The more things change… | Political economics

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French writer Alphonse Karr wrote in 1849 that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Pakistan is mired in deep and intractable political and economic crises. A careful examination of daily events unfolding recently suggests that Pakistan’s political crises are almost as old as its existence. Meanwhile, economic crises have become equally compelling.

Tremendous intellectual effort has been devoted to explaining why Pakistan has failed to shed the straitjacket and achieve a modicum of economic and political stability. It’s difficult to properly summarize all the factors that have contributed to Pakistan’s poor performance over time, but a few stand out nonetheless.

The overlap in the domains of various national institutions has created many challenges. Pakistan revolves around at least four sources of power: the military establishment, the judiciary, the civil bureaucracy and the political elite. The constitution clearly sets out the scope of action of these institutions and proposes sanctions for any aberration or encroachment by one institution on the domain of another.

The May 25 Long March underscored once again that a firm commitment to the constitution in letter and spirit is the only guarantee against economic and political crises. Before identifying how different institutions encroach on each other’s sphere of activity, let us examine some facts about the nature of these institutions taken in isolation.

Contrary to its slogans, the political class creates more space for other institutions. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan has never hidden the role of the establishment in installing and supporting his government. His mockery in recent months of the establishment for remaining neutral as the opposition cast their vote of no confidence against him, goes with the grain of the story.

It would be instructive to analyze Imran Khan’s conduct. It has several unique characteristics with important implications for the body politic. First, his Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf is a democratic party. There is hardly any doubt about its democratic character. In this respect, the PTI is no different from other traditional political parties. However, Khan also behaves like an individual with a messianic mission. Some of his speeches are heavily punctuated with religious vocabulary. That his slips in his references to religious concepts often expose him to strong criticism is another matter.

Things took an embarrassing turn during the long march when the former deputy speaker of the National Assembly urged him to add an “Islamic touch” to his speech. The microphone picked up the suggestion. Khan did not disappoint Suri.

Yet another dimension of Imran Khan’s politics is his belated acceptance of a revolutionary role. It demands an unqualified allegiance from its followers to the cause of “true freedom.” Few of his supporters care much that he has almost never categorically made it clear whose “freedom” he wants. United States? His role in empowering the central bank and impeding CPEC are seen as supporting and promoting US interests.

The more things change...

Even though the former prime minister’s regime was largely a failure in terms of development and governance, and, ironically, standards of transparency, it strayed from the general political culture of confrontation with the establishment..

Does he want to be freed from allegedly corrupt political parties in Pakistan? Does he want to free himself from the frequent interventions of state institutions in political affairs?

Did he do anything substantial during his term as Prime Minister to create the conditions conducive to the affirmation of the country? He may have realized that it was best to keep the concept of freedom ambiguous.

Other major players in the political class are the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and the Pakistan Peoples Party. The PML-N received support from the establishment to counter the influence of the PPP. The party had rarely challenged the power equation until Nawaz Sharif named certain people in the establishment and publicly blamed them for his resignation. He also introduced the story of respect for the vote. He appeared in court and, at least at one point, landed in jail of his own free will. He could have stayed away in 2018, but he chose to come to Pakistan and was incarcerated.

However, with the exception of a few individuals, the party’s top leadership has not been shy about seeking the blessing of the establishment. The PML-N’s vote in favor of the PTI-led bill in parliament calling for an extension for the outgoing military leader is a case in point.

In addition to its inability to assert itself as a truly democratic party that relies on mass popularity, the PML-N has failed to distance itself from dynastic politics. What made Shehbaz Sharif choose his son for Punjab’s top spot? Is there no one else in PML-N good enough to lead the largest province?

The genesis of the PPP was not very different from that of the PML-N. Its founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had served in Ayub Khan’s cabinet. However, the love-hate relationship between the PPP and the establishment has been more extreme.

Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was probably the only Democratic leader in Pakistan who never had good relations with the establishment. Like her father, Benazir Bhutto, she met a violent end under the rule of a military dictator. History has been exceptionally kind to Benazir Bhutto, rare by Pakistani standards, as only a few politicians have been revered by friends and foes after their demise.

The PPP today is only a shadow of what it was. Asif Ali Zardari is a master of realpolitik. Few can compete with him in determining the opportune time for political change. The widespread poverty and underdevelopment in Sindh, the PPP’s bastion of political power, show that public welfare remains secondary to the demands of the power game. It heightens the irony that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto mobilized the masses with his popular slogans about basic human needs.

Even though Imran Khan’s regime has largely been a failure in terms of development and governance, and, ironically, standards of transparency, it has largely deviated from the general political culture of confrontation with the establishment. No political party in the past has opposed the role of the establishment in the political affairs of the country so fiercely as the PTI.

Rarely have Pakistan’s security services come under such despicable attacks on social media as it has in recent weeks and months. The greatest irony, however, is that the resentment of the PTI is not directed against establishment interference in political affairs. It is mainly directed at the army chief for failing to rescue the fledgling PTI regime.

It is time for all stakeholders to act together and commit to their constitutional duty to operate within their spheres of activity as set out in the constitution.


The author is Associate Professor in Department of Economics, COMSATS University Islamabad, Lahore Campus


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