A Shifting Political Landscape
ByÂ Raza Rumi:
If there is any single constant in Pakistani politics it is perennial instability. More so whenÂ fledgling democracies struggle to change the governance discourse and attempt to consolidateÂ their hold over power which has traditionally been concentrated in the unelected â€˜armsâ€™ of theÂ executive. The current civilian governments at the centre and the provinces are no exception
to this historical trend.
Nevertheless contemporary political dynamics in the country display both continuity andÂ discontinuity from historical trends. This is what makes Pakistanâ€™s evolution during the 21stÂ century a most fascinating process of societal change and resistance by the post-colonial stateÂ which is basically fighting a serious battle for its survival; and perhaps has entered the decisive
phase of this conflict.
To understand Pakistanâ€™s domestic struggles, its unfortunate geo-strategic positioning cannotÂ be separated from what happens inside the country. This is why domestic politics remainsÂ locked in competing narratives of what Pakistan should not do or what it ought to be doingÂ vis-Ã -vis. the U.S. The U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, the decade long struggle of Pakistanâ€™sÂ security establishment to retain its leverage in Afghanistan and â€œcontainâ€ India has possiblyÂ exhausted its policy options. Therefore the internal monopoly of power wielded by theÂ military-intelligence complex is also under threat and the civilians, despite their tottering politics,Â find themselves in a unique situation of redefining how power may be redistributed andÂ exercised in the years to come. Whether the civilians are able to assert themselves in aÂ meaningful and sustainable manner remains to be seen.
Since May 2, when OBL was captured and killed by U.S. Navy Seals, the Pakistani militaryÂ complex has come under immense pressure from NATO and the West. U.S-Pak relationsÂ have never been so strained while public opinion on both the sides has exacerbated matters.
The major developments were Pakistanâ€™s demand to remove U.S. trainers and other personnelÂ stationed in the country and the suspension of $800 million military aid resulting in a majorÂ fire-fighting exercise by both sides and culminating in the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI)Â Chiefâ€™s visit to the U.S. in mid-July. The two â€˜frenemiesâ€™ â€“ an apt description of the relationship have for the time kissed and made up until the next crisis emerges. In the meantime, the U.S.Â policy of sending drones into Pakistanâ€™s tribal areas continues unabated.
The U.S. strike on the OBL hideout on May 2 unleashed a barrage of criticism in the PakistaniÂ press and its ubiquitous electronic media. Such was the power of the ensuing debate thatÂ media commentators known for their apologetic stance on all things military turned against theirÂ erstwhile gods, and helped build a discourse which openly targeted the incompetence of theÂ military in defending the countryâ€™s air space against the U.S. â€œinvasion.â€
The liberal-secular section of the media gurus chanted the complicity theory with a renewedÂ gusto. On national television unprecedented discussions took place, the most memorable beingÂ Asma Jahangirâ€™s scathing attack on the generals as policy â€œduffers.â€ This was followed by theÂ traditionally pro-establishment party, Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) calling for militaryÂ accountability. The ruling coalition of PPP-ANP played it safe and decided to take a cynicalÂ approach of supporting the military for short-term power gains. However, the pressure withinÂ the PPP is such that it may not be able to sustain its opportunistic stance.
Barring the 2007-08 fatigue with army rule exemplified by the lawyersâ€™ movement, the currentÂ spate of challenging the military dominance is the second moment after the breakup ofÂ Pakistan in December 1971 that needs serious soul-searching at the militaryâ€™s end. In spite ofÂ the frantic political developments in the month of July, the momentum is hardly lost. Pakistanâ€™sÂ relatively free print media and the rise of the social media imply that criticism of the military isÂ no longer a prohibited topic of public debate. As international pressure on Pakistan will grow inÂ the coming months and the leverage that the Pakistan army had created in the form of itsÂ support to Afghan Taliban will be further reduced due to the U.S. policy of talking directly toÂ sections of the Taliban and major strategic shifts might be in order.
Therefore a renegotiation of the way foreign and security policies are conceived and rolled outÂ might take place in the short to medium term. Furthermore, the U.S. policy of engaging with theÂ civilian authorities might not witness a reversal as was announced in mid-July through aÂ renewed pledge to continue civilian aid to Pakistan. This inability of the U.S. aid bureaucracyÂ to engage with the civilian institutions and demonstrate development results has exacerbatedÂ the widespread anti-Americanism in the country. Most Pakistanis believe that they are losingÂ their soldiers and civilians in acts of terrorism due to the war on terror. Other than the rulingÂ PPP and ANP, few political parties own this war as a Pakistani battle against extremism. UnderÂ such circumstances, the U.S. will have to rethink its handling of aid and pledges that it hasÂ made to the Pakistani people.
Turning back to the domestic dynamics, the PPP-led federal government has defied allÂ predictions of its fall. It has completed three years in office and is all set to gain a majority in theÂ upper house, i.e. the Senate, which may help the PPP retain power beyond the next generalÂ election. The survival of an otherwise fragile coalition has largely been possible due to theÂ maverick political skills of President Zardari and his deft handling of Pakistanâ€™s key politicalÂ actors including the permanent establishment. The largest opposition party, PML-N, feelsÂ threatened by the constellation of political forces allied under the leadership of Zardari, inÂ particular, the representatives belonging to the three smaller provinces, which confirm to theÂ Zardari-led PPPâ€™s â€œfederalâ€ credentials.
The wildcard in this political arrangement is the tense situation in Karachi, Pakistanâ€™s largestÂ city, which generates up to 20 percent of the countryâ€™s GDP and is its financial nerve centre.Â During July, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement walked out of the federal and provincialÂ governments and an unfortunate cycle of violence ensued with this development. At the timeÂ of writing, nearly 150 people in Karachi were dead and billions of rupees were lost either due toÂ the damage to public and private property or through the economic consequences of strikes.
The PPPâ€™s reintroduction of the 1861 Police Act and revival of the commissionerate system forÂ Karachi and Sindh may work in the short-term but is being billed as a regressive policy
decision. It is tragic that this move to bring back colonial forms of governance would tend to
dilute the otherwise glorious achievement of decentralizing federal powers through the 18thÂ Amendment.
Perhaps the July 1 celebration of Devolution Day remains a formidable silver lining in the
political landscape of Pakistan. The historic struggles for provincial autonomy are bearing fruitÂ and political parties by consensus have devolved hundreds of essential functions, powers andÂ mandates to provincial governments, backed by greater resources through a revised NationalÂ Finance Commission agreed in 2009. As of July 1, seventeen federal ministries have beenÂ abolished and their functions and staff transferred to the provinces.The far-reaching effects ofÂ this development will be realized in the years to come.
It is ironic that this transformational shift has attracted little media attention within Pakistan andÂ abroad. Other than Pakistanâ€™s resilient and informal economic and social networks, onlyÂ decentralized governance can save this country from the clichÃ©d â€œfailed stateâ€ status.
Pakistanâ€™s current democratic spell may not have lived up to the expectations of peopleÂ suffering from hyper-inflation and energy shortages, but it has surely set the momentum forÂ profound shifts in the way this nation of 180 million people is governed. It should be clear thatÂ the continuity of civilian rule is essential for Pakistanâ€™s stability in the long term.