Centrality of Politics
As Pakistan enters the new decade along with alarming political instability, some nagging questions must yet again be addressed: Can Pakistan afford the cost of ongoing political instability? Is there a way forward away from the current cycles of political instability towards political stability?
We cannot exaggerate the centrality of politics in the life of a nation. Politics essentially determines how the legal and constitutional framework will operationalize its state and society. When there is a Constitution in place, how the Constitution is affected is determined by politics and the political culture that prevails. Politics is one factor, but it takes place in a context, that is subject to the Constitution, which establishes the ethos and the character for the exercise of power and authority as embedded in a country. The political context within it has institutions that spell continuity in a state.
The Perennial Dilemma
Some of Pakistan’s power play and political troubles have their roots in Pakistan’s initial decade, the asymmetrical power and authority that tilted in favor of Pakistan’s well-established state institutions, as opposed to, the nascent divergent political forces. In subsequent years, power battles ensued between the state institutions and the political forces and society. These combined with mostly real and some imagined external security threats, that a newborn Pakistan faced, accentuated the internal battles. These, along with supposed saviors, manufactured traitors and certified patriots have peppered Pakistan’s political landscape through the decades.
The near-total breakdown of communication and negotiation among Pakistan’s political forces and near-absence or erosion of trust and goodwill between national policy stakeholders requires an urgent effort by the incumbent government. A democratic government cannot govern unilaterally and less so by creating a no-holds-barred verbal battle, with the opposition, led by the highest elected office. The Prime Minister, while upholding his mandate, his governance plan must be seen as genuinely trying to build consensus on all important issues. The more committed a Prime Minister is to the national good, the more he or she would graduate to a statesperson’s way of handling the state’s business.
To put Pakistan and its politics on a relatively less cantankerous political path, the Prime Minister in the opening months of 2021 must consider moving along the following lines.
What is to be Done
Broadly speaking the government, the opposition, the institutions, and the judiciary must all function within the given constitutional parameters. For this, the following steps must be initiated by the incumbent government in partnership with the opposition.
Critical Committees: Number of Constitutional bodies need to be set up for regular coordination and consultation between key policymakers and implementors, within the government, in essential areas of finance and commerce, social sector, trade, internal security, foreign policy, etc. And they must be convened regularly. This coordination is essential to prevent the damaging silo-slicing of policy-making, leading to government teams working as divided groups instead of a united unit pursuing common connected objectives.
Critical Security Conversations: Using various platforms laid down in the Constitution, the Rules of Business convened by the exercising Executive Authority; security conversations on essential matters of security between key elected leadership and the military high command must be held regularly. Security matters, as laid down by the successive government, and more so, this government includes military and economic security and kinetic and non-kinetic threats.
Conversations, accordingly, must include all relevant stakeholders. Regular conversations are necessary given the dynamic context in which Pakistan is located, which requires rapid response to changing situations. Also, long gaps in meetings often lead to distrust and misunderstanding between the elected offices and the military command. These regular meetings also establish the legitimate and constitutional authority of elected leadership in the country’s power paradigm.
Untying the Gordian Knot: Reality and ‘factualized fiction’ together pose the cardinal challenge in addressing Pakistan’s political instability: the cardinal challenge of the military’s role in a democratic set-up. Over the decades, especially beginning with the seventies, during the Bhutto regime, the army’s role since Zia-ul Haq’s advent into Pakistan’s power play and politics led to a role expansion of the military in politics.
The army’s role post-Zia and the post-Afghan war acquired unprecedented reach into Pakistan’s politics: military coups, the structuring of political parties, the collaboration with political actors, managing national affairs beyond security, manipulating political parties and partnerships, etc. Often political players have been willing partners with a military high command that wielded and influenced state institutions ultimately determining the fate of politicians ranging from the judiciary to bureaucracy and intelligence agencies.
More recently, the army’s involvement in governance matters including legislation, ensuring ruling party members’ attendance of the parliament, organizing and moderating political negotiations on issues ranging from national accountability bill to Gilgit Baltistan’s future, FATA inclusion into KPK, through to social media rules. Army representation is now on many committees ranging from the National Development Council, locust fighting committee, and the National Command and Control Centre to fight the pandemic. In most cases, it seems that the agencies are helping and aiding an inexperienced and occasionally a government to manage state affairs better.
A multi-party dialogue is a key to reaching a consensus on the Constitutional and legal role that the army high command can play in non-security matters. Although Pakistan’s Constitution allows elected governments to call in the army in aid of governance and internal security, there needs to be a clear cut enunciation of this fact, to avoid the huge debates that take place in public space, often bereft of facts.
Charter of Economy: The key political parties in the country must agree on a Charter of Economy. Toxic political polarization only impedes economic progress. Pakistan faced with crippling external debt, inefficient state enterprises (SOEs), the ever-increasing circular debt, massively low investments in human capital, revenue versus expenditure shortages, etc., falters on reforms against the backdrop of raging political battles. Repeatedly incumbents’ reform of state enterprises, whether PIA or Steel Mills, etc., is challenged by the opposition. Some broad parameter agreements, required in such a charter, should include reform in state-owned enterprises, policy towards international lending institutions including the IMF and the World Bank, and the privatization policy.
Expanding Role of Parliamentary Committees: In Pakistan’s democracy the parliamentary committees, both at the national and provincial level, potentially represent a significant strategic space to the parliamentary political forces to make democracy work in an accountable, transparent, inclusive and merit-based manner. With representation from all parliamentary parties and with suo moto power, these Committees can rigorously oversee governance issues and initiate appropriate legislation. Role expansion of these Committees in areas including holding hearings for candidates to important government appointments would further contribute to the accountable exercise of Executive authority.
Credible and Transparent Accountability: Unless accountability ceases to be a political engineering tool, political stability will remain an illusion. The current negotiations that continue between parliamentary parties on bringing NAB at par with law and justice requirements, as observed by the Supreme Court, must culminate in a consensus approach to the instruments required to put in place for genuine and transparent accountability.
Fair and Free Elections: The bipartisan parliamentary committee already in place to draw up and finalize a set of election reforms to ensure the conduct of fair and free elections, must deliver on its mandate.
Read more: PM Imran proposes sweeping electoral reforms
No matter how compelling and logical the ideas of a technocrat government or a national government or a grand dialogue or a grand bargain may seem, the real task is to ensure that all players and actors in Pakistani politics and Pakistani power scenes play by the rules. Grand dialogue perhaps is a conceivable idea, but one that should be initiated by the incumbent government (however questionable the 2018 election may have been).
Although the question is not lack of communication between different players of politics and power in Pakistan, but the various extraconstitutional and covert channels of communication and platforms of action that are often established willingly by all the players. This is the case whether it is in politics or in broader power play in which the government and the opposition have often been a party.
What is to be done: The Imran Khan government must take constitutional, overt and transparent initiatives. These steps alone can put Pakistan onto the direly needed path of political stability and beat the covert and extraconstitutional action that creates the problems Pakistan has faced and culminated the elected governments into ousted governments.
However, the game of favorites, musical chairs, side bargains or covert bargains, whether it is the politicians or the institutions that are stakeholders in national security, continues. In that case, political stability will undoubtedly remain an illusion.
There is no reason that Pakistani politicians and state institutions cannot redraw their steps into the zones of constitutionality and transparency. While the margin of error available to Pakistan’s power wielders and political forces has hugely shrunk and wiser ways of competing and contesting for power are now essential.
Agreement on some fundamentals will ensure the space and energy for more meaningful political contestation. For example, the competition will then be restricted to two priority areas: one, finding more efficient ways to pursue objectives laid out in agreed parameters, either of the economy or national security, and two, to keep the political energy focused on developing better ways of serving the electorate, the rightful masters of the elected.
The onus rests Prime Minister Imran Khan of whether Pakistan enters the new decade with a hope to acquire political stability, critical for a strong and prosperous Pakistan.
Nasim Zehra is a national security specialist, author, From Kargil to the Coup: Events that Shook Pakistan, and a prominent journalist. She has been a Fellow of the Harvard University Asia Centre, on the Visiting Faculty of the Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad; National University of Science and Technology; and at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. She tweets @NasimZehra.