SEVERAL aspects of a fast-changing political situation confront the country with the spectre of growing instability and a slew of detrimental consequences. There are at least five features of the fraught political landscape creating uncertainty about the future at a time when both internal and external challenges abound. The interplay between them risks making the situation more volatile and precarious.
One, there is no let-up in the confrontation between the government and opposition or easing in the war of words between them. The acerbic rhetoric being used against each other is continuing to inject a toxic element in the overall environment. In the battle of pressers each side is making incendiary accusations against its opponents. Parliamentary proceedings offer the unedifying spectacle of harsh invective being exchanged with both sides calling the other traitors.
Two, opposition unity has been cemented by the government’s rhetoric and actions. What is now an Imran Khan vs the Rest line-up, 11 PDM parties are arrayed against the government with the opposition alliance representing a wide national spectrum. The PTI government’s political challenge is compounded by less than explicit support from its erstwhile coalition allies, conspicuous by their virtual silence on the government-opposition conflict.
The third aspect and related to the second, polarisation is sharpening with the middle ground being eliminated in the country’s politics. The trust deficit between the political adversaries has so widened that occasional — but much needed — cooperation even on issues of common interest and national importance is becoming rarer.
Four, the establishment is being sucked into the political game despite its stated desire to stay away from it. The opposition’s strategy is to raise the costs of what it believes is the establishment’s partisan role while the government, in repeatedly claiming the army’s backing, is unintentionally creating the same effect — making the establishment central in the political tussle — and media debate.
The fifth and most important aspect of the current situation is that the rising political temperature and intensifying conflict is distracting attention from the country’s challenges with a potentially negative impact on the economy. Instability is the enemy of economic recovery at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic is causing economic stress and undermining prospects of reviving investment and growth. Shifting official focus from issues on the public mind is eroding people’s confidence in a government they see as engaged more in combative politics than evolving policy to address bread-and-butter issues especially when inflation is hitting people hard.
What does this add up to? For a start, an extremely unpredictable situation that could spin out of everyone’s control and plunge the country into uncharted territory where there may be no winners. Already a confluence of these factors makes the situation untenable for all actors. How long can the government that lacks an overall parliamentary majority and control of a key province insist it will have no truck with any opposition party and rule unilaterally? How long can the opposition sustain its protest movement? How long can both sides ignore people’s problems without risking a loss of public support? How long can the establishment pretend it can stay out of a political confrontation that keeps drawing it in one way or another?
Three scenarios can be extrapolated from this state of play. The first is a no-change scenario in which confrontation continues and leads to a prolonged uptick in political tensions, disruption of parliamentary business, and escalation in the war of words between the government and opposition. This engenders more instability and morphs into a political crisis if PDM carries out the threat of resignation from national and provincial legislatures.
In this scenario attention from national challenges is diverted when the economic situation and security threats (indicated by recent terrorist incidents) warrant not just undivided official attention but across-the-board national support. Polarisation also prevents the political consensus necessary to execute measures to meet a challenging economic situation. This scenario will likely result in the country lurching from one crisis to another and unable to tackle deep-seated problems much less solve them.
In the second scenario the government resorts to restrictive measures to contain the opposition and imposes more undeclared curbs on the media’s ability to report freely. This may be accompanied by acceleration of an accountability process already mired in controversy but which can further be denuded of legitimacy. This might be an improbable scenario due to the high political cost of a repressive response and also because of its feasibility in making such measures stick in what after all remains a federal democracy. ‘Containment’ in any case is unlikely to work as Pakistan’s history testifies and will only hasten the country’s descent into political disorder.
The third scenario is where all sides step back acknowledging that the political system can be endangered by long-drawn-out confrontation and engage in a political dialogue to resolve core differences. In this the establishment too plays a role in defusing the situation to avert a runaway crisis. This is by far the most desirable scenario even if it appears difficult to achieve. It may be too tall an order to expect both sides to forge a new ‘national contract’ given their bitter rivalry but agreement on the rules of the game can and should be evolved. Consensus on dealing with economic and security challenges should also form part of the dialogue. Once there is agreement it should have the support of all institutions.
The risks to the country’s unity and stability from the first and second scenarios are so high that this should urge both the government and opposition to seriously consider entering a meaningful dialogue. The initiative has to obviously come from the government as many opposition leaders already seem positively inclined. The dialogue should aim to forge an understanding on working the political system and evolving agreement on a national course of action to address the policy challenges that are pivotal to the country’s future. The people of Pakistan expect no less from their leaders.