Pakistan’s political paralysis | Political economics

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15 years ago, a country was founded to protect the political, economic and socio-cultural interests of Muslims in the subcontinent. The founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, achieved this through a persistent political and democratic process. He might have wanted to see Pakistan as a constitutional state where no one would be discriminated against on the basis of caste, creed or religion. One of the reasons for the creation of Pakistan was the fear of Hindu domination and persecution of the masses by the elite.

Lawyers, teachers, students, small landowners and peasants sacrificed their lives to realize the dream. The Pakistani movement was a feat of the collective consciousness of the working class that wanted an independent state capable of defending basic rights, providing respectable livelihoods and guaranteeing peace and prosperity for future generations. Has this dream fully come true?

Pakistan’s political course suffered a severe setback with the death of Jinnah in the early days of Pakistan.

The nation had not recovered from the grief and loss of Jinnah’s passing when in October 1951 another tragedy struck her; the country’s first prime minister was killed in broad daylight in Rawalpindi. The derailment of democracy began with the death of Liaquat Ali Khan. It continues to this day. The removal from office of Khawaja Nazimuddin by order of the Governor General reminds us that a stable political government was not a priority. Mohammad Ali Bogra tried hard, but like his predecessor, he failed against the nexus of civil-military bureaucracy. After Bogra, Chaudhry Muhammad Ali, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, Ibrahim Ismail Chundrigar and Feroz Khan Noon proved to be chess pawns.

Martial law was imposed in 1958. It gave the establishment direct control of the country’s resources. Ayub Khan, and later his successor Yahya Khan, ruled Pakistan as their personal fiefdoms. Ayub’s licensing regime and Yahya’s patronage politics have crippled Pakistan’s political institutions. A serious political conflict erupted between the east and west wings of Pakistan when West Pakistan’s elite refused to accept the democratic majority in the east. As political institutions lost credibility, people took to the streets and tried to solve problems in different ways. This led to a military operation in East Pakistan and the disintegration of the country.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the first elected Prime Minister, picks up the pieces and begins efforts to rebuild Pakistan. He gave the country a democratic constitution. His land reforms were well received by the peasantry. He also laid the foundations for an independent foreign policy and built strong relations with the Gulf countries.

However, his treatment of nationalist parties in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was deplorable. His government has set a bad precedent by violating basic human rights and limiting press freedom. The anti-Bhutto movement resulted in another martial law.

Zia ul Haq’s martial law banned all political parties in Pakistan. He abrogated the constitution and imprisoned politicians, rights activists, lawyers, journalists, members of civil society and random citizens.

Zia ruled Pakistan for about eleven years, wielding near absolute power, showing contempt for the constitution and disdain for democracy. His legacy was religious extremism, polarized society, drugs and Kalashnikov culture.

The country needs a stable political environment. This will be achieved by making political institutions more inclusive and open to all communities.

Democracy returned in 1988 with the election of the Muslim world’s first female prime minister, Benazir Bhutto. But the prime minister, his cabinet and parliament were vulnerable because a powerful president wielded arbitrary powers. Disagreements with the President became the reason for Miss Bhutto’s departure and later Nawaz Sharif’s departure from the Prime Minister’s office. For nearly a decade, the premiership alternated between the two leaders. This era ended with another coup – by General Pervez Musharraf.

Musharraf started with a vision of an enlightened and progressive Pakistan, but ended up like other military leaders. He led Pakistan in the war on terrorism which cost an estimated $123 billion in collateral damage and claimed nearly 75,000 lives. His operation in Balochistan has created a deep division in the province.

In his final years, Musharraf lost control of power, announced general elections and allowed former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif to return.

From 2008 to 2013, democratic governments fought deadly terrorism, ethnic violence and sectarian conflict. The first democratic transition took place in 2013. The new government of Nawaz Sharif faced constant opposition from Pakistan’s Tehreek-i-Insaf. Pressure groups like the Tehreek-i-Labbaik and Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) have been used to undermine and challenge the power and legitimacy of the PML-N government. Ultimately, the Supreme Court disqualified the Prime Minister for corruption. In the 2018 general election, the PTI won a majority. The opposition cried foul and blamed the establishment for the results. The establishment eventually dismissed Khan with a vote of no confidence in the National Assembly.

This sordid saga of Pakistan’s political paralysis is multifaceted. Massive establishment involvement in politics has crippled political institutions. The rigging of the political process and the suppression of genuine political voices have created a political vacuum. The political institutions have become so weak that they are easily manipulated. This causes apathy and distrust of the system. Those with power and connections get their way without following due process.

Another important factor in Pakistan’s political paralysis is the infighting between political parties. It started with the war between the PPP and the Awami League and its current manifestation can be seen in the rivalry between the PML-N and the PTI.

Another thing that weakens political parties is the lack of democratic processes within parties. Regular intra-party elections are not allowed, and most parties operate as personal or family businesses.

In developed democracies, political parties play a crucial role in safeguarding the constitution and democracy. Unfortunately, in Pakistan, political parties cannot become real institutions and remain family businesses. Dynastic politics kills the spirit of democracy and constitutionalism. That is why when dictators strike against political leaders, the masses do not resist. They feel marginalized from the system and are not ready to take to the streets to protect themselves.

Recently, the impeachment of Imran Khan sparked widespread protest demonstrations in urban areas of Pakistan. It remains to be seen whether the PTI can translate this popularity into a sustained political movement.

The mix of religion and politics is another factor confusing the concept of democracy, constitution and parliament. The integration of politico-religious parties has divided the masses and hindered the progress of democracy. The recent rise of Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan and its popular support is a wake-up call for major political parties, policy makers and state institutions.

This exhaustion of democratic processes in Pakistan has many impacts. Politics and economics are intimately linked. The first influences the second and vice versa. Pakistan’s ongoing political turmoil creates uncertainty in society and hinders economic growth.

Pakistan also faces international isolation. Imran Khan’s presence in the wrong country at the wrong time left a bad impression. Moreover, his rhetoric of a “foreign hand” in his impeachment alienated the United States. Unconditional support for the Afghan Taliban could be a risky political option for the country.

To solve all these problems, the country needs a stable political environment. This can be achieved by making political institutions more inclusive and open. The continuity of democracy is essential if Pakistan is to move forward. The prime minister should be accountable to parliament. The judiciary should dispense justice and interpret the constitution rather than fix or reform it. Responsibility for law-making rests with parliament. Sending elected prime ministers to the gallows or to jail will only bring further political paralysis and a bad reputation for the establishment. The economy can only be saved by ensuring true representation of the people. Economic stability requires political harmony, and that is sorely lacking in our 75-year history.


Nadeem Hussain is a researcher and strategist in economic and educational policy. He is co-author of The Economy of Modern Sindh (Oxford University Press, 2019) and Agents of Change (Oxford University Press, 2021)

Imtiaz Ali teaches international relations at the University of Karachi

Data Insights by: Data Pilot, an organization that helps companies extract meaningful insights from data


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