Pakistan is in the midst of a new elite war for the control of state power. Competing political leaders and parties are once again at each other’s throats in a bid to outmanoeuver one another. The newly emerging political star, Imran Khan, is leading the major political onslaught to dismantle the Sharif dynasty that controls the federal government and the most resourceful province of Punjab. Another religious-cum-political leader, Dr Tahirul Qadri, is mobilising his followers to generate enough political power to dislodge the Sharif brothers, i.e., Nawaz and Shahbaz. Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri have the support of some smaller political parties.
This is not for the first time that the civilian elite have fought with one another in a non-accommodating disposition. The standard operating procedure in Pakistan, where more governments have changed because of developments occurring outside the Parliament than inside it, is the launching of street agitation or calling upon supporters to storm Islamabad through a party-led, what is described as the Long March to Islamabad. In the past, Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N and Benazir Bhutto/Asif Ali Zardari’s PPP actually launched long marches or threatened to do so against each other’s governments. In the past, both vowed to dislodge so-called dictatorial and corrupt governments that were said to have betrayed the ordinary people.
Now, Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif and their close associates are facing the threat of street agitation and the Long March because the two ‘saviours’ of the people of Pakistan want to remove the “personalised, corrupt and dictatorial” governments at the federal level and in Punjab. The earlier long marches or street agitations, going back to the anti-Ayub movement in 1968-69, did not improve governance or the quality of life for the ordinary people. The same is likely to be the outcome of the current political agitation. However, in the past, some such agitations did result in change of government, but such changes were not necessarily to the advantage of those who initiated the agitation.
Long marches and street agitations have become a recurring occurrence in Pakistan. The civilian elite use it to settle their political scores and the opposition parties often take to streets because neither the Parliament nor the ruling government care to develop negotiation skills for political conflict managements. The government relies either on tough talking or partisan use of the state apparatus to control the opposition effort to make life difficult for the government and paralyse it with the objective of coercing it into submission.
The civilian governments in Pakistan, including the two governments run by the Sharif brothers, have miserably failed to create a credible civilian political order that addresses the problems of the common people, who suffer from bad governance, growing economic pressures, a poor law and order situation and a selective or non-existent rule of law. The state system is unable to provide minimum civic and human services to the ordinary people. Instead, the two Sharif governments focus on personalised image-building, and media-oriented development projects, like roads, overhead bridges, bus services and distribution of free laptops to young people. They also distribute funds to victims of different crimes or incidents as personal acts of compassion rather than pursuing policies with a long-term perspective and focus on institution-building. The three issues haunting the people of Pakistan, i.e., electricity shortages, terrorism, and law and order, have received low priority.
Politics in Pakistan has, therefore, become a power struggle among the political and societal elite, who fight with one another, either to perpetuate themselves in power or dislodge their rivals from power. In this struggle, they change party affiliations and are prepared to spend a lot of money to pursue their agendas. Every political party is dominated by those who can dole out huge amounts of funds for party activities, especially to cover the cost of glamorous public meetings, massive propaganda campaigns and long marches.
The most interesting part of these elite wars is that the competing elite cannot succeed until they mobilise people to build street pressure on the sitting government. It is here that the role of the leadership, the mobilisation capacity of the party, a negative but hard-hitting defiant political discourse, attractive positive and negative slogans, and organisational capacity become important. Another key issue is the amount of funds a party can mobilise, whose detail is never made public.
Imran Khan’s and Dr Qadri’s parties seem to be dominated by the same old type of people with no concrete and clearly laid out plans to address the common people’s problems. Both have attracted young people, who are vigorous about changing the status quo in Pakistan, but they do not seem to be conscious of what it takes to knock out the well-entrenched interests and institutions in Pakistan, when there is no clear framework of the new order. The slogans of ‘revolution’ and ‘azadi’, and the verbal rhetoric for change, does not guarantee that the desired change can be achieved.
The attitude of the Sharif government towards Imran Khan’s demand was dismissive in the initial stages. He became more defiant and demanded Nawaz Sharif’s resignation. The Punjab government adopted tough administrative measures to upstage Dr Qadri, which resulted in violence. Imran Khan is also expected to face the wrath of the state when his party starts the long march.
If the ruling elite and the counter elite do not find some political solution by stepping back from their maximalist demands, the possibility of widespread violence cannot be ruled out. If the situation becomes very violent and unmanageable, the political initiative will shift to the military that has enough experience of deciding who will go home and who will be installed. We may know in a week or so if the Sharif brothers can salvage their faltering situation by using state coercion.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 11th, 2014.
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