FeaturedNationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 29

Long march & after: Whither Pakistan politics?

Pakistan is in the crosshairs of an unresolved political crisis which erupted with the ouster of the PTI government in a midnight operation mounted by the opposition with the help of defectors from the ruling party. Since that day the country has known no peace with Imran Khan running a high voltage anti-PDM campaign.

After a series of mammoth public meetings in Punjab and KP, the PTI campaign reached its climax with a march on Islamabad on May 25. The whole day on May 25 the government employed all the coercive powers of the state to derail the long march. The night before the police arrested all front and second rank leaders and workers of the PTI in a Punjab-wise swoop. The police made excessive use of teargas shells and lathi charged peaceful demonstrators. In this respect, the treatment meted out to Dr Yasmin Rashid, who commands great respect all over the country, was shameful. Similarly, the manhandling of Hammad Azhar by the police left a bad taste in the mouth.

As many analysts have pointed out, it would have been much wiser on the part of the government to let the PTI come, have its say, sit for a dharna, and then go home. But by using force and shutting down the whole country, the government was mainly responsible for raising the political temperature in the country. No wonder, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah has been widely accused of using fascist tactics to derail the PTI march.

By contrast, Imran Khan, known for his impetuosity, acted in a mature manner. He has been very aggressive in his recent speeches, but at the last moment he decided that going ahead with the sit-in in Islamabad might lead to clashes and bloodshed. His caravan had proceeded from Swabi to Islamabad, breaking through the many hurdles and barriers erected by the government along the way, and his supporters were fully charged. Imran Khan rightly concluded that his diehard supporters were in an angry mood due to the Punjab police’s brutal use of force and would fight back if tear-gassed in Islamabad. So he called it a day, with his decision having the tacit support of powers working behind the scenes to hammer out a peace formula to bring about a reconciliation and avoid a likely bloody confrontation.

Imran Khan’s main and only demand is that elections should be held early and a date for the same announced. In the beginning, the sitting PDM government seemed minded to go for early elections but its latest stance is that elections will be held as scheduled in August 2023. Surely this is not acceptable to Imran Khan.

In the meantime, the government has pushed through important amendments to election and NAB laws through the Lower House. The PPP and the JUI-F had previously suggested that an election could be held once these laws were passed. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif had also referred to the possibility of an early election, inviting Imran Khan to engage in talks but also making it clear that only parliament would decide when the election would be held early or not.

On the other hand, Imran Khan has demanded that elections should be held as soon as possible and if this is not done he will again march to Islamabad with full preparations. The battle lines are drawn and there are no signs of the country returning to political stability anytime soon. With each passing day, political division is deepening in society and the tolerance level is sinking. Apprehensions have been expressed about the possibility of street clashes between the followers of the two rival parties if the crisis is not resolved soon.

The life of the coalition government is not easy either. The recent fuel price hikes have hit the common man hard and its popularity graph is on the downswing. An immediate task is to present the next budget. Expenditures are far in excess of income and the dollar is going up and up.

In Punjab, the government is in a state of limbo. With the de-seating of ex-PTI members by the Supreme Court, the fate of the newly elected Chief Minister Hamza Sharif hangs in the balance. If he fails to garner enough votes to win a vote of confidence he will fall from power. This development cannot without its impact on Islamabad where Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif maintains a shaky hold.

With the prices rising all round, the next few months promise to be tough for the people as well as the government. If the price spiral is not controlled, the PDM would have to pay a high political cost in the next elections. As a diversionary tactic, the government is reported to be mulling over options to file corruption cases against former PTI ministers. This will further embitter the political environment.

In the midst of all this, Imran Khan is not going to sit idle. With the two Sharifs occupying the seat of power in the capital and Pakistan’s largest province Punjab, Imran Khan has been attacking the PML-N for pursuing dynastic politics and infringing the basic rules of participatory democracy. The PTI also keeps hammering the theme of ‘corruption’ and ‘foreign conspiracy’.

Sane voices are calling for early elections as a way to extricate the country from the present state of uncertainty and fear of more chaos ahead. But the PDM wants to prolong its perch in power for as long as possible. But Imarn Khan is not ready to put up with this. In the ongoing power tussle the economy is the main casualty.

Politics is the art of the possible. But our politicians seem to be playing an impossible game.