Tectonic changes in Pakistan’s political landscape by Ikram Sehgal
fter 1971 two national parties came into being: PPP and PML(N). With following in all the four provinces of Pakistan they had a certain ethnic touch and different strength in different provinces. The PPP lost its national status after Benazir Bhutto was killed and Asif Ali Zardari played havoc with a genuinely popular national party. PPP has now lost most of its influence in the Punjab and is weak in Balochistan and KPK. Playing the Sindh card repeatedly has finally made it a Sindhi party only to the exclusion of the muhajirs even in Sindh. With accountability closing in on Zardari and his family clan and approvers coming forward out of the woodworks to testify with respect to massive corruption and money laundering cases, with Bilawal young, inexperienced, and not really charismatic,at least till yet,the future of the PPP is more than questionable at present.
Some paid media lackeys credit Asif Zardari with a sense of humour, one hopes this remains onceUzair Baloch’s testimony gets him possibly indicted for murder. The blow to the other established party is alreadyin the works: massive corruption over the years and the disclosures of the “Panama Papers” has brought an end to the dynastic rule of the Sharif family. The diehards whose “political”, and more importantly financial, existence depends upon the Sharif family are in deep panic and desperately trying to put off the inevitable, it is all over bar the shouting. Nawaz Sharif was alright in his transition from businessmen to politician, he went off the rails trying to behave like a feudal. He lost his post as Prime Minister notbecause of corruption but the lies thereof he stated before the court. His going to jail subsequently in a case for corruption was a strong blow to the party.
With the Southern Punjab legislators pursuing their own plan of a separate province and leaders like Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan and Javed Hashmi distancing themselves from the party and its current leadership, PML (N) lost the election in 2018. Now it seems that Nawaz Sharif, who despite everything has been the uncontested strong leader of the party, is considering quitting politics. The pending cases against him and the evidence available against him being so overwhelming has combined with his deteriorating health to convince him tocut his losses and look for a deal. By quitting politics and leaving the country may help to save most of his stolen wealth.
If convicted for money-laundering he has major legal problems in UK and other countries. However those who put their money on Maryam are desperately to keep him alive as a potent political force, without him Maryam’s “followers” are pursuing a lost cause, at least for the foreseeable future. While Nawaz Sharif was the vote getter in PML (N), the delivery person on political promises for the masses by visible grandiose projects, particularly in Lahore, was Shahbaz. Unfortunately Shahbaz is also not in good health, more particularly he is suffering from a severe back problem. The fact that son Hamza, onceconsidered one of the PML (N) options as a future leader, is on his way to jail for corruption and on money-laundering charges is not helping him to muster any strength and confidence.
The withdrawal of the Sharif family from politics would be the final blow for the PML(N). Left leaderless its members could join other parties and unless a leader can be found to hold onto what is left, the party couldfall apart going into oblivion. The obvious fall back is Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and his good stint as PM but his loyalty to the Sharifs has got him into corruption cases, the other ideal candidate in the Establishment eyes to keep the PML afloatand viable would be ChNisar Ali Khan. This dramatic development in the political landscape may endanger the stability of the system,the Pakistani state already rather weak may worsen the situation. To avoid this situation a heavy task is falling on the ruling PTI of Imran Khan.
Pakistan needs at least one strong political party that has a stake in all provinces and a program that can stabilize the country, its economy and its political system. So far the PTI is a rather young party without a coherent ideology and inner strength. The acceptance of ‘electables’ of questionable political trustworthiness has weakened party cohesion. Moreover in the absence of the disqualified Jahangir Tareen, unelectable aides who rendered services to almost all the ruling regimes since 1997 are calling the shots around Imran.
These mercenaries are not committed to anything but their own motivated interest. Besides, the menace of corruption has not left the PTI untouched and party principles need to be strengthened as the move of the unfortunate (and rather stupid) Punjab parliament to raise their salaries have shown.
If the ruling party is not following its publicly espoused principles, how can anybody else be expected to do so? Therefore, there is a need for an internal strengthening of the party structure by democratization of process of opinion building and against infighting. Secondly, there is a need for Imran Khan to be clear about what he really wants so that he doesn’t have to revise himself repeatedly later. There is hope that the learning process will be successful; Imran Khan’s speech on the occasion of the Indian aggression last month was sober, thoughtful and extremely helpful in the situation.
Taking the Pakistani public and the world into confidence about looming plans for another “Indian false flag operation” is another intelligent move; it also speaks about good coordination with the army and agencies. Pakistan inherited its political system from the British including the two levels of parliament and most of the laws and legal set-up. But political parties in Pakistan evolved on an entirely different basis. Before independence nationalism and anti-colonialism were the ideological basis of Indian National Congress (INC), Muslim League (ML) and even JamiatulUlema-Hind (JUH). Other than in the west all parties from their initiation referred to religion and some of them referred to ethnicity. After independence the Muslim League lost power because its sole political goal – independence and the creation of Pakistan – were met and after that the leadership could not evolve a new national program that would unite the different parts of the country. There were no ideologies like liberalism or conservativism in Pakistan, Islam was the uniting factor but Urdu the language chosen, turned out to be divisive rather than a uniting factor. Given the highly traditional and personalized structure of Pakistani society parties became vehicles for family, tribal or clan rule rather than unions of equal people thinking on the same ideological lines. Even the slogan of ‘Islamic socialism’ of the PPP was no more than that – a slogan.
The only political party with a consistent ideology, without family rule and running on democratic principles within the party itself is the Jamaat-I-Islami (JI). With a rather narrow base of their interpretation of Islam and despite the fact that it had good presence in all the Provinces it could not reach the status of a truly national party. Political parties are a central piece of the traditional democratic political system as we are seeing it in the West. Originally western type democracy meant that political parties united people who are ready to actively participate in the structuring of society and state and who are sharing a similar or even identical worldview or political philosophy. For example, that would be a conservative philosophy like in GB or CDU in Germany; it could be a liberal philosophy or a communist or social-democratic one.
Those parties would be the connecting link between the state (political system) and the society (masses). Besides, political parties would have a national outreach without any ethnic or religious limitation and thus act as a uniting force of the country and the nation. Far more has to be done. Only a strong and united party can lead the country on the path of fighting corruption, extremism and terrorism by implementing NAP and reverse the downslidingof the Pakistan economy. The fall of the PML(N) could create a chaos that destabilizes the political scene to the level of turmoil, or it could strengthen PTI. Much depends upon Imran Khan cutting himself free from unelectable aides having no love for Pakistan or PTI as a party, only personal/motivated interest. Ifthe PTI isnot able to stem the tide, the danger of outside intervention would certainly loom large.
(The writer is a defence & security analyst)