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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Op-ed: Pakistani politics may be more banal than its analysts make it out to be

Political parties are the gatekeepers of democracy, and Pakistan deserves better than its current set of parties that mobilize democracy for personal enrichment.

Authors: Marzia Raza and Muhammad Salman


Aqil Shah’s latest piece in Foreign Affairs twists publicly available information on Pakistan’s recent political history and civil-military relations to buttress a carefully crafted story, the glaring omissions of which render any serious policy or academic resonance difficult.

We shall begin by offering some context for the story’s subtitle, which sensationally proclaims “mounting anger in Pakistan against the generals.” The truth is more mundane. The “anger” Mr. Shah refers to is only found within the leadership ranks of Pakistan’s eleven opposition parties, currently united under the platform of Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM). This hostility is less directed at the generals than at the accountability drive active roughly since 2016 targeting key opposition leaders on serious charges of assets beyond means, financial corruption, and money laundering.

If he would not promote exclusive and corrupt political practices in and for the US, he should not do it for Pakistan either.

This is not to deny that accountability in Pakistan can be selective or technically unsound. Still, a conglomeration of self-proclaimed “democratic” leaders should do better than instrumentalize democracy for personal gain. The PDM alliance does not inspire any confidence in its democratic credentials by having allegedly corrupt dynastic leaders, a rabid illiberal Islamist, and a document forger at the helm. The leader of the PDM, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, boasts long-standing ties with Islamist militants in Afghanistan.

Tasteless trade-off

The “anger” is less principled than Mr. Shah wants us to believe and current oppositional outbursts do not seek more parity in civil-military relations. Consider that key PDM leaders, Maryam Nawaz and Bilawal Bhutto, have made suggestions to seek adjustments with the military if it removes current prime minister, Imran Khan, from power. The irony is palpable here as both these individuals routinely deride Pakistan’s security establishment as “selectors” of the “selected” PM Imran Khan.

To then make carefully worded pleas for their own “selection” to the same “selectors” is a tasteless trade-off deemed necessary to win back state largesse. The PDM is neither against the generals or their political interference, which it is more than willing to accommodate if its interests are protected and amnesty in corruption cases granted.

Read more: Nepotism in Pakistani politics

It is also important to note that party identification is weak in Pakistan and political parties instrumentalize clientelist or kinship-based allegiance to swell numbers at their rallies. Sometimes, meager amounts of financial reward and meals are also promised. PDM rallies may be drawing crowds. Still, inter-elite squabbles are not the best indicator to gauge popular sentiment, especially when popular mobilization can be so easily manipulated.

A questionable source of journalism

In a similar manner as that of PDM leaders, Mr. Shah attributes the generals’ stratagems to have propelled Imran Khan to power in the 2018 general election which he terms as “grossly manipulated.” He cites a BBC story by Ms. Gul Bukhari to back this assertion. Because the informer is often as important as the information being relayed, it is vital to mention that Ms. Bukhari is not just a highly polarizing figure in Pakistan, but her journalistic credentials to reliably comment on election processes are also questionable. She is often found to share fake or misleading political commentary through her Twitter account.

In July 2020, Ms. Bukhari received considerable online flak, including from a sitting Pakistani minister, for falsely passing off the footage of a flooded street in Karachi as that of Peshawar. On 22 October 2018, Ms. Bukhari shared a screengrab from a TV news report suggesting that Imran Khan’s government had announced new crackdowns on social media accounts critical of the government. The Daily Dawn later clarified the screengrab as being from March 2017 when Imran Khan was still out of power. Ms. Bukhari also seems to be a different person as she switches from English to Urdu in her tweets. In Urdu, she takes the liberty to deride opponents with uncharitable labels as “prostitutes” and “pimps,” though she also receives considerable online abuse often from pro-government accounts.

If there is any lesson to be learned from the New York Times’ recent retraction of Rukmini Callimachi’s reportage on ISIS, it is that individuals who cannot be trusted to speak the truth are bad sources for journalism. Callimachi’s fall from grace should inspire deep reflection in media houses on source selection and inter-source reliability. Having said that, Ms. Bukhari’s assessment of election manipulation is not entirely wrong but there is more to Pakistan’s 2018 general election than what she saw or chose to see.

The “anger” Mr. Shah refers to is only found within the leadership ranks of Pakistan’s eleven opposition parties, currently united under the platform of Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM).

Civil society observers in Pakistan, such as the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) trained over 19,000 observers for election day observation. FAFEN’s preliminary report on election day, based on the reports of 9,699 observers from 37,001 polling stations, assessed the process as positive. The Election Observation Mission of the European Union concluded that the results of the election as duly established were credible, but expressed dissatisfaction with the pre-poll campaigning environment.

It also assessed the number of electoral irregularities to be more than in the previous general election of 2013. But a nuanced reading of observer reports reveals an unclear relationship between electoral irregularities and electoral advantage. The FAFEN report states that “a comparison of the number of electoral irregularities with the political affiliations of returned candidates in [National Assembly] constituencies suggests that the incidence of irregularities may not be politically motivated, as almost all major parties were victorious in constituencies with larger numbers of observed irregularities.”

There is always a hidden motive

Moving on, Aqil Shah, in his piece, rather incorrectly claims that PDM protests in Pakistan target the incumbent government of Imran Khan, but they have another, even bigger target: the military. One does not know what to make of such an assertion in view of recent statements by key PDM leaders. For instance, in this BBC interview, Maryam Nawaz states that she is not against the security establishment or any state institutions. She also expresses a willingness to talk to the establishment if Imran Khan’s government is sent home packing. In another BBC interview, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari distanced himself from the more extreme position of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) of publicly criticizing the security establishment. He clearly stated that he will not “thrash out” differences with the army publicly. In reference to Nawaz Sharif’s allegations of election rigging against army chief and head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Bhutto-Zardari expressed his “shock”.

In what appeared to be an attempt at double-dealing, Bhutto-Zardari said that Mr. Sharif must not have made those assertions without solid evidence, so he should present his proofs to the public. Meanwhile, the third leader of the PDM, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, is also no stranger to the cluelessness becoming characteristic of this opposition alliance. Mr. Rehman recently called upon all PDM parties to resign from assemblies. They responded ambiguously to his call by stating that parliamentarians will submit their resignations to party heads. This is seen as a symbolic move which lacks “sense or substance” and indicates lack of “willingness to leave the parliament or a future roadmap.”

Read more: Nawaz-Maryam & Zulfikar-Benazir father daughter duos compared

As if this was not enough, members of Fazl’s own party are reluctant to resign from assemblies. Dissenting voices on the matter of resignations have also emerged from within the PML-N and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). This lack of cohesion is hardly surprising and only reflects the trickling down of opportunism from the first tiers of PDM parties to their second tiers. We call the politics of Pakistani opposition parties opportunistic for many reasons, but a more recent example would be their unanimous vote in favor of General Bajwa’s extension of tenure in January 2020. This is the same General Bajwa whom the opposition parties accused of stealing the 2018 election and “selecting” Imran Khan.

But this is not the first time that Mr. Shah has pinned his hopes on a fragile opposition alliance for the consolidation of democracy. Earlier this year, when Maulana Fazl, the head of PDM and leader of a right-wing Islamist party, staged a protest in Islamabad, Mr. Shah tweeted in favor of Fazl’s sit-in even as he spewed hateful rhetoric against Asia Bibi. Ms. Bibi was an innocent Pakistani Christian woman wrongfully detained on blasphemy charges for eight years and even sentenced to death by the lower courts. Her acquittal by the Supreme Court of Pakistan led to massive protests and hateful speeches by the likes of Fazlur Rehman, who claimed that the decision to release Bibi was made at the behest of “Western” governments. Fazl repeated the same rhetoric during his sit-in in Islamabad, but Mr. Shah for some reason believed that his protest would lead to a more inclusive political process. 

Singing the praises of Fazl ur Rehman

Mr. Shah was not the only commentator who faltered in their analysis of Fazl’s “politics of resistance.” A leading Pakistani commentator, Imtiaz Alam, claimed that Fazl was a progressive cleric and read Marxist literature. Naya Daur, a leading anti-government online media portal, published an op-ed which suggested that supporting Fazlur Rehman was essential to pave the way for “procedural democracy.” But perhaps most surprisingly, Fazlur Rehman himself contested the presidential elections in October 2018 through the same “fake assemblies” he now opposes.

One is forced to ask did he not legitimize these assemblies by participating in presidential elections? The PPP also nominated Aitzaz Ahsan and asked Fazl to persuade the PML-N to support its nominee but Fazl bagged his own nomination instead, despite having less than ten seats in the National Assembly and miniscule representation in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s provincial assemblies. Then, just over a year ago, in his first speech after the 2018 elections, Asif Ali Zardari, the co-chairman of PPP, accepted the election results and called for a national dialogue. He also advised the government to complete its tenure by pursuing the politics of reconciliation.    

In a series of problematic claims, Aqil Shah proceeds to say that “the military reportedly pressured Sharif to resign but backed off after opposition parties, including the PPP, unanimously vowed in parliament to oppose any military intervention.” This assertion is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, it implies that political parties in Pakistan have more agency than analysts are often willing to admit. But this is a wrong example to attest PPP or any other party’s democratic agency, credentials, or political power. The widely documented fact remains that the chief of armed forces at that time, General Raheel Sharif, was completely uninterested in coming to power.

In a similar manner as that of PDM leaders, Mr. Shah attributes the generals’ stratagems to have propelled Imran Khan to power in the 2018 general election which he terms as “grossly manipulated.”

The PPP or any other party’s role in averting democratic breakdown may have been only symbolic but Mr. Shah portrays these parties, particularly the PPP, as some sort of guardian angels for Pakistan’s democracy. He casually overlooks the bitter political wrangling of 2011 and 2016 when PPP and PML-N threatened to drag each other to courts over the Memogate and Panama Papers scandals. In fact, the PML-N did take the PPP to court over the Memogate scandal.

At that time, Mr. Sharif brimmed with enthusiasm to discredit his rival Asif Zardari. It did not stop Mr. Sharif that the Zardari government was already facing extreme pressure from the military over its role in the Memogate scandal. Moreover, the PPP government had already referred the Memogate case to the Parliamentary Committee on National Security, with the vote of PML-N, but Nawaz Sharif still took the matter before the court “going so far as to present his case himself.”[1]    

To what extent will Mr. Shah go in defending his claims?

It will not be an exaggeration to say that Mr. Shah’s write-up is replete with factual omissions and not all of them can be addressed in one article. It appears that he has picked a side and must defend it even at the cost of appearing uninformed or simply callous. Half-truths and misleading information warp our perceptions of reality and lead to bad policies that eventually affect most people who may be less erudite, connected, or sheltered than the likes of Mr. Shah. More importantly, they skew the democratic dream for third world societies as leading intellectuals persuade people to give up on the aspiration and higher values of transparency and integrity in politics. As a resident of a consolidated first-world democracy, Mr. Shah should be asked if he would ever endorse the racist, bigoted, and anti-minority politics of Donald Trump? Or would he gloss over Trump’s tax evasion and nepotist practices in the White House?

Read more: A bill put forward in US congress to remove Pakistan as ally

If he would not promote exclusive and corrupt political practices in and for the US, he should not do it for Pakistan either. Political parties are the gatekeepers of democracy, and Pakistan deserves better than its current set of parties that mobilize democracy for personal enrichment. If there is to be any policy advice for the incoming Biden administration on democratization in Pakistan, it should not be about the supremacy of one institution over another but about the supremacy of the rule of law. It should be about creating a political class that buttresses the guardrails of democracy, instead of assaulting them for base desires and personal enrichment.

Marzia Raza is graduate student of Political Science at the University of Osnabrück,
Germany. She was Editor at Oxford University Press prior to commencing graduate
studies. Her research interests lie in the areas of political Islam, democracy and human
rights, and state repression. She can be contacted on raza.marzia@yahoo.com.

Muhammad Salman is Ph.D. research fellow in Political Science at LUISS Guido Carli,
Rome. He was Lecturer in International Relations at Karachi University for four years.
His doctoral work studies party system institutionalization and prospects for democratic
consolidation in Pakistan. He can be contacted through salman_ku_ir@hotmail.com.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.