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Pakistan’s political cliff
Publication Date : 20-01-2013
"Chaos Theory” is a course taught at many prestigious universities to analyse and predict developments during crises. Pakistan’s short but turbulent political history provides excellent empirical data for such study. It is a history of almost endless crises and national calamities interrupted by brief intervals of calm and normalcy.
The causes of Pakistan’s crises, and periodic chaos, have been mostly internal. Almost always, they can be attributed to a remarkable inability to resolve political differences peacefully through accommodation and compromise.
Military coups — in 1958, 1968, 1977 and 1999 — and military-backed regime changes — in 1971, 1991 and 1993 — were the most frequent consequence of such failure.
But the consequences for the country of political failure were much more fundamental: Pakistan’s vivisection in 1971; industrial stagnation; religious radicalisation and militarisation; growing economic and social inequality; rising poverty; corruption; bad governance. What imbues our polity today, apart from terrorist and sectarian violence, is a general and callous disregard for the welfare and well-being of Pakistan’s enfranchised yet powerless millions.
The last major crisis in Pakistan emerged from the confrontation between the then president and the chief justice. It exploded into a national tragedy with the assassination of a popular former premier during electioneering. The present leaders won the democratic mandate, partly due to the resulting sympathy vote.
But five years of this government’s rule, to quote a famous baseball player, has been “déjà-vu all over again”. If anything, corruption, incompetence and bad governance have surpassed all records set by previous regimes. If the 1990s were a lost decade of democracy, this has been half a decade in political purgatory, poised over an inferno.
In any normal political system, failure of governance has political consequences: the rejection of the government and political leaders at the polls. Yet it is clear that, given the structure of Pakistan’s political and electoral system, the normal exercise of democracy is unlikely to produce results that will materially change Pakistan’s governance or address the fundamental problems it now faces internally and externally.
The result is likely to be more “déjà-vu all over again”. The outburst of protest reflected in the Tahirul Qadri movement is surprising only in so far as it took so long to happen.
Pakistan’s deprived and exploited majority has so far endured, in virtual silence, the blatant failures of governance: rising inflation, joblessness and poverty; terrorist and sectarian violence; a vast and self-created energy crisis; the in-your-face conspicuous consumption of Pakistan’s elite; and the repeated capitulation of this elite to foreign interests and demands, compromising Pakistan’s pride and dignity and its strategic interests. Imran Khan’s earlier tsunami and Tehrik-i-Minhajul Quran chief Tahirul Qadri’s large congregations are clear signals that the patience of many of Pakistan’s suffering people — at least those in urban centres who are able to express themselves — has run out.
When political "springs" emerge suddenly, there are, naturally, many questions about their origins, sponsorship and objectives. It is not yet clear how the Arab Spring movements in Egypt, Libya and Syria actually started. Questions about sponsorship and special interests were raised when Imran Khan generated the large crowds calling for change.
Such questions and doubts did not change the fact that his movement reflected the sentiments of a large segment of Pakistanis. Even though his tsunami could not be sustained, for various reasons, the sentiments that generated it have not changed. The Qadri movement, whatever its origins and sources of support, could not have mobilised such large numbers of supporters unless the basic message resonated with a considerable section of the people.
The question is whether the Qadri movement should be suppressed or ignored by the government as making demands for interim governance that are inconsistent with the constitution, or whether there should be a serious endeavour to respond to the basic dissatisfaction that has percolated to the surface through this movement and the earlier marches mobilised by Imran Khan. Wisdom would dictate the latter course.
Political division is unhealthy for any state or society. For Pakistan, it could be lethal. The frustrations reflected in the recent protests can easily be exacerbated into a larger political and national crisis. The Supreme Court’s order for the arrest of the present prime minister, even if unconnected to the Qadri marches, is reflective of Pakistan’s endemic and unresolved problems. It adds to the perception that Pakistan is in crisis and may descend into chaos.
Indeed, chaos could easily grip Pakistan from several different directions. Internally, there can be no stability or development without ending the terrorist and sectarian violence. The Balochistan insurgency poses an even greater, existential threat to the Pakistani state. The economy is in dire straits. Without external financial support, it could descend into a death spiral. Such support is unlikely to be available — even from friendly countries — if turbulence reigns in Pakistan’s politics.
Externally, the challenges are considerable and mounting. The recent renewed clashes with India on the LoC, and the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party, led probably by no other than the murderous Modi, can pose an early threat to Pakistan, notwithstanding Islamabad’s attempts at compromise and appeasement.
A divided Pakistan will also be ill-placed to safeguard its strategic interests in a post-America Afghanistan or immunise itself from another Afghan civil war. And the next elected government, unless strengthened by fundamental reforms, is likely to remain vulnerable to external pressure and dictation.
If the fundamental problems of Pakistan — security, economy, politics and governance — are left unattended, the country could well descend from crisis to chaos. The possible outcomes are not pleasant to contemplate: regional political if not territorial fragmentation; militant rule in large segments of its territory; external intervention, possibly to neutralise Pakistan’s strategic capabilities, or at the very least, another military takeover.
Therefore, reform and change must be embraced by all political forces in Pakistan. Such reform should be introduced through peaceful and constitutional means. Even more importantly, such reforms should be genuinely democratic and reflect the free will of the people.
The proposition that fundamental reforms are required, whether voiced by Qadri, Imran Khan or others, including in this column, should be put to a general referendum and the authority obtained to undertake them. Without such bold action, Pakistan is poised to fall off the political cliff.
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.