A year of political polarisation

December 25, 2022

Aggressive posturing, rhetoric deepened divisions in politics, making it difficult for the PDM and the PTI to evolve a consensus on critical political and economic issues

Share Next Story >>>


he struggle between the two major competing conglomerates of political interests –the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) –culminated in the year 2022. Both sides ignored democratic norms of tolerance, restraint, dialogue and accommodation. The idiom and discourse of politics were generally rude, offensive and far below the parliamentary ethos. The drum-beaters on both sides used foul language and insulting phrases for their rival political leaders.

This deepened divisions in politics, making it difficult for them to evolve a working agreement on any critical political and economic issue. This weakened political institutions and adversely affected the role of the elected parliament which periodically experienced rowdyism, sloganeering and display of posters in both houses.

The year began with a spillover of confrontation between the PTI government and the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) from 2021. The PDM dates back to September 2020 when 11 political parties and groups established the opposition coalition to contest the PTI government led by then prime minister Imran Khan. It launched a series of public meetings from October 16, 2020. The confrontation persisted in 2020-21. The PDM public rallies were countered by the PTI rallies and the two sides engaged in personalised propaganda against each other.

The PDM deadline of December 31, 2021, for Imran Khan to resign passed uneventfully but both sides were determined to knock out each other from the political domain in 2022.

In January-February 2022, the PTI government appeared confident to overcome the PDM challenge. The political situation took a turn against the PTI in March-April 2022 in a manner that nobody could have predicted in February.

It was towards the end of February that former president Asif Ali Zardari persuaded the PDM leaders to move a motion of no-confidence against Imran Khan in the National Assembly. The resolution was moved on March 8.

Speaking at a public rally on March 27, Imran Khan described the no-confidence motion as a part of a foreign conspiracy to dislodge his government. He referred to a confidential document - a diplomatic cable from the Pakistan Embassy in Washington, DC. It said, speaking to the Pakistan ambassador, a US State Department official had expressed strong reservations against Khan’s foreign policy measures and said that everything would be forgiven if the no-confidence motion against Imran Khan succeeds, but its failure would entail serious consequences for Pakistan. Khan’s foreign conspiracy narrative did not get an endorsement from Pakistan’s security establishment, although they took strong exception to the US statement. However, Imran Khan continued to harp on the foreign conspiracy theme. This did not salvage his political position.

The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and the Pakistan Peoples Party worked quietly to win over some disgruntled members of the PTI and the PTI’s coalition allies to mobilise the required number of votes on the no-confidence motion in the National Assembly. It won over PTI’s 20 members of the National Assembly who moved to Sindh House in Islamabad to be out of the PTI government’s reach.

The PPP and the PML-N were able to win over the Jamhoori Watan Party (JWP), the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) and the Muttahada Quami Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P). The PTI was then left with the PML-Q, the GDA and the Awami Muslim League of Sheikh Rashid Ahmed.

Realising that the government lacked the required votes to defeat the no-confidence motion, the PTI hatched a constitutionally dubious plan to prevent voting on it. The deputy speaker, who chaired the April 3 National Assembly session, rejected the motion as being a part of a foreign conspiracy that violated Article 5 (1) of the constitution. He also prorogued the session for an indefinite time. Within less than an hour the president dissolved the National Assembly on the recommendation of prime minister.

On April 7, the Supreme Court set aside the deputy speaker’s ruling and the dissolution of the National Assembly by the president. It ordered the holding of the session on April 9 for taking up the no-confidence motion on that day. On April 9, the PTI and the speaker adopted delaying tactics for voting on the resolution. However, an unusual development in Islamabad left the speaker no choice but to make way for voting on the no-confidence resolution. At around 11pm on April 9, the Supreme Court opened and the chief justice and the four judges that had delivered the April 7 judgment arrived there. The doors of the Islamabad High Court were also opened but the judges did not arrive there. Sources said that the PML-N’s legal team planned to approach the Supreme Court bench after midnight with a request to enforce its verdict of April 7 for holding of voting on the no-confidence motion on April 9.

The unceremonious removal of Imran Khan from power proved a blessing of another kind for him. His popularity graph had gone quite low in February-March on account of poor governance, political mismanagement and the inability of the government to pull in one direction and a failure to evolve working relations with the opposition.

The speaker resumed the National Assembly session close to midnight and announced his resignation. He handed over the session to a member of the Panel of Chairman, Ayaz Sadiq, who then chaired the session that began a few minutes after midnight, i.e. April 10, for voting on the no-confidence motion. Before the voting started, the PTI members walked out. The House then passed the resolution against Imran Khan with 174 votes (the required vote was 172) in favour. On April 11, the deputy speaker opened the National Assembly session. The PTI members announced their resignations in the left the House. The deputy speaker also left the House, leaving the session to Ayaz Sadiq who chaired the election of the new prime minister. Shahbaz Sharif who received 174 votes. The deputy speaker accepted the resignations of the PTI members and then he himself resigned both as deputy speaker and member of the National Assembly.

Imran Khan’s ouster from power can be explained with reference to his personality problems, inappropriate selection of his team at the federal level, inability to cultivate working relations with the opposition leaders, poor governance and the alienation of top brass of the army. Poor governance and weak political management was conspicuous in the Punjab, where a political non-entity even within the PTI circles, Sardar Osman Buzdar, was appointed chief minister. Imran Khan refused to replace him with a more experienced and politically connected person despite such advice from political and military circles.

The irritants in civil-military relations could be attributed to a number of factors. These included his non-serious attitude towards suggestions by the military leadership, mishandling of the extension of Gen Bajwa as the army chief in 2019 that landed the issue in the Supreme Court in November 2019, the transfer of the director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in October 2021.

The alienation of the military leadership emboldened the opposition in its efforts to dislodge Khan from power. It gave the opposition space to seek out the dissatisfied parliamentarians of the PTI and actively engage with his former coalition partners. The coalition parties now felt that they could make individual political choices because the military was no longer expected to ask them to stay with the PTI.

However, the unceremonious removal from power proved a blessing of another kind for Imran Khan. His popularity had been declining and was quite low in February-March on account of poor governance, political mismanagement and government’s inability to pull in one direction and a failure to evolve a working relations with the opposition. However, his ouster consolidated his position among the PTI loyalists and supporters. He was also able to mobilise support by holding public rallies from April 13 onwards. The rallies attracted extraordinarily large crowds. He made unrestrained critical comments not only about the new government led by Shahbaz Sharif and the PDM, but also the army top brass, whom he blamed for his ouster. Despite an attempt on his life while leading a PTI long march to Islamabad in October-November, he remained determined to challenge the PDM government.

The PTI won 15 out of 20 by-election seats in the Punjab in July and he himself was elected to a record seven seats of the National Assembly out of eight seats he contested in the Punjab, Sindh and KP in October. Four other factors contributed to his political power. First, Hamza Shahbaz’s dubious election as Punjab chief minister was set aside by the Supreme Court, making it possible for Chaudhry Parvez Elahi to become chief minister as a nominee of the PTI-PML-Q coalition. Second, the Shahbaz Sharif government devoted more attention to containing Imran’s political revival than addressing the political, societal and economic problems. The government was unable to project itself as a better alternative to the PTI government. The major economic indicators declined in the post-April period and the public was hit hard by inflation and price hikes. The dependence of the economy on foreign sources increased.

Third, the Shahbaz government resorted to quick legislation to do away with the PTI decision to use electronic voting machines and the right of vote to overseas Pakistanis. Several changes were made in the accountability laws that enabled over 190 people, including several PML-N and PPP leaders, to escape NAB proceedings. Some of the pending cases were also settled.

Fourth, the PDM government used the coercive apparatus of the state against the PTI when it attempted to launch a long march from Lahore to Islamabad on May 25. It succeeded in stopping the PTI but this accentuated conflict. Imran Khan is now facing more contempt cases, court proceedings, FIRs, investigations and inquiries than any previous former prime minister in Pakistan’s history. Several other PTI leaders, including Azam Swati and Shahbaz Gill, were also subjected to police and FIA inquiries. Several journalists reported harassment and filing of criminal proceedings against them. TV show host Arshad Sharif, who left Pakistan to escape harassment was killed in Kenya under mysterious circumstances.

Politics in Pakistan became more confrontational and uncertain as the year progressed. The PTI demand is insisting on fresh election at the earliest and the PDM has refused to call elections before the end of the regular term of the National Assembly. The confrontation has come down to the politics of dissolution of the provincial assemblies of the Punjab and the KP and the demand for acceptance of the resignations of the PTI members from the National Assembly. The strategies with regard to the Punjab Assembly are expected to increase the confusion in Pakistani politics. These political trends are expected to spill over into 2023.

This type of politics is inimical to economic development and public welfare and leaves little room for economic recovery. The economic pressures on the common man are expected to increase their alienation. The future of Pakistan’s democratic institutions and processes is unsafe and uncertain.

The writer is a political analyst and tweets at har132har

More From Encore