Pakistan continues to drift towards intense internal political confrontation, which, if not contained through accommodation, can unravel the current political order. Even if the current uncertainty persists for some months, it will adversely affect the federal government’s capacity to cope with internal security, extremism and terrorism-related issues. This is likely to increase distrust between the civil and the military, the signs of which can already be detected.
Time is the key to the outcome of the current political crisis. The longer it persists and more intense it becomes, the better for the opposition. It would be best for the PML-N government to curtail its tempo and find a way out soon. This argument conflicts with its current strategy of pushing for confrontation at every level, from the prime minister to the PML-N media drumbeaters, who think their verbal wrangling on TV will salvage the situation.
The conflict was triggered by the leaks that named about 200 Pakistanis with offshore accounts, financial affairs and holdings of property abroad. Though the prime minister is not directly mentioned in the Panama documents, his name appears with reference to his children who are said to be engaged in these affairs. However, the fact that Nawaz Sharif addressed the nation twice on this issue, brought him into the controversy. Hardly anybody paid attention to other names on the list. This strategy was accompanied by the PML-N top leaders’ decision to jump into the fray to defend Nawaz Sharif and his family and they also launched a counter-offensive by blaming a number of opposition leaders of corruption. What provided additional fuel to the controversy were the contradictions in interviews given by the prime minister’s children at different times to the media.
This was a God-sent opportunity for Imran Khan to return to the political centre-stage. The PTI had been pushed to the sidelines after the end of the 2014 sit-in. Imran Khan availed of the Panama leaks to raise the issue of corruption in the higher echelons of the government. The PML-N need not adopt a dismissive attitude towards the PTI. It is unlikely that the impact of the Panama leaks will fade away. The current situation is different from what it was when the PTI launched its 2014 sit-in. With the exception of the JUI-F and the Balochistan-based allies, the PML-N has not got any firm support from others. The PPP is pursuing a two-track policy. Its Punjab-based leadership wants to take on the PML-N in order to salvage their faltering fortunes in the province. However, Asif Ali Zardari and some of his Sindh-based loyalists are keeping their options open, hoping that Nawaz Sharif would offer protection to their human assets in Sindh. These may prove to be false hopes because the federal government is not in a position to protect Zardari loyalists. If the PPP decides to side with the PML-N, the PPP’s fate will be completely sealed in Punjab, at least for the next general elections.
The Jamaat-e-Islami has already launched its protest for the elimination of corruption, although it has not so far held a joint rally with the PTI. A number of religious groups are unhappy with the PML-N for different reasons. The Pakistan Awami Tehrik has decided to join the ranks of the opposition on the issue of the Panama Leaks. If these parties and religious groups decide to work together to challenge the PML-N, it will face an extremely difficult situation. If these groups continue to oppose the government in their individual capacity, a political stalemate can persist for a longer time.
The PML-N has decided to adopt a strident approach towards the opposition, especially the PTI. The Sharif brothers are holding public meetings in different cities, showering the people with state funds for development projects and infrastructure work. They are also promising to end electricity shortages, reduce its price and make state funds available to people through one project or another. State funds are being used liberally in pursuing a media campaign. An important political line pursued by the PML-N is to label all political adversaries as anti-national and anti-people because these are said to be undermining the government’s public welfare projects.
Another dimension of the current political situation is the growing strain in civil-military relations and subtle anti-military propaganda by the federal government. The main line of argument is that the military is using its clout to pressure the elected government. Some political activists are saying that any unconstitutional change or coup will not be accepted. Some are raising questions as to who was using Imran Khan against Nawaz Sharif. The PML-N is disturbed by the army’s unilateral decision to undertake a security operation against the facilitators of terrorism in Punjab and its success in busting the Chottu gang after the Punjab police’s failure to do so. Further, the army chief’s statement calling for an end to corruption altogether and the announcement of punitive action against senior army officers are viewed by PML-N loyalists as pressure tactics against their governments in Islamabad and Lahore. The PML-N resists the military’s autonomous role in Punjab because it compromises its claim of an exclusive and unchallenged monopoly of power in Punjab.
The only option available to Imran Khan is to continue building street pressure on the federal government and evolve a working arrangement with other political parties to mount increased pressure. Street protest will be his main strategy. This confrontation can persist for several months unless the PML-N loses patience and engages in some kind of political adventurism, either by using the state apparatus against the opposition in a brutal manner or by using executive powers to tame the security establishment in Punjab. The government’s fight for survival will compromise its efforts to address the issues of internal security. The agenda for madrassa reforms and societal mobilisation for countering extremism and terrorism will be put on the back-burner because it cannot afford to alienate more people. The struggle for power with an uncertain outcome will mark Pakistani politics this summer.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 2nd, 2016.