Recent events reflect sharp polarization between the Supreme Court and the coalition government; the failure of state institutions to hold elections in Punjab as ordered by the Supreme Court within 90 days and the outrage of popular sentiments following Imran Khan’s arrest from the premises of the Islamabad High Court on May 9 means that political conflict in Pakistan is imminent.
The last episode of political conflict in Pakistan was in the spring and summer of 1977, when the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA), itself a conglomeration of divergent political parties, had united to contest the general elections in March 1977. PNA refused to accept the election results, which were a PPP landslide with a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly. PNA alleged rigging by the then government of Prime Minister Z. A. Bhutto and demanded fresh elections. When the Bhutto government refused, the outcome was the outbreak of violent protests and demonstrations in large cities of Pakistan, particularly Karachi and Lahore. Negotiations facilitated by Saudi Arabia and UAE commenced between PPP and PNA leaders, but when an agreement was about to be reached on July 4, martial law was imposed. The resulting political violence led to mass arrests and the deaths of over 1,000 people in the PNA movement.
In 2023, violence was triggered across the nation following the arrest of PTI chairman Imran Khan, with popular outrage directed against the military, over the widely held perception among the PTI base that directives were issued by a segment of the top military brass to arrest Khan and cut him down to size. Ironically, the humiliating arrest of Imran Khan from the premises of Islamabad High Court by Rangers took place the day after Khan squarely blamed Major General Faisal Nazeer, number 2 in the ISI, of conspiring against PTI and supporting PML-N. In his interview given to BBC during a court hearing in Islamabad High Court on May 12, Imran Khan moved to blame the incumbent Chief of Army Staff (COAS) for taking measures against him, but at the same time he assured the COAS that he was not against the general and there were people who were creating a rift between him and the Army Chief.
The government remains indifferent to the plight of the people, particularly those who rely on connectivity in transport, business, and educational activities for their daily livelihood.
Preceding Imran Khan’s outburst against the military establishment, the PML-N leadership, prior to April 2022, also used to take a critical position against the then COAS and DG ISI. The ongoing spat between PTI and the military establishment however, is unique. It was the same military, which till the ouster of Imran Khan’s government, was PTI’s favorite. The manner in which Khan gave an extension to General Qamar Javed Bajwa as COAS in August 2019 was amazing to behold, and at that time he was in the good books of the establishment. The contradictory approach and policy of Imran Khan vis-à-vis General Bajwa and on other matters tends to raise serious questions about his political acumen, integrity and credibility.
Pitting one institution against another as a matter of political maneuvering by the PML-N leadership has augmented the current crisis in Pakistan. Never before in the 75 year history of Pakistan has a Prime Minister and his cabinet attacked the superior judiciary, particularly the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Likewise, by refusing to assist in the conduct of elections in Punjab on May 14, the Federal Ministries of Defense, Finance, Interior and Election Commission have proven that there was institutional defiance against the orders of the Supreme Court. Never before in the history of Pakistan, barring a physical attack on the Supreme Court in November 1997, again during the tenure of a PML-N government, has this much vitriol been unleashed against a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Henceforth, the predictable collapse of state institutions means that Pakistan is fast descending into the spiral of becoming a failing and subsequently, failed state.
It is the failing of successive governments to manage the macroeconomic health of the country that has served as a trigger for the failing of the state of Pakistan.
The fragility of the state of Pakistan needs to be analyzed from two angles. First, and perhaps most important is the near collapse of the country’s economy, which is reflected in the country’s ballet with sovereign default. With foreign exchange reserves in the State Bank coffers a meager $5 billion, price inflation at 48%, with a total foreign debt burden of $130 billion, dwindling remittances and exports have only exacerbated the pain for the citizenry. Severe hikes in the prices of essential commodities means that most citizens view the state as having failed in its job. When the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister travel in special planes to attend royal events in London and the SCO meeting in Goa, how can the country expect the people to conserve resources? It is the failing of successive governments to manage the macroeconomic health of the country that has served as a trigger for the failing of the state of Pakistan.
The attack on GHQ and the Corps Commander House in Lahore by PTI rioters has exposed the so-called security apparatus, which is otherwise very vigilant and adept at preventing protests and demonstrations, but on May 9 was conspicuously absent. Images of Pakistan following the humiliating arrest of Imran Khan from the premises of Islamabad High Court and subsequent popular reaction reflected a total breakdown of law and order in major cities of Pakistan, resulting in colossal losses. The suspension of internet throughout Pakistan for four days cut the country off from the world, with disruption in communication, trade and commercial activities causing losses in billions of rupees.
The reality is that the people of Pakistan, particularly of Punjab, which is still the bastion of power in the country, are highly critical of the manner in which the military establishment’s penchant for picking sides has contributed to the prevailing political crisis.
But the government remains indifferent to the plight of the people, particularly those who rely on connectivity in transport, business, and educational activities for their daily livelihood.
Second, the military establishment may be confident about dealing with the crisis and security challenges, but it has overlooked the fact that when the sentiments of a large section of the populace are wholly opposed to its interference in politics, its respect and credibility is seriously questioned. Inter Service Public Relations (ISPR), in its recent statements may criticize the PTI for its acts, but the reality is that the people of Pakistan, particularly of Punjab, which is still the bastion of power in the country, are highly critical of the manner in which the military establishment’s penchant for picking sides has contributed to the prevailing political crisis.
Pakistan is certainly in dire straits, and the ravaged economy on top of the country’s chaotic politics and governance will plunge the country into a web of serious interlocking crises. The lack of honest, and intelligent leadership who is able to take ownership of the country and the citizenry’s problems, deep rooted corruption, nepotism, compromises on merit and pervasive VVIP culture will further damage the country. The way out from the current crisis is the conduct of free and fair general elections at the earliest, along with an adherence to the rule of law. Only then, there is a remote chance that the people’s suffering may be alleviated.