Establishment Has No Permanent Allies In The System
Extreme naivety or insensitivity of the government could be judged from the fact that— despite their ability to see that political crisis is looming on the horizon—they could not open a channel of communication with the opposition political parties, writes Umer Farooq.
Any political system without a capacity to resolve the myriad of conflicts—political, social and religious – existing in the society is doomed to failure or collapse. In fact, it is the primary function of any political system to develop the capacity to resolve the conflicts existing in the society as no society is without conflicts.
Applying this political principle to Pakistan’s case one comes up with two immediate examples from the country’s recent history, where failure to resolve the conflicts led to much larger disasters. First, there was a political conflict between ruling PPP and religious fundamentalist-led opposition parties on the question of election rigging and subsequent formation of second PPP government in 1977. This conflict remained unresolved and the situation led to military intervention and 11 years of darks era of military rule.
Second, there was an unresolved conflict between the ruling PMLN leadership and military leaders over the question of appointments, postings and transfers of senior military officials and this also led to a military intervention and another 9 years dark of military rule.
There are other examples of especially religious conflicts, which remained unresolved for a longer period of time or which were settled to the satisfaction of majoritarian group or sect and which led to larger social and cultural disasters.
But as there has been a persistent practice in our society to sweep every problem under the carpet, these religious conflicts too were left unresolved and were allowed to germinate into monster.
But this piece is about political conflicts that can potentially devour the whole political system, especially when every party in the conflict is ready to put up a spirited defense of its particular interests with regards to the conflict, and nobody seems to think about the impact of growing sharpness of political conflicts and the implication of absence of any mechanism to resolve these conflicts in order to protect the system, on the system itself.
Pakistani political system is nascent and doesn’t have a long tradition of sustained existence. Its capacity to absorb the shocks of a political conflict is limited for which history could be presented as an evidence. The ruling elite doesn’t have a clearly marked out written document to governor their behavior in the political arena—this would in other words mean that ruling elite doesn’t have any rules of the game to play the game.
It is only a question of which political player has the ability and capacity to sustain his political move in national politics—no matter how grave violation that might be perceived at the general level.
The latest controversy about former PM Nawaz Sharif seeking permission to go abroad for treatment could be described as a minor issue that was blown out of proportion but it was symptomatic of a larger political conflict that exists in the society between the ruling PTI and all the opposition political parties, which, somehow, find themselves on the wrong side of the military establishment.
All the opposition political parties accuse the establishment of manipulating the parliamentary election of July 2018 to bring its favorite Imran Khan into power in Islamabad. Prime Minister Imran Khan, in turn, accuses these political leaders to be financially corrupt, who need to be sent to jail.
Right from day one, the opposition has been questioning the legitimacy of the PTI government, whereas PTI government has been questioning the legitimacy of the very existence of these opposition leaders as political leaders in the political system of the country, for their alleged involvement in the corruption scandals.
To an outsider, this may appear as a normal and routine politicking between opposition and government parties—but there are practical implications of these positions of opposition and ruling parties, which makes it a conflict.
Opposition parties are throwing one agitation after another against the government, which is increasing the fear of political violence in the society. Ruling party on the other hand, wants to send all the opposition political leaders into jail to fuel their narrative of ‘accountability of all’.
The most astonishing aspect of this conflict is the fact that the government and opposition have not even talked once during the past one year to discuss the main issues of conflict.
Opposition parties are talking to each other and expressing their grievances to the media, but have not even once articulated their demands before the government. Extreme naivety or insensitivity of the government could be judged from the fact that— despite their ability to see that political crisis is looming on the horizon—they could not open a channel of communication with the opposition political parties. The government, on the other hand, is advising the opposition parties to take their grievances to legal forums, which hardly have any capacity to resolve the conflict at the political level.
In such a situation, the irony is that parliament as a supreme institution in the system has increasingly become irrelevant to the whole political situation. If legal forums are not trusted by the political elite, as is amply demonstrated by their behavior, and if parliament is irrelevant; then who would resolve the conflict?
One interesting and ironic part of the problem is that all the players in the political system are in contact with the military and its intelligence services and regularly convey their grievances to them through different channels. This would mean that that the military and its intelligence services are not irrelevant to the political situation. Rather, they are occupying a central place in this system with each player connected to them in one-way or another.
For instance, in the latest episode of this conflict related to Nawaz Sharif seeking permission to go abroad for treatment, his younger brother was throughout in contact with the GHQ, which was sympathetic towards family’s plight in taking seriously ill Nawaz Sharif to London. So here we have a situation where different groups of political class are not ready to trust each other and convey their grievances directly to each other, but are ready to hobnob with the military leaders and convey their grievance to them.
This is indicative of the chronic problem of Pakistani political system—that it doesn’t have any internal mechanism to resolve its conflicts rather it looks towards outsiders to come and resolve the conflicts that primarily are the results of behavior and attitude of these players.
A further problem is that the military is not a disinterested party in the political system. It has clearly defined political, economic and financial interests in the system and it manipulates the system to achieve these interests by hook or by crook.
Time and again, it has intervened in the system to twist it according to its wishes to achieve its economic, political and financial interests. The post-Zia history clearly indicates that the army has permanent interest but no permanent ally in the system. It can change its allies according to change in the political situation.
However, the present mess that the country finds itself in is the outcome of military’s soft intervention that started in August 2014 and concluded and succeeded in mid-2017.
By middle of 2008, the PPP government was in full control of the civilian side of the government in Islamabad. Within next few months the political leaders of major political parties—both from the government and opposition—reached a tacit understanding to keep the military out of the politics. PPP, PMLN, MQM, Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam and Awami National Party (ANP) were part of the unstated consensus to keep the military out of politics. This would in practical terms mean that none of the political parties, which is part of this consensus, would go to the military for the redress of its grievance or for righting a wrong.
The military broke this consensus while using “artificial street power” of PTI as a pawn in August 2014 to threaten the very existence of political system.
The system was inflicted with further blows from groups such as Tehreek-e-Laibak Pakistan (TLP) and Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT). It is an open secret now that both of these groups of religious fanatics were manipulated by the military. While Imran Khan’s 2014 dhrana was still in full swing, the opposition parties put up a joint face in the parliament to resist the onslaught. But they could not succeed in the face of continuous and persistent manipulation by the state machinery.
July 2018 parliamentary election brought PTI into power, but the conflict that was the outcome of military’s soft intervention in the political system in 2014, that continued to persist to this day. Someone has to intervene and bring all the political forces onto the negotiating table to resolve this conflict in a peaceful manner without any kind of violence in the streets, before this system collapses under its own weight as a result of persistent conflict.
Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.