Things have come to a head in Pakistan, and no one appears to know what to do about it. There is complete political and economic breakdown; everything is in disarray. To be fair, politics here does not allow for a dull moment. But recent developments, in particular of the last 18 months, have led to a vortex of instability, which played out in a shocking and anarchic way on the streets on May 9.
Shocking, yes. Unexpected? No.
A red line was crossed for the supporters of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) when their leader, former Prime Minister Imran Khan, was arrested from a high court premises in the capital city of Islamabad on corruption charges. The video image of paramilitary forces dragging him into a vehicle was soon followed by a pre-recorded video message by him going viral, where he asked his followers to come out to seek haqeeqi azadi (real freedom) in his absence. It was the supporters’ turn to cross some red lines: they took to the streets, engaged in violent protests across the country, and vandalised and set on fire military residences, checkposts, and symbols, apart from some state properties.
The “revolution” was WhatsApp-ed and YouTube-d for a good few hours before the government stepped in and slowed or shut down Internet connectivity for everyone.
The news that began to trickle in after that brought small ironies in its wake—that the corps commander’s house attacked in Lahore is called “Jinnah House” because it originally belonged to the country’s founder; and that a “Constitution Convention” celebrating 50 years of the 1973 Constitution was being held in the federal parliament while outside, the city was under siege.
Like it or not, and no matter how the state penalises the miscreants, the PTI has set new standards of political protest, and anything less than what the enthusiastic party workers have already achieved would appear dull or inconsequential in future.
Consider, for instance, the decision by the coalition parties in government—both the Pakistan Democratic Movement and the Pakistan People’s Party—to stage a sit-in in front of the Supreme Court on May 15 to protest against what they consider the consistently partisan acts of the judiciary. It doesn’t look like an image you would want to forward on WhatsApp, does it?
This is an untenable position for a country professing to be a constitutional democracy. More importantly, forsaking legal methods of protest in favour of vandalism does not bode well for the teetering economy, where inflation stands at 40 per cent and where, for now, there may be reliance on VPNs to access news or conspiracies-as-news but the IT-related industries have already suffered losses to the tune of billions of rupees.
Clearly, something has to give way. Before that, some context is in order.
The 50-years-of-Constitution celebrations apart, political stability has remained fragile all through the past 50 years, marked by at least two terms of military rule, each a decade long, and no prime minister being allowed to complete their five-year tenure. Three governments, from 2002 until 2018, completed their terms even if the prime ministers were changed. But the last government led by Imran Khan was unseated through a vote of no confidence (VONC) when it still had over a year left to govern.
Once again, the military establishment, the ultimate arbiter of political engineering in Pakistan, is said to have effected the change, all its claims of neutrality notwithstanding. The political opponents, facing extreme persecution by the ruling dispensation, jumped at the constitutional opening the VONC offered to oust the “hybrid regime” (a charge worn like a badge of honour by a government often making proud same-page claims) and take charge.
It is pointless to go into the long history of political meddling by the establishment, except for mentioning that the PTI chairman’s falling out with the military began with him wanting to extend the tenure of Gen. Faiz Hameed, the then ISI chief (presumed to be too close to Khan, and a legitimate contender for the next army chief).
The then sitting army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, prevailed in having Hameed transferred. Khan’s coalition partners began withdrawing their support forthwith, the military made claims of being neutral, and this finally led to Khan’s ouster as prime minister.
Imran Khan did not take it lying down, and asked his supporters to rally behind him. And rally they did. The events of last year in the country have been nothing short of a roller coaster ride that only went down and down.
The judicialisation of politics along with politicisation of the judiciary—another constant in our political history—has only contributed to the present state of meltdown, particularly in how the judiciary tried to manage the volatile politics of the Punjab province in the last one year. It overstepped its mandate, tried to rewrite the Constitution in one case (in how it interpreted Article 63-A) that leveraged one political party, ordered political parties to hold negotiations while tying their hands by giving rulings that gave deadlines for elections, and compromised its neutrality and impartiality by misusing its bench-making powers. Note that the polarisation in superior judiciary is across the board, and is seen to be there.
Since January this year, with Imran Khan having orchestrated the dissolution of two assemblies where he had a majority, calling the opposition’s bluff and demanding immediate election, things have only deteriorated.
Unlike in India, Pakistan is used to having its federal and provincial elections together, actually on one single day, for several years now. Unlike in India, Pakistan’s Constitution provides for a neutral caretaker government with the sole responsibility of holding election. For all practical reasons, the provision of such a government necessitates the holding of federal and provincial elections together. That is one of the things that need to be negotiated and settled.
However, this detail is not wholly responsible for the bad blood and severe polarisation between political players and opponents. Today, there are rifts within and between institutions, taking away all their credibility. There is a crisis of authority within the judiciary, the parliament, the armed forces…you name it.
Political negotiation is a long-drawn and cumbersome process, away from the glare of social media and the binary of good and evil. So, who will save politics, the Constitution, rule of law, and democratic norms in a polity that rewards inflexibility and oppositional stand and not patience and maturity?
Something will have to give way.
Farah Zia has worked as a journalist and magazine editor for more than 25 years. She is currently the director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.