The dawn of 2018 has failed to bring forth badly-needed stability in the country, as State institutions and major political players remain unable to evolve a consensus on key issues, including accountability of the corrupt and establishing the dynamics of the relationship between Parliament and other State institutions.
Going forward, Pakistan’s fragile and flawed democratic order will be tested to its limits in the remaining eleven months of the year, as political heavyweights try to tilt the balance of power in their favour, through overt and covert brinkmanship and confrontation.
Nawaz Sharif, the disqualified premier facing massive charges of corruption and misrule, is trying to snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat by directly targeting the judiciary and indirectly attacking the armed forces. For Sharif and Co, it is a battle of survival aimed at saving both his politics and business empire. And Sharif is prepared to go to any length to escape from the blind alley – even at the cost of his party’s future and the system.
The relentless propaganda and attempts to mobilise the masses, especially in Punjab, against the judiciary and the armed forces, by Sharif and his supporters are aimed at forcing institutions to either back-off from the accountability drive or rock the boat, allowing the deposed prime minister to become a political martyr.
This politics of brinkmanship by Sharif is creating doubts about the continuity of the system. No wonder then, that many Pakistanis are concerned about whether the scheduled elections will be held on time this year or not. These concerns multiply when some anti-Sharif forces also raise their voice to demand reforms and accountability before the holding of the general election.
As various conspiracy theories about the future of democracy swirl around, from the corridors of power to the small mud and brick houses and shanties of the proverbial common man, the State institutions are showing utmost restraint and trying to remain and work within the constitutional framework.
This measured and responsible behaviour by the judiciary and the armed forces, despite all the provocation and confrontationist posture by Sharif and his allies, raises hope about the continuity of the system, which is likely to face extreme pressure and stress before the ongoing political storms subside. But it does not mean that there aren’t any risks to the system.
Nawaz Sharif’s anti-institutions’ campaign has all the potential to upset the applecart, although it might not be the preferred choice of the majority of lawmakers and a number of senior members of his own party.
Similarly, other major political parties, especially the Pakistan Peoples Party and even the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, would not like to see the system being derailed indefinitely. The holding of elections on time suits not just the political parties, but also the institutions which stand for the continuity of the system. The Pakistan Army has stood by and supported the democratic process since the 2002 elections during former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf’s time. Since then, successive military leaders have played an important role in keeping the fragile democratic process going.
However, during this period there has been an ever-increasing realisation – both in the public domain as well as at the institutional level – that in order to dispense the fruits of democracy to the masses, the system needs sweeping reforms and harsh accountability. But the idea of making Pakistani democracy pro-people, clashes with the narrow self-interest of the overwhelmingly corrupt segment of elected politicians, who are predominantly tribal chiefs, feudal lords and mega-rich industrialists and business people. The rural-based, political elite has expanded its tentacles in the form of commercial and business interests in urban areas, while the urban elite has invested in agriculture and farming. As a result, both the rural and urban political elites’ interests converge and they both stand opposed to reforms and accountability.
In today’s context, the corruption-tainted political class wants to get a new lease of life by undermining institutions and maintaining this anti-people status-quo. No wonder, all eyes are set on the judiciary on how it delivers justice and holds those accountable involved in looting and plundering the country.
In the coming months, the superior judiciary is expected to serve as the vanguard in the drive against corruption and will play a crucial role in weeding out shady and crooked politicians from the system. Cases against Sharif and his clan should be seen as just the beginning. The ambit of the accountability process is likely to extend to other political parties as well. If the accountability process remains selective and focuses on one party or family, it will become controversial and would not achieve the objectives of cleansing the system.
However, the accountability of Sharif and his clan will serve as a litmus test for the superior judiciary which is pitted against a powerful clique. On one hand, the honourable judges of the Supreme Court are the focus of the character assassination drive launched by Sharif and his pawns. On the other, the executive authority – meaning the government – itself is trying to obstruct justice and save the skin of the disqualified prime minister.
The moral and intellectual bankruptcy of Parliament can be seen from the very fact that in violation of the spirit of the Constitution, it amended a law allowing a disqualified person to lead a political party. This person-specific law has been enacted just to benefit Sharif.
While Parliament has become the biggest protector and benefactor of the corrupt, and a stumbling block in the process of reforms aimed at establishing the rule of law and giving relief to the masses, it is only the judiciary which can help cleanse and reform the system without uprooting the democratic system.
In the coming weeks and months, the pressure on the judiciary is likely to increase as it moves towards reaching conclusions in the cases against Sharif and his family. In their own self-interest, other major political parties can also open a front against the judiciary and the accountability process, fearing a similar crackdown on their leadership.
This is likely to increase the political temperature in Pakistan. Under these circumstances, the judiciary will need all the backing and support from the law enforcement agencies, especially the army, not just for its protection but for establishing its writ. The military leadership is likely to continue to support this process by staying in the background. But in case of any unexpected upheaval or explosive political situation – seen as threatening the state –the military leadership might be forced to take a proactive position. But that would be under extreme circumstances.
As matters now stand, it is most likely the accountability process and the election campaign will move in tandem. This means that at least some of the rotten eggs will be thrown out of the system ahead of the polls, and the remaining ones in the days to come.
But we are talking about an ideal situation and the best case scenario. To make this happen, political players will have to show a lot of acumen and maturity, as they navigate their way through the minefield of growing polarisation, confrontation and hostilities among the competing forces.
Only one thing is certain and that is that Pakistan will remain caught up in the vortex of acute political uncertainty and instability, which could end the career of many of today’s high and mighty, in the run-up to the general elections.