Pakistan on political brink with angry civil society

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By Adnan Rehmat

Pakistan is on the political brink again. Opposition parties are trying to oust the government barely a year into a five-year term in office. Poor governance, as described by opposition parties, by the incumbents is helping fuel anger and an attempt has been scheduled for Oct. 27 to lay siege to Islamabad to force change. The parliament watches silently as the streets become a substitute platform for political wrangling.
Uncertainty reigns. People are getting angrier as no answers are forthcoming. Civil society expects things will get better but feels time is running out for them as Pakistan’s political landscape remains unresponsive to their demands.
In the backdrop of this, a congress of distinguished civil society members, local and foreign, took place in Lahore last week. The Asma Jahangir Conference, the second in a series of annual meetings commemorating the death anniversary of arguably Pakistan’s greatest human rights activist, showcased a menu of topics centered on dealing with the challenges of a citizenry left adrift and feeling betrayed by the state and its principal actors, including parliament, the government, judiciary and executive. And political parties.
While anger over the state’s inability to satisfy the expectations of an upwardly mobile citizenry was on ample display, so was the general sentiment that Pakistan’s political parties, meant to be the guardians and repository of public interest, are failing them. 
The sentiments are not misplaced. There is a growing gap between what voters want in a pluralist Pakistani democracy and what the political parties, distracted by wrangling instead, are delivering. In a country where voters have protected democracy by spurning military rule repeatedly, political parties are failing to respect their mandate through good governance and modernization of the state apparatus.
One reason for this shortcoming is that the political parties in general have failed to develop direct and collective engagement with the country’s restless and burgeoning civil society. Instead, they only hold on to their narrow band of loyalists and disparate constituents.

Political parties fight each other all the time – indeed they are expected to. But in Pakistan the spaces between these fights are disappearing, which means the parties have little time for their constituents and more for being combative with each other. While these fights continue, civil society is moving on with the times, and their inspiration from and romance with political parties is fading.
What Pakistan’s disenchanted civil society wants are more inclusive and pluralistic solutions to the challenges of a changing socio-political and competitive economic environment in a more connected world, even as political parties remain stuck in a time warp where leaderships take generations to change hands. The parties have spectacularly failed on the intake of professional classes into their ranks. Instead, only opportunists, investors and turncoats now qualify. 
With its own initiatives like the Asma Jahangir Conference and the annual discussions and direct pluralist engagements on thematic issues by the likes of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, and similar other provincial-level congresses, slowly an alternative vision – and indeed mission – of Pakistan’s progressive classes is emerging. And along with it a more inclusive, plural and progressive narrative and discourse.
The penchant of Pakistani political parties to choose the street instead of parliament to settle political scores is compounding the hypocrisies of politics and preventing the evolution of pluralistic solutions to political conflicts. The planned siege of Islamabad by the opposition and the planned use of force by the government to counter it induces a strong sense of déjà vu. Pakistan was here five years ago in 2014. The only difference being that the sides have switched and, unabashedly and unashamedly, so have their respective arguments.
This may be just a switch of positions by the two sides but it raises troubling questions about how the more things change in Pakistan the more they remain the same and the country’s political landscape remains hostage to moving around in circles and not going anywhere in terms of political evolution and improved governance.  
Political parties need to temper their wasteful grandstanding and change their unreliable narrative about what is possible and what is not – in terms of making promises not possible to keep and being more realistic in offering and delivering expectations. By keeping parliament away from political disputes and discussions there remains no option but to take the fight to the streets where it is easier for anti-democratic forces to manipulate them. The home for solutions to Pakistan’s problems is the parliament, not the streets. That is the message of civil society.
The country’s civil society is moving forward with an alternative political agenda seeking to remove the outdated state-dictated ideologies infesting political parties and to instead put people at the heart of politics and development. The political parties must meet them half-way or risk irrelevance.

(Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researc her and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science. Twitter: @adnanrehmat1)