When the year 2017 draws to a close, Pakistan finds itself swamped by the politics of darkness and deceit. After 70 years, it remains a state in transition in terms of both economy and polity, writes Harris Khalique.
With a country as resourceful and a population as talented as that of Pakistan, even if it was not possible to transform into an advanced economy, the transition from critical poverty to relative prosperity for all and from perpetual instability to considerable stability of political institutions should have long been over. The reasons why this transition is still not over are once again manifested through the 2017 happenings and events on the country's political landscape. The patterns are discernible having stayed the same for long but new factors and phenomena continue to emerge.
The three disruptive political events that mark the year include: the unceremonious ouster of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif by a five-member bench of the Supreme Court; the hullabaloo in Karachi after two political parties were stitched together to form a political alliance and their quick falling out; and, the sit-in by a newly carved religious outfit at the junction of the capital city Islamabad and the adjoining Rawalpindi that brought the government to its knees.
Clash of institutions
Former PM Sharif's political opponents – with Imran Khan of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) party in the driving seat – had decided to move the courts for disqualifying him as prime minister and parliamentarian after the names of his children were mentioned in Panama Papers leaks last year. The charges revolved around possible graft and money laundering when Sharif had held elected public offices in the past.
However, he was disqualified on some other charge that emerged during the proceedings instead of the original charges pressed against him and his family. Those charges are being currently investigated when he is already out of office. His ouster this year can be seen as a culmination of a campaign waged to dislodge him since his first year in office. His government was kept on tenterhooks all along.
Another related development is the ruling of the Supreme Court of Pakistan today (December 15) on cases filed against Sharif’s political adversaries by one of his party colleagues in response to the legal challenge posed by them. These were cases of concealment of assets and wealth, cover-up of the ownership of offshore companies, tax evasion and financial manipulation by Imran Khan and his second-fiddle in the PTI, Jahangir Tareen. The court decision that came out today declares that it was not Khan's intention to hide any information about his wealth and it was not necessary for him to declare his offshore company.
It seems Khan's deeds are judged on the basis of his positive intentions while others are judged purely on the basis of their actions. However, Tareen stands disqualified for concealment of assets and insider trading. This may bring some solace to Sharif’s party but it remains insignificant in the larger scheme of things.
Coming back to Sharif’s tenure, his foreign policy choices remained largely aligned with those of the military, but the issue of indicting former dictator General Pervez Musharraf and Sharif's urgent desire to establish his government's authority over all policy matters sharpened the contradictions between institutions of the state.
What Sharif and his aides overlooked was the emergence of new centers of power over the last decade with considerable agency of their own – judiciary and electronic media being the most obvious examples. Therefore, it did not remain a matter to be negotiated simply between the elected government and the military establishment.
It became a larger issue where the contradiction sharpened between the "elected," who represent people from different classes, on the one hand and those "appointed by the state" helped by the "self-appointed" on the other. The latter category comes from the mostly urban affluent educated middle class which seeks quick-fix managerial solutions to complex political problems. They have no desire or tolerance for democracy to take roots and, if they prevail, will eventually lead us to another dark period of non-representative rule.
Politics of deceit
Pakistan's largest city and commercial hub, Karachi, has the key to the country's economic stability, with or without Chinese investment under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. The city has been marred by political violence for long. The responsibility for its law and order has rested with Pakistan Rangers, a civilian armed force led by the military.
What remains ironic is that one party or a faction is promoted among the mostly Urdu-speaking citizens in the province of Sindh by the state establishment to neutralize the powers of the mainstream Pakistan People's Party (PPP).
Recently, a possible merger of two political groups in Karachi - the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) Pakistan and Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP) - didn't turn out the way the military establishment had intended. Later, the two parties confessed that they were brought together by the security agencies and that it was impossible for them to cooperate. Such actions have once again demonstrated the establishment's desire to control the country's political landscape and its inability to learn any lessons from past faliures.
The same pattern could be seen during last month's sit-in that blocked the roads at the junction of Rawalpindi and Islamabad by a newly organized religious outfit with ostensible political ambition, Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasulallah (TLYR). It was based on the issue of the finality of prophethood in Islam. Although the matter was settled through a constitutional amendment in 1974, some change was recently introduced in the oath for parliamentarians. It was, however, later removed and the original was restored. But the TLYR asked for the resignation of the law minister besides making other demands. The government met all their demands after the military advised against using force to disperse the demonstrators. They had brought life to a standstill for many and caused enormous harm to economic activity.
The buckling down of the government under the TLYR pressure is being seen as a watershed event which will make it possible in future for smaller religiously motivated groups to hold government hostage on any issue. Some in the Nawaz Sharif camp call it a staged activity to destabilise and oust Sharif's successor prime minister from his own party, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, and his Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN) government. However, they fail to explain the support of their own lawmakers and party members to TLYR and its related movements. Bigotry and deceit will further rise within the ranks of all parties.
In the 2018 elections, PMLN still has a chance to become the single largest party if it withdraws from its belligerent position of taking on the superior judiciary and the military leadership in the same vein. They also face a hostile media and disgruntled right-wing vote. If the party refuses to compromise with these groups, we could see a four-way split in the National Assembly (lower house of parliament) between PMLN, PTI, PPP and the independents who will eventually become the kingmakers.
Harris Khalique is a poet and essayist. He is the author of 'Crimson Papers: Reflections of Struggle, Suffering, and Creativity in Pakistan.'