Confrontational politics

Published: January 10, 2018
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The writer is a professor of political science at LUMS, Lahore. His recent book is Imagining Pakistan: Modernism, State and the Politics of Islamic Revival (Lexington Books, 2017)

The writer is a professor of political science at LUMS, Lahore. His recent book is Imagining Pakistan: Modernism, State and the Politics of Islamic Revival (Lexington Books, 2017)

Politics by principles or politics by confrontation are two opposite sides of engaging with power. Principles are fundamental to democratic politics—if it is democratic in essence. These principles emanate from the Constitution, democratic practices and political conventions that have evolved over time. The major responsibility of holding on to principle constitutional values rests on the shoulder of a governing party or a coalition. It is not the talk, the public rhetoric that confirms adherence to principles. It is the act, the performance and the record of a party and leaders in power that matter. A rule by principles would mean that an elected government has done what it promised. It has held public good as a supreme national value and has exercised power according to the spirit of the law. Every principle of governance begins and ends with law and the Constitution.

It is always the failure of those in power in Pakistan and other transitional democracies to live with the true democratic principles that has opened them up to confrontational politics. Loss of principles often results in lost legitimacy — the right to holding on to power. The argument of having a mandate or retaining majority in the assemblies — a form of formal or legal legitimacy — suffers genuineness when the public at large and the major political forces in the country agitate for justice, rule of law, good governance and delivery of services. The parties in power, as it is happening now, counter the rising tide of opposition to their formal rule by making two worn-out points. First, we have been elected; and second, wait for the next elections.

In plain political language ‘wait for the next elections’ assertion when the general elections are constitutionally about six months away makes abundant sense. But the game the opposition parties are playing is a game of confrontational politics — or power politics by any means necessary to get the PML-N’s government out before they complete their tenure. Why opt for confrontational politics towards the waning months of the tenure of assemblies? First, confronting the PML-N, hoping to cause its collapse now, would diminish its capacity to maintain its inner coherence. Second, in a personality-driven political party system like ours, political signalling matters for electoral coalitions. Confrontation now will send a strong message to the public as well as to the dynastic political-electoral families that the ‘Sharif dynasty’ is over.

Finally, there are many weaknesses of the ‘Sharif dynasty’ that have opened it up for confrontation. A few are in order, arrogance, distance from the public and party leaders of lower ranks, nepotism, corrupt patronage on public expense and failure to address structure issues of economy and governance. Nawaz Sharif has committed two big blunders for which he may remain an enduring political loser. First, he should have resigned and called for fresh elections when the Panama Papers raised serious issues about financial probity of offshore companies owned by his family. He could have exercised the same option after his disqualification. By ruling through a proxy prime minister, he has allowed the system to degenerate that appears to be collapsing. Second, by attacking the Supreme Court and the security establishment so openly, so aggressively and so persistently, accusing them to conspire and throw him out of power ‘wrongly’, he has created a self-impression of political dead horse. That is not a good choice in a feudal, dynastic political culture in which politics is a game of power and opportunism. That will amount to cause a scare among the political birds flipping their wings to fly away from the flock of the PML-N.

It is not the failure of democracy; it is the moral and political failure of ‘democrats’, major political patriarchs that has repeatedly plunged the country into confrontational politics and crises.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 10th, 2018.

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