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Pakistan's political crisis: Where is the country headed?

Haroon Janjua in Islamabad
March 31, 2023

Alarm bells are ringing in Pakistan after electoral officials delayed votes for two key provincial assemblies. The country's elite seems to be deeply divided around the fate of former PM Imran Khan.

A man walks with a raised stick amid tear gas smoke during Pakistan protests
Khan's supporters have repeatedly clashed with the policeImage: Akhtar Soomro/REUTERS

The conflict between Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and his predecessor Imran Khan seems to be escalating in Pakistan amid the worst economic crisis in decades. For weeks, police have been clashing with the supporters of Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, as the former cricket star fights a dozen of legal cases.

Khan was ousted by a vote of no confidence just over a year ago. But this was only the beginning of an embittered battle as Khan hopes to return to the top position. He led a series of protest marches against the government and was even shot in an apparent assassination attempt in November.

Stalemate over early elections

The former prime minister is pushing for a national election to be held even before the regular August deadline. In a bid to force the government's hand, his party dissolved two provincial assemblies, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in January. Provincial elections are traditionally held jointly with national polls.

Under Pakistan's constitution, elections for the two provincial assemblies would need to be held within 90 days of their respective dissolvements. But the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) refused to accommodate this deadline after the military said they were unable to provide security for polls in Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province. The two provincial elections are reportedly to be held in early October.

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Meanwhile, the Supreme Court intervened and took a so-called "suo-motu" notice last month, making use of the discretionary power of the Chief Justice of Pakistan and allowing the court to take cognizance of an issue which it deems is in the public interest and starts hearing on it. But even the court itself seems to be divided. The government has now passed a bill to curb the suo-moto power and some judges in the top court are supporting the motion.

This week, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) — an independent rights group — criticized the feuding political parties for undermining the democratic norms. 

"Not only the politics but the society has become deeply divided. We are heading towards an uglier in-fight within and among state institutions... unless political parties sit together and resolve issues through dialogue in larger national interest," Harris Khalique, HRCP secretary-general, told DW. 

Separately, senior PTI leader Fawad Chaudhry told DW that the crisis was sparked by the "deep state," in a veiled reference to the country's powerful military.

"Pakistan is facing an unprecedented political, economic and constitutional crisis," he said. "The regime change operation [Khan's ouster] has gone wrong and now we see a divide between people and the 'ruling junta,'" Chaudhry added. 

Pakistan's institutions 'muddled'

Analysts believe the clashes between institutions will escalate, with judiciary, politics and constitutional crises becoming immersed with the financial breakdown.

"I see the crisis as one that is deepening, and it is very difficult to see a way out," warns Madiha Afzal, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. 

"All Pakistan's institutions are muddied — the military, the legislature and civilian government, the judiciary. The military and judicial branches are both completely politicized and polarizing; they don't have the trust of the people, and they can't pull Pakistan out of the current crisis," she told DW.

In normal circumstances, Pakistani judiciary is tasked with resolving a conflict between the lawmakers and the executive branch by interpreting the constitution. But this also seems uncertain.

"The recent case before the apex court, related to holding of elections in two provinces where the legislatures were dissolved prematurely, lay bare how deeply divided the top court is," Osama Malik, a legal expert in Islamabad, told DW. 

"The Supreme Court's infighting resulting in abject failure to impartially adjudicate, at this seminal moment, is not just a serious constitutional crisis, but symbolic of a nation that has reached levels of dysfunctionality not seen before," said Malik.

'The only way forward'

Khan's PTI party says the only way out of the crisis is to immediately conduct fresh elections. 

"The only way forward is free and fair elections and restoration of constitutional order. People are not accepting the present regime who is trying to stay in power only by tyranny. The Supreme Court wants to restore constitutional order and is facing resistance from ruling Junta," asserted Chaudhry. 

The current government is taking tough financial measures in a bid to revive an IMF bailout. The crisis has left people scrambling to secure basic food items, with the value of the rupee is plummeting. Brookings Institution Fellow Afzal says political parties also unable to resolve their conflict.

"The state is playing a heavy hand with the opposition. In the meantime, while these institutions play their political games, the common man is dealing with backbreaking inflation, 46% [on an annual level] last week. The only way out is elections, which are to be held sometime this year; and these elections must be free and fair, without sidelining the current opposition" she told DW.

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Resetting the balance of power

Pakistan's military still holds a lot of power and influence in the country's politics. This influence is often amplified by their allies in country's judiciary, which tends to side with the military leaders in a time of crisis.

"Unless politicians are able to sit together and push back against the military's intervention in our politics, we are headed for a disaster in a manner we have seen in the past. Except this time the polarization is perhaps at its worst," Imaan Mazari, a lawyer, told DW. 

"Wrongs that resulted from the military-judicial nexus require redressal and there is a need for free and fair elections that should not be delayed unless we want to descend into complete anarchy.”

Analysts suggest the state institutions must work within their constitutional roles and create a balance of power for the strengthening of democracy. 

"All issues must be finally resolved on the floor of the parliament. Those political stakeholders who are not represented in the parliament must be included in these processes by the government of the day through direct talks,", says HRCP chief Harris Khalique.

"Judicial overreach needed to be curbed and trichotomy of power between legislature, executive and judiciary must be respected by all. All institutional tussles will subside if parliament is considered supreme and all political parties begin broad-based dialogue with open hearts and minds," according to the activist.

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Edited by: Darko Janjevic

Haroon Janjua
Haroon Janjua Journalist based in Islamabad, focusing on Pakistani politics and societyJanjuaHaroon