Political Woes

Spearhead Analysis – 26.08.2016

By ShahBano Khan
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Political Parties

Pakistan, a fledgling democracy, is in a constant state of flux; it has witnessed an array of changes in the last few decades- from military coups to corrupt democratic governments, from bearded warriors of God to bearded warriors of terror, from empowered institutions to a weakening political will; from instability to renewed hope. While Newsweek Pakistan once called it the ‘bravest nation in the world’, it is also stubbornly resilient. But this single-minded instinct for survival when translated into the political sphere often takes on a character of its own; politics in Pakistan is a soap opera, action movie, and a horror show all at once.

Three years into the first ever democratically transitioned government’s tenure and the state of union is as precarious as it was decades ago. Any kind of real and meaningful political engagement is conditioned by ‘voter politics’ where individual political parties have affiliated themselves to certain areas, ethnicities, class power, policies, or narratives. Politics in Pakistan then becomes more focused on public visibility rather than public service. But even within that public visibility, the political echelons of power have been dominated by a few families that have used their ‘image’ to foster their own pernicious agendas; pernicious, because the nation bears the brunt of those pursuits. Most political parties in Pakistan are led by people who belong to a higher income bracket with more social and cultural capital, thereby not just giving them more power and viability, but also an official public sanction to monopolize national airwaves, discourses, administrative policies, social conventions, and regulatory frameworks. An arbitrary implementation of the rule of law, to be sure.

Key issues that color the current political scenario of the country are connected to representation, visibility, accountability, security, social and economic uplift, and defense. While just about all political parties represent particular segments of society, what becomes significant is how that representation plays out in the public domain. Visibility is the hallmark of any democratic set up, yet any organization or institution’s civic standing is wholly dependent on either how that visibility is maneuvered, propagated, or utilized for political gains and losses; representation and visibility evidently rest upon the ability to foster group association and class consciousness.

Over the years, political parties in Pakistan have cemented their rural voter base and urban power hubs. Ethnicity, religious affiliation, ideological sorority, class location, identity politics, and feudal affinity all play a fundamental role in that membership. On the other hand, ‘accountability’ of the ruling class has become a common catchword in today’s age of increased internet connectivity and social awareness. The issue is one around which all parties, institutions, communities, and citizens converge, yet it is also the most elusive issue of our time. Without accountability, the democratic system becomes null, weak, and irrelevant, and issues of representation, visibility, and social and economic uplift often become secondary when accountability dominates the national psyche. The security and defense of the country without a doubt warrants its own mention, but even those issues become embroiled in matters of corruption and accountability. While these are urgent obstacles faced by the country’s political establishment, each side has a varying response to the aforementioned issues.

MQM’s ‘cul de sac’ moment?

Since its inception, MQM has played the ‘identity/representation’ card to gain mass public support and political momentum, first amongst the Urdu-speaking population in Karachi and then eventually extending it to the rest of Sindh. Though the party has retained its influence over the federal government as a key coalition partner since the 1980s, Karachi remains their power base. But in truth, Karachi has been treated as a launching pad for violence, agitation, and resistance rather than the party’s city of origin. For years the economic hub of the country was marred with rampant target killings, high-profile kidnappings, political and social unrest, and imbued with a general air of ‘danger’ under MQM’s rule. Up until a dedicated Karachi operation was launched, MQM virtually controlled Sindh’s capital. Up until recently, Altaf Hussain, the party’s founder and leader was directing it from the United Kingdom without once setting foot on indigenous soil.

The recent debacle MQM has embroiled itself in has thrown light on the dilapidated state of its political standing with an ever diminishing public support. Altaf Hussain’s anti-Pakistan diatribe incited his workers to chant slogans against Pakistan’s civil and military institutions before marching on to prominent media houses that destroyed life and property. Since then, prominent MQM politicians have been on a rampage of swift yet hollow justifications for their leader’s incited behavior. Yet after an emotional apology given by Altaf Hussain himself, MQM’s fate is left hanging. Allegedly, the party is now solely going to operate from Pakistan under Dr. Farooq Sattar’s management. While Sattar enjoys the support, does he actually have the authority to direct the party out of this quagmire? MQM’s party manifesto clearly constitutes that authority to Altaf Hussain. Yet one wonders if this signals a break between its London and Karachi leadership or if this is another example of MQM’s typical theatrics in the face of political death? If the party has been sidelined from its leader’s militant narrative, does it mean Pakistan can expect a new MQM altogether or is this a ‘cul de sac’ (dead-end) moment for them?

While MQM’s grass-root connections remain strong, assertive, and organized as seen by their recent win in the local bodies election, the common party worker is nonetheless shaken by the recent events. Prominent members of the political establishment, media houses, and civil society members have questioned their ‘patriotism’. The party will perhaps now undergo some much-needed fundamental changes as they represent a large linguistic group in Karachi’s larger mosaic of ethnicities.

PTI and PAT: affair de Coeur?

Imran Khan’s third party solution in the PML-N and PPP nexus has changed the face of Pakistani politics. Not only has he attracted a large and growing educated middle-class but also triggered a populous turn-out in the last general elections. Since the 2013 elections, his party has been at logger heads with the executive, judiciary and the ECP over alleged rigging and corruption in that electoral process. Yet his rallying cry of ‘accountability’ has seen the test of time and has become as relevant today as it was when he first stepped into the political arena. Dr. Tahir ul Qadri, on the other hand, has always enjoyed mass support amongst the religiously inclined masses of the country, and his recent step into politics with the advent of his ‘Inqalaab’ protest in 2014, also showed the mass political appeal he enjoyed. Both parties, although a one-man show, have created an identity and narrative for themselves. In 2014, they staged a month-long sit-in in Islamabad to not only put pressure on the government by temporarily derailing democracy, but to also strengthen and bolster their own individual politics.

Since the Panama papers leak, PTI has been trying to corner the government; although attempts are skillfully avoided by the latter. In a four month long tirade between PTI politicians and PML-N ministers, the matter of accountability has been consistent and relevant, with one side swinging accusations and the other side dodging them. While it is true that street unrest and mass protests have become the hallmark of PTI politics, the government has always disregarded PTI’s recommendations towards a democratic or legal recourse, leaving it with little or no choice, as seen with the opposition ToRs. PAT, on the other hand, has legitimate grievances against the PML-N. In 2014, a peaceful protest by party workers turned into a massacre in Lahore’s Model Town. Tahir ul Qadri has staged his latest rally to protest the extra legal killing of innocent people. In addition, the Panama issue has rallied support for Qadri’s cause. Although both parties decided to launch their street protest campaigns of ‘accountability’ and ‘justice’, recent bombings on a civil hospital in Quetta have put a temporary halt on their efforts.

While both parties are rooted in different ideological backgrounds and have contrasting political bearings, their alliance is more a marriage of convenience than a frolicking affair de Coeur (affair of the heart). They have maintained a thin line between their identities, but are backing the same causes from different perspectives. They both want accountability- but in different spheres. But the question is, rallying and mobilizing masses in Punjab will not free it of negative political and economic effects at a time when the country requires cohesion in all its institutions. Urgency of action from the government’s side should be expedient lest their protests result in country-wide unrest. While Imran Khan wants a transparent democratic system in which electoral power transition genuinely represents the will of the people, Tahir ul Qadri demands justice for state sponsored atrocities. PTI’s alliance with the opposition of which PPP is the largest party, has help them cement a stronger bloc against the centre, namely PML-N. What remains to be seen is how PAT will adjust to these changes, starting with their sit-ins in 105 cities, attracting large crowds that include women and children.

PMNL-N, PPP nexus: plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose

The country’s two largest parties, incidentally in power in the two most affluent provinces of the country, have had an arduous relationship with the civil, military, and judicial institutions. Both parties claim to not only represent more than half of the entire electoral scale but have seasoned politicians who understand the country’s constitutional machinery. In spite of the cover of legitimacy provided by their longevity, both PML-N and PPP have had allegations of rigging, corruption, nepotism, and of maintaining a large illegal financial and industrial racket follow them through their tenures. However it would be naive to completely disregard their vast achievements in steering the country into a post-modern globalised era.  Yet at a time when the country enjoys its first hard-earned democratic season, the changes and reforms introduced by both parties (in and out of power) have not been enough. Aptly described by a French journalist commenting on the political community of his time in the mid 1800s, Jean Baptist Alphonse Karr coined the term ‘plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose’ meaning ‘the more it changes, the more it remains the same’.

PML-N, the party in power at the centre, has had to deal with a different kind of Pakistan on their third time in power. Not only is there an independent and relatively free media breathing down their backs, society as a whole has transformed from the issues that dominate the national psyche to the economic and political expectations of a vast population of different customs, cultures, and ideological camps. While the Pakistan that was handed over to them was marred with terrorism, economic failure, and political instability- since then they have attempted to breathe new life into its veins. Although those issues still remain, but now more than ever, those issues are being addressed. In addition, PML-N’s relation with the military complex has also seen a strategic change, while its relationship with other political parties has been conditional and wholly dependent on circumstances. PPP, perhaps a loyal ally, has many a times thrown weight behind the party’s many policies and has on occasions acted as the most accommodating opposition. Both parties are said to make up the largest bulk of our political establishment, with deep roots in the bureaucratic set up, often influencing laws and policies according to their interest.

The Greeks, pioneers of democracy, would be aghast at the vast and complicated ideological institution it has become; while the men back then would just raise their hands on grave political issues of their time to lend their consent or otherwise, democracy today is a different ball game altogether and political parties, representative of the will of the people, have a fundamental role to play in that. While politics is no less than a drama in Pakistan, it has fortunately not yet turned into a Greek tragedy. It might if we do not act to arrest some trends.

The vast majority of Pakistanis want democracy but they want a functional democracy—one that introduces transparency, ensures governance and gives hope through economic uplift and security. The military’s support for democracy is being appreciated but speculations about the civil-military relationship will die down only when elected governments achieve credibility through their performance.