By P.K. Balachandran/Daily News
Colombo, February 6: Pakistan, a troubled State for most of its 76-year history, is again at a crossroads as it goes for polls to the 342-member National Assembly on February 8. But doubts about the fairness of the exercise are voiced as the most popular leader Imran Khan is in jail and his party structure is in a shambles.
The polls are not taking place in the happiest of circumstances. The economy is in disarray. The consumer price index (CPI) for December 2023 had risen 29.7% from a year before. It was a US$ 3 billion from the IMF in mid-2023 which stemmed a default on foreign loans. Pakistan had gone to the IMF 23 times in its 75-year history.
The country is in the grip of terrorists, some ethnic, some Islamic, and the borders with Afghanistan and Iran have been restive. The inability to secure Kashmir from India even after three wars, weighs heavily in the minds of the people. And to add to that, the advanced economies of the world are wooing arch enemy India to the exclusion of traditional ally Pakistan.
Political instability has been a hallmark of Pakistan since independence. It has gone through long periods of military rule because politicians had repeatedly failed to deliver. No government has been able to complete its term. The country’s immense potential for agricultural and industrial growth has remained unfulfilled because of vested interests.
The army, which is the most stable, disciplined and modern institution in the country, had tried its hand at governance several times, but all it could do was to tinker with the institutions making little or no difference to the culture of governance.
When Gen. Qamar Bajwa was army chief, he said that the army should disengage from politics. The current Army chief, Gen.Asif Munir, has kept himself away from active politics, but he could still intervene or take over. The army is still “the Establishment” in Pakistan. Nothing of significance happens in Islamabad, the political capital, without the General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi showing the greenlight. The army remains the shadowy force behind all key decisions.
It is widely acknowledged that the army has its favourite leaders and that it helps its chosen candidates to win by manipulating the voting or coaxing members of the National Assembly to support its candidate. Rival politicians dub a successful leader as “selected by the army” rather than “elected by the people.”
No Prime Minister of Pakistan has survived in power after challenging the army. Prime Ministers come to power with the support of the army but the moment they show independence they are ousted after credible charges of corruption.
But this does not mean that an ousted PM can never come back to power. He or she could, if the army wants. The present Prime Ministerial hopeful, Mian Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), was ousted, but he is now said to be the army’s candidate. The army does not want Imran Khan of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) as he had earlier accused it of conspiring with the Americans to oust him.
Imran Khan is now in jail. He has been accused in 150 cases of various kinds. But, by most accounts, he is also the most popular leader, especially among the youth who relish his diatribes against the corrupt ruling class. His blatant anti-Americanism also strikes a chord among the restless and deprived masses yearning for a Messiah.
The division of the country into anti-Imran and pro-Imran groups has prevented discussion of substantive policy matters relating to the economy and other aspects of governance. An observer put it: “The absence of meaningful political discourse makes Pakistan a ship which is sailing in turbulent waters without a compass. The political landscape, which should ideally be a platform for robust debate and policy formulation, has been reduced to a battleground of power politics.”
No contestant seems to have any concrete solution for the country’s economic problems or terrorism. The uptick in violence, attributed to groups like the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), and various Baloch separatist groups, poses a significant threat to the nation’s stability. But Politicians absolve themselves of the responsibility by blaming neighbouring India or Afghanistan.
The government-to-come will have to face these realities but none of the leaders seems to have a blueprint to solve endemic problems. Corruption is eating into the vitals of the country, as past attempts have failed to counter it and there are no fresh ideas.
There are no clear ideas on foreign policy. Nawaz Sharif, who is likely to win, has vaguely hinted at normalization of relations with India, perhaps opening up for trade. But he could run into opposition if he fails to secure a quid pro quo on Kashmir. Nawaz Sharif would, however, improve relations with the US as he is a moderate and a right winger to boot.
And he showed in the past, he will continue Pakistan’s traditional policy of being friendly with China which has stood four square behind Pakistan on all matters, particularly, its confrontation with India. He would also be keen on facilitating the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), protecting Chinese personnel from terrorists.
The front runner in the polls is the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN), a centrist party led by Nawaz Sharif. Sharif has been PM three times before. The 74-year old was removed from office in 2017, without completing his term, due to an array of corruption charges. Along with his daughter, Maryam Nawaz, he was sentenced to jail for 10 years in 2018, days before the last national election. But he is now a free man.
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)
The PTI, founded by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, is currently led by Gohar Ali Khan as the founder is in jail. Imran was elected in 2018. But in 2022, the military establishment, which helped him in the 2018 election, turned against him as he had begun to challenge it. He was deposed by a no-confidence vote in parliament, the first in Pakistan’s history.
Khan accuses the United States of conspiring with Pakistan’s military and his political rivals to throw him out, a charge they all deny. After his dismissal, Khan’s party led demonstrations across the country, demanding early elections. However, the protests took an ugly turn when Khan was arrested on charges of corruption. His supporters went on a rampage, targeting civilian and military installations. Hundreds of party leaders were forced to quit, and thousands of its workers were arrested. Khan, who has more than 150 cases filed against him, has now been convicted of corruption as well as disclosing state secrets and faces 14 years in jail.
His party was stripped of its electoral symbol, the cricket bat, and its candidates are now forced to run as Independents. However, the PTI enjoys vast popular support across the country, which could work to its advantage.
Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)
The Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) is led by 35-year old Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. The Centre-Left PPP was founded by his maternal grandfather and former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, then led by his mother, two-time Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Bilawal Bhutto was foreign minister under Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif in the Peoples’s Democratic Movement (PDM) government after Imran Khan’s ouster in 2022. But Bilawal Bhutto is not a tried and tested politician.
There are other parties like the Awami National Party (ANP), the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and the Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam (JUI-F) with limited support. But they could be king makers in a hung Assembly.