What precipitated the political crisis in Pakistan that brought about a change in the government? Why has polarization between the PTI and non-PTI political parties from 2018 onwards increased further after the no-confidence vote in April? Will the nation move beyond the crisis any time soon? How can the implicit clash of institutions be avoided?
One can focus on four dimensions of the current political crisis. First, it has become clear that the ruling system in the country has no robust conflict-resolution mechanism. In a democracy, parliament provides a significant platform to sort out differences and arrive at a workable solution. The idea of the rule of public representatives entails a disengagement from the sustained use of street protests and recognizing the primacy of parliamentary engagement. However, the parliament is the weakest among state institutions in Pakistan, which include the judiciary, executive, bureaucracy, and military establishment. The treasury and opposition benches have had no working relationship during the three and half years under PM Imran Khan and two months under PM Shehbaz Sharif. The PTI government chose to run the system without a meaningful role for parliament. It marginalized the opposition for the purposes of legislation and launched a witch-hunt against the PML-N and PPP leadership through the much-trumpeted accountability drive. The absence of institutions or informal back-channel communication networks for conflict resolution created a situation of uncertainty along with its grossly negative impact on the economy.
Secondly, a major actor on the political stage is the establishment. It is a mega-construct of power, one which is popularly believed to have enabled the acquisition of power by a PTI-led coalition in Islamabad in 2017-18. It is believed that the establishment garnered the support of the middle class as the core of PTI’s constituency included the retired bureaucrats, judges, ambassadors, and generals. This class has been generally skeptical of parliamentary democracy and fixated on the role of a supreme leader. It typically condemns politicians as corrupt, nepotistic, faction-ridden, parochial, and inefficient. How was it that the establishment started to consider Imran Khan a liability instead of an asset three years later? Imran Khan had all along faced a lingering crisis of legitimacy, both structurally, -he was labeled as a selected prime minister; and operationally, in terms of bad governance, especially in tackling finance, foreign policy, education, local government, law and order, freedom of expression, and center-province relations. In 2021, Imran sought to expand his political space by not endorsing the army’s nominee as the new DG of ISI and insisting on retaining the incumbent. This tension dented Imran Khan’s narrative of being on the same page with the establishment.
In early 2022, there emerged an impression that the establishment would be neutral in any attempt to bring about an in-house change in the government. Imran Khan strongly challenged the idea of the establishment’s neutrality and declared it a betrayal. During the day of the no-confidence vote, Imran opted to scuttle the move by stretching his executive fiat and dissolving the National Assembly. Subsequently, the Supreme Court declared the move unconstitutional and ordered the no-confidence motion to be tabled in the assembly on 9 April 2022. However, again the vote was not held throughout the day. Shortly before midnight, which was the deadline as per the Supreme Court verdict, the Speaker vacated his seat in favour of a former speaker — PML-N’s Ayaz Sadiq – who finally steered the way to the no-confidence vote. Speculations were rife that the establishment finally made it possible to take the constitutional process of no-confidence to its logical end.
The third factor in the latest phase of Pakistan’s turbulent history is Imran Khan’s role as a populist leader in league with Trump in the US, Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Modi in India. Populism represents a charismatic leader’s appeal to the raw impulses of people, whereby he vows to take the nation to the promised land. Populism is about blind faith in the leader as a symbol of change that leads to ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’ about the ground reality being more of the same. Populism represents two sides of the same coin: intense hatred for the ‘other’ — in this case the allegedly corrupt dynasties of Bhuttos and Sharifs, and love for the Messiah — in this case, Imran Khan.
Imran Khan’s populism is rooted in the creation of a cult for himself as a person untainted with corruption, who would thus cleanse the dirty stables of politics. He ended up relying on electables who were coopted from other parties prior to the 2018 elections. His party used media more effectively than its competitors, especially social media, and this strategy targeted opponents using coarse language about political adversaries. In the process, the decorum of parliamentary politics went down the drain. Imran promised the moon to the people – providing hundreds of thousands of jobs and houses, bringing back $200 billion of the looted money from abroad, and establishing the state of Medina in Pakistan. As chief executive, Imran chose to rule through presidential ordinances — thus undermining parliament, controlling media, and subjecting opposition to a campaign of vilification underscored by litigation by NAB. After his ouster from the government, Imran Khan took to the streets, held public meetings in various places, and demanded early elections. However, street politics is a poor prism for the dynamics of constituency politics that is rife with ethnic, religious, linguistic, tribal, biradri, and patronage politics.
The fourth factor in the current crisis relates to the opposition. In 2020, it mounted a campaign against the PTI government from the platform of the PDM (Pakistan Democratic Movement) alliance which, however, collapsed on the issue of choosing the right strategy to get rid of the PTI government. There was a conflict about whether or not to resign from the assemblies, with the PPP having a considerable stake in holding on to its government in Sindh. After a year in the wilderness, the PPP, and the rump of the PDM alliance came to an agreement on the option of an in-house change. Finally, the no-confidence motion carried the day. The new coalition government of PM Shehbaz Sharif is moving sluggishly to meet the financial, political, and foreign policy challenges. In the face of economic emergency, political stalemate, and leadership paralysis as per June 2022, the situation remains far from promising. The government’s effort to meet the IMF conditionalities by increasing the tariff on petrol products and electricity charges has landed it in a dire situation in terms of a potential loss of popularity, especially as the pressure for elections from the PTI continues to mount.
These factors pose a great challenge to state institutions; parliament, executive, and army as well as the judiciary which has become very controversial as it is repeatedly drawn into partisan disputes. The country is caught in a vicious cycle with great pressure on the government and state institutions to deliver effective governance in multiple domains, which is costly to achieve because of a deep conflict playing out between the government and the opposition. Moving forward requires the institutionalization of an economic framework that gives relief to people. This is not possible without unity in the ranks of a multiparty cabinet and a political settlement that brings the opposition back into parliament.
Mohammad Waseem is a Professor of Political Science at Mushtaq Ahmed Gurmani School of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS.