The Asian Voice

Autumn of discontent in Islamabad: Dawn columnist

In his commentary, the writer says that civil and military imbalance of power has been a major reason for perpetual political instability in Pakistan.

Supporters of opposition party Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML- N) shout slogans during a protest after a court rejected bail plea of Shahbaz Sharif in a money laundering and assets beyond income case, in Karachi, Pakistan, 28 September 2020.
Supporters of opposition party Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML- N) shout slogans during a protest after a court rejected bail plea of Shahbaz Sharif in a money laundering and assets beyond income case, in Karachi, Pakistan, 28 September 2020. PHOTO: EPA

ISLAMABAD (DAWN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The recent leaks about the army chief's, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, meetings with politicians have generated a maelstrom. There have been some collective interactions with the political leaders but there were some private ones too.

Ordinarily such disclosures would not have mattered much but the context of these meetings does raise the question: who is in charge here? The question becomes more pertinent given the prevalent chaos.

One characteristic of hybrid rule is the duality of power, and that has its own perils. The present political disorder is symptomatic of this incongruity.

Indeed, the civil and military imbalance of power has been a major reason for perpetual political instability in the country.

But the current situation is more about the abdication of civilian authority to the security establishment.

In the past, we have seen constant friction between elected civilian rulers and the security establishment that would invariably result in destabilisation of the democratic process.

The main cause of conflict has been the existence of what is being described as 'the state within the state' or 'the state above the state'. Both the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) governments have experienced that situation.

Nawaz Sharif's virtual speech from London to the multiparty conference in Islamabad last week was testimony of his constant tug of war with the military establishment that ultimately caused his ouster from power.

What is most ironical is that other political parties would become a handy tool for the establishment in this game of political manipulation.

Who sponsored Imran Khan's siege of Islamabad in 2014 is now an open secret. That move failed because of the rare show of unity among the other political forces in parliament. But the game never stopped. The 2018 elections produced a weak government that needed to be propped up.

That has created a new political reality where a civilian administration is completely dependent on the security establishment for its survival.

The military's support may have given Imran Khan's government some semblance of stability, but it has also diminished its capacity to govern and to deal with key political matters itself.

That responsibility too seems to have been taken over by the military. The military leadership's interaction with the opposition leaders on key national issues is a manifestation of civilian abdication.

The military's prop has reinforced Imran Khan's disregard for elected institutions. That has dragged the security establishment deeper into the political fray.

Now, the military leadership is directly involved even in political firefighting on behalf of Imran Khan's government. What JUI-F's Maulana Ghafoor Haideri said in an interview to a private TV channel the other day about a JUI-F delegation's meeting last year with the army chief, at the latter's invitation, is a case in point.

According to him, the meeting was called for the purpose of asking the party to call off its Azadi March. It was purely a political issue that should have been dealt with by the political leadership.

But there are limitations to what the security establishment can do; it cannot improve governance and run the economy. It can't make the prime minister change the Punjab chief minister, or stop him from making frequent and unnecessary changes in the bureaucracy, which has virtually paralysed the administration.

So one should not be surprised by the PML-N leaders' strong reaction on the arrest of Shahbaz Sharif, the leader of the opposition. They have demanded that the security establishment pull back from supporting an "incompetent" government.

The widespread perception that it is shielding the government has made the security establishment the main target of the attack.

The army chief has been quoted as saying that the security forces would serve any elected government. But that is not what has been happening.

The general impression is that the military leadership is party to the relentless persecution of the opposition leaders in the name of accountability. The shrinking democratic space in the country is at odds with these solemn pledges of impartiality.

The statements of some federal ministers claiming to be speaking on the military's behalf raise more questions about the latter's increasing political role.

What has brought together the disparate opposition parties is their growing frustration with closing avenues for democratic political process in the country.

The formation of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) with a strong anti-establishment narrative is indicative of the changing political atmosphere in the country.

It is not just about the opposition political parties joining hands but also the growing concern among civil society over increasing incidents of human rights violations, forced disappearances and treason cases filed against journalists that has made the situation extremely volatile.

The Pakistan Bar Council and the Supreme Court Bar Association in a joint statement last week warned against fast diminishing freedom of expression, freedom of the press and personal liberties. It also condemned the "use of accountability as a tool of political engineering".

These are signs of a gathering storm, but within the government and the establishment there seems little realisation of the gravity of the situation. The government's response to the formation of the PDM is threatening the opposition with more arrests.

But that seems to have the opposite effect. It has led to the opposition groups closing ranks, particularly where the PML-N is concerned. Even the moderates who were sceptical of Nawaz Sharif's hard-line anti-establishment position have now come on board.

The PDM has announced it will launch its protest campaign from next month. The battleground is Punjab, which is also the PML-N's stronghold.

The absence of governance and rising inflation has fuelled discontent in the province and led to a decline in the PTI's support base.

However, it remains to be seen whether the opposition alliance is able to bring out the masses on the street and put the government under pressure.

The political temperature in the province has been rising, and any use of force by the government may cause the situation to implode.

The government neither has the capacity nor competence to deal with mass protests. It may be an autumn of discontent for a rudderless government.

The writer is an author and journalist. The paper is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 24 news media organisations.