The governing party should’ve found its groove, the opposition should’ve found its gears by now. But into the mid-term, politics is still feverish
Two years in, and it feels a little like both the opposition parties and the ruling party are locked in a battle for survival. This should not have been the case at this point in a government’s term. The political sediment should’ve settled after a particularly turbulent election, the governing party should’ve found its groove, the opposition should’ve found its gears. You know, mildly boring mid-term stuff, a measure of stability.
But over the long Covid19-riddled summer, as parliament holds session after session to complete its mandatory 130 days in a parliamentary year, in the water-logged streets of Karachi, in tit-for-tat press conferences, the zero-sum game of politics feels almost feverish.
Take the case of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) laws. Pakistan needs to enact the laws in order to escape the international terror watch dog’s black list, to prevent financial sanctions, and to be upgraded for international creditors and ratings agencies. This should’ve been standard national-interest legislation – the government invites the opposition for a consultation to build consensus. Committees meet. There is a bit of pencil-pushing give and take, a few tweaks, some moderate posturing for media consumption. Pakistan was taken off the FATF grey list quietly back in 2015 after three years, no reason why it shouldn’t happen again.
Except the FATF also became about NAB and NROs - two acronyms that are like political lightning rods. Broad national interest siphoned through the narrow conduit of national politics. On July 25, Bilawal Bhutto challenged the PTI, “You don’t want to talk to the opposition, try and get laws passed without us.” The gauntlet was thrown but it wasn’t the PTI – for all its posturing – that got the opposition to submit.
Here’s what went wrong. When it comes to parliament and legislation, the PTI-led coalition has only needed parliament as a last resort: thus, the desperate marathon sessions to complete the mandatory days when the parliamentary year is nearly over and the last-minute push to pass necessary legislation. Among these laws is the lapsed NAB Ordinance that provides a kind protection to bureaucrats and businessmen in corruption cases. The opposition sensed a moment of leverage, but then overestimated its clout in parliament, and failed to factor in its own submission to what it calls the “selectors”.
With a majority in Senate – and emboldened by the Supreme Court judgment in the Khwaja brothers bail petition which resoundingly discredits the process of accountability through the National Accountability Bureau – the opposition parties sought to amend the NAB laws. But the first committee meeting between the opposition and government was a disaster. Committee head (Foreign Minister) Shah Mehmood Qureishi’s tone went from reconciliatory to hostile.
The PTI had sensed a moment of weakness and cashed in politically, drumming home the fact that the two opposition parties wanted to save themselves from corruption cases. The PPP and the PMLN’s senior leadership went on the defensive, calling the PTI “liars” for misrepresenting what they thought were good-faith negotiations. Regular he said, she said.
When it comes to parliament and legislation, the PTI-led coalition has only needed parliament as a last resort: thus, the desperate marathon sessions to complete the mandatory days when the parliamentary year is nearly over and the last-minute push to pass necessary legislation.
In the end it doesn’t matter which party was telling the truth. The current hybrid system built on populism is not running on truth and robust democratic institutions. Therein lies the source of instability, the constant battles for survival. Both the party in power and the parties in opposition are compromised. Sources say the opposition was nudged by the powers-that-be to let the FATF laws go, with a few minor tweaks. To give credit to the opposition, it was able to get the government to withdraw a law that provided for 180-days detention without due process. This is all the room it has to manoeuvre though.
The PTI and Imran Khan don’t need to talk to the opposition, strengthen parliament, build consensus on national issues, or take the lead. In an interview Railways Minister (‘Pindi boy’) Sheikh Rasheed pretty much admitted the reality, “The army does the work and we run the government.” Of course, by running the government, Sheikh Rasheed means the PTI’s brand of populist exclusionary politics.
Survival, for the PTI, is perpetuating its legitimacy by discrediting all others that have not been co-opted into this hybrid system - the PTI’s “dry-cleaning”, as it has often been described. Normal political processes – such as negotiating over laws – have been disrupted. In this alternate universe, Imran Khan and the chosen few that have been dry-cleaned are the only ones that represent the will of the people. That this parallel universe is at odds with the principles of participatory and inclusionary parliamentary democracy is immaterial. Even PTI’s elected politicians with an eye to the future privately recognise that the current political temperature is not sustainable or beneficial for the country in the long-term.
As for the opposition, it has remained clueless on how to tackle this hybrid system. In 2018, the opposition parties promised a white paper on allegations of rigging in the elections. That white paper has been forgotten, neither have aggrieved politicians gone to election tribunals for public redress. A few press conferences are not enough to expose what allegedly happened in 2018. Moreover, whenever the opposition parties get together to thwart the PTI - the senate chairmanship or Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s over-hyped dharna – the lack of trust and different stakes frustrate their moves. While Bilawal Bhutto tries to bring opposition parties and sulking government allies together yet again, he may want to reflect on who voted for Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani and why, even if we are not told about it. Survival, for the opposition, lies in what has been elusive so far - uniting to achieve a major goal.
Where the opposition parties have perhaps succeeded is hanging the title of incompetency on the PTI. Repetition has helped, as has the government’s own mishandling of crises. A government without broad legitimacy needs to at least deliver on its promises. Again, as Sheikh Rasheed pointed out, “It’s true that we don’t have enough of a majority in the National Assembly. But the army ran the government of Zafarullah Jamali with just one vote. Given international circumstances – India and China, China and the US, the Middle-East - and the army has played a very responsible role.” Note, governance and the people’s will are less important than geo-politics.
The battles for survival are thus, painfully inevitable.
The writer is a multimedia journalist, and host of the show Sawaal with Amber. She tweets at @AmberRShamsi