By Afrasiab Khattak
Challenges faced by democratic project in Pakistan aren’t new but the situation has worsened recently as the deep state, after seriously destabilising the elected government, is creating roadblocks on the path of general elections that are to be held in few months. By now it is an open secret that the aggressive and partially violent sit ins by maverick politicians and religious extremists during the last four years were scripted by the deep state. Sitting ministers had named names of some higher ups in the sensitive state institutions for being the moving spirit behind the prolonged sit in of 2014 and senior judges of higher judiciary have given revealing remarks in open courts about the recent violent sit in at Faizabad by religious fanatics. In both cases no formal denial came from the security establishment. But more curious is the agenda for dissolving the elected assemblies before their constitutional term and delaying the general elections on “technical grounds”. This is an agenda with twin objectives. One, such a development will subvert the schedule of the forthcoming Senate elections in which PML (n) is expected to become a majority party in the upper house. Two, it will create space for installing a care taker government (preferably of technocrats) for a prolonged period. The absence of political government would mean total monopoly of the security establishment over state power. So hectic behind the scene efforts were made to kill 24th Constitutional Amendment in the Senate where opposition parties enjoy majority. The bill was already passed by the National Assembly where Nawaz Sharif’s Party is in majority. Blocking it the upper house would have made the task of delimitation of constituencies on the basis of latest census in time impossible. In that case the delay in elections would have been inevitable and the responsibility for the delay would have been assumed by the Parliament. Playing to the tunes of the deep state some political opportunists among the opposition parties did try to obstruct passage of the bill in the Senate but saner elements in the same parties made sure that the bill is passed.
Yet the game is far from over. The agenda for forcing the dissolution of assemblies before their constitutional term is still being actively pursued. The machinations in Balochistan for putting pressure on Chief Minister Balochistan is the clearest indication. According to reports emanating from Quetta, apart from tabling a no confidence motion against CM Balochistan, he is also receiving threats of corruption cases if he doesn’t cooperate in the dissolution campaign. Political pundits predict that in case efforts for dissolution of Balochistan assembly bear fruit, next in line will be Pakhtunkhwa assembly followed by Sindh assembly. This will isolate Punjab assembly, the political bastion of Sharifs. Some of the opposition parties can further intensify the pressure by resigning from the National Assembly. But another set of political observers believe that the premature dissolution campaign may not succeed for two reasons. One, political parties wouldn’t wholeheartedly go for it in exchange for vague and uncertain promises of the establishment. Two, the indefinite delay in general elections can hurt the opposition political parties as much as it hurts the ruling party.
Be that as it may, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has stayed the course and refused to bow out despite all sorts of pressures. Consequently he has emerged as a formidable political leader. His vote bank seems to be intact and his international stature appears to be growing. The former is proved by persistence of unity in his parliamentary party and the later is testified by his latest Middle East visit. Nawaz Sharif said important things in his press conference in Islamabad on Thursday. Reading out from a written statement, on the one hand he asked the US government to not forget the value and significance of Pak-US cooperation in war on terror, but on the other hand he distanced himself from the soft policy towards terrorism pursued at home. He clearly pointed out civil-military divide on the issue when he referred to the so called Dawn Leaks in which his government was accused by the Army for making deliberate leakage about a high level security meeting in October 2016. He categorically emphasised the need for ” putting our own house in order” when it comes to campaign against terrorism. Some ministers of the current government may be parroting the establishment’s narrative on terrorism by clinging to the policy of denial but the statement of Nawaz Sharif clearly indicates that the actual political leadership is in favour of ending soft corner for extremism and terrorism and avoiding interference in the internal affairs of other countries. It believes that such a policy change will provide a high moral ground to the country which is a pre requisite for taking a strong position. But most importantly Pakistan will be able to avoid the isolation that is being faced by it due to flawed policies on terrorism and extremism.
The pro establishment political parties claim that Nawaz Sharif-led PML has lost support among masses. But if that’s the case then why are they creating hurdles on the path of election which is around the corner? Fact of the matter is after ZAB it is for the first time that a political leader with large scale political support has stood up to the coercion and political engineering of the security establishment. As a political leader he like ZAB has his own limitations. But again like him he has mustered the courage to take a stand against the unconstitutional machinations and is sticking to it. He has certain advantages over ZAB. Establishment’s control has limits due to the not so easily controllable media in the 21st century, the social media in particular. Nawaz Sharif still enjoys a strong political base in the Punjab, which is the key to power. Despite short term bleak prospects the current political struggle can auger well for the federation if a political leader or his party from Punjab can bring the Punjabi dominated security establishment under control. That can become the real basis for durable political stability.
(The author Afrasiab Khattak is a retired Senator and an analyst of regional affairs.)