, crisis of the Pakistani state and society. The removal was the consequence of the military establishment’s kicking away the ‘ladder’ on which Imran Khan had been brought to power through the rigged election of 2018. But the ‘rigging’ started even before the elections when the Panama Papers revelations of shady dealings by then Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif (amongst a local and international cast of characters), was employed through the superior judiciary (the Supreme Court) to have him disqualified on the spurious charge of not revealing his uncollected salary in the UAE from his son’s company. The verdict had little to do with the Panama Papers charge (which, as we know, would have been difficult to prove). The entire episode smacked of a preconceived plan to remove Nawaz Sharif from the political field. Why had Nawaz Sharif become such a thorn in the side of the establishment?
A little reflection on the past would reveal that Nawaz Sharif, a product of the General Ziaul Haq military dictatorship’s political manipulation, fell out all three times he was removed from office for representing the position of a considerable section of the Pakistani bourgeoisie seeking peace and normalisation with India to take advantage of the enormous investment and trade opportunities presented by the huge (and growing) Indian economy. This obviously implied that the main bone of contention between the two South Asian neighbours, the issue of Kashmir, would have to be ‘resolved’ through a compromise solution. Ironically, General Pervez Musharraf, who sabotaged Nawaz Sharif’s initiative of inviting then Indian PM Atal Behari Vajpayee to Pakistan to promote peace and normalisation between the two countries through first the disrespect (along with the other military chiefs) shown publicly for the visiting Indian PM, then launching the disastrous Kargil operation soon after, felt impelled himself once he had overthrown Nawaz Sharif through a military coup in October 1999 to sue India for a compromise solution of Kashmir in the Agra summit without change of state boundaries or territory held by either on their respective side of the Line of Control (LoC). The fact that the two sides came within a hair’s breadth of sealing the deal, irrespective of the fact that the whole effort went south literally at the last minute, underlines the irreducible fact that neither country, both being nuclear armed, can wrest from the other the territory it controls.
Musharraf’s coup and the persecution of both Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N’s) Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan People’s Party’s (PPP’s) Benazir Bhutto had the unintended effect of uniting the two parties against them being ‘played’ against each other, as was the case throughout the 1990s. This outcome was formally enunciated in the Charter of Democracy signed by both leaders in exile in London in 2006. As the Musharraf military regime slid into crisis during the Lawyers Movement in 2007, both exiled leaders returned to Pakistan to take up the joint struggle for democracy, only to see Benazir Bhutto assassinated on December 27, 2007.
Benazir’s successor as leader of the PPP, her husband Asif Ali Zardari, won the sympathy vote for the party in the 2008 general elections and was elevated to President. Despite differences on some issues (such as the restoration of the superior judiciary removed by Musharraf), both parties generally cooperated in strengthening a civilian parliamentary democratic order. This cooperative instead of the past antagonistic relationship between the two major political parties led to the first peaceful power of transfer through the ballot box in Pakistan’s history in the 2013 general elections.
But even before this positive development, the military establishment had chalked out a plan to sabotage this trend towards the consolidation of parliamentary democracy. Starting in 2011, they promoted a ‘third force’ in the person of Imran Khan, whose PTI till then had been struggling on the political margins. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.
Pakistan’s crisis has been long in gestation, full of twists and turns, but essentially and undeniably the result of military coups, martial laws and the manipulation of politics by the military establishment that define almost the entire history of the country since independence.
The Imran Khan ‘experiment’ however, went horribly wrong, since his stint in power proved disastrous for the economy, political culture, foreign relations and the consolidation of parliamentary democracy. Being the egotistical narcissist that Imran Khan has exposed himself to be, the falling out with his ‘mentor’, former Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa, in hindsight seems inevitable. The entire ‘experiment’ has left the reputation of the military establishment embarrassingly besmirched. That explains why the present military command is loath to appear (at least publicly) to be invested in politics as usual. However, given the military establishment’s track record, it seems unbelievable that ‘wargaming’ the current situation and scenarios for the future are not taking up the military establishment’s time and energy.
This has significance for the turn from seemingly endless confrontation between the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) coalition government headed by PM Shahbaz Sharif and the PTI led by Imran Khan to the negotiations on a timeframe for the next general elections (indications are it will be a simultaneous election for the National and all the provincial Assemblies). If the warring factions of the ruling elite have been ‘persuaded’ to come to the negotiating table on the one hand, and the Supreme Court and Chief Justice of Pakistan Umar Ata Bandial have dialled back their controversial interventions in politics, this can only be explained by the ‘benign’ hand of the establishment at work behind the scenes.
Two possible results are discernible through the haze of confusion that has had the country in its unrelenting grip for the past year. Either the political parties will, in their own interest and the interest of continuity of the system they control (whenever allowed to), come to a mutual understanding on the timeframe for the next general elections, or the impasse is threatened with a new intervention by the military establishment, whose contours are not yet clearly visible.
Even if mutually agreed general elections are held, they will not resolve the structural problems of our unsustainable economic development model or even arguably allow at least parliamentary democracy to retake its lost roots. The people’s material and other suffering is unlikely to abate in the foreseeable future. This state is mired in insoluble contradictions, the costs of which are being borne by society. Unfortunately, there does not appear to be any political force, whether of the Right, Centre or Left of the political spectrum, that offers hope of a better future.