A time for change?

July 25,2018

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Islamabad’s NA-53 constituency carries great symbolism. Former PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has been pitted against Imran Khan and the latter’s victory will mark a high point in the Kaptaan’s 22-year political struggle.

But the real electoral battlegrounds lie deep in the interior of Punjab. Election forecasts have given the PTI a comfortable lead over its main rival, the PML-N. Any shortfall in numerical strength is likely to be overcome with the help of smaller parties and independents. The tabdeeli that Imran has been promising may finally be around the corner.

Imran’s eventual ride to the PM House fits our political culture, which I have been observing since Ayub Khan’s rule. The first lesson to be drawn is that Pakistanis cannot indefinitely tolerate dictatorship. Ayub Khan defeated Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah in an indirect presidential election. But his hold on power was seriously challenged after the polls.

Unfortunately, Ayub’s desire to stick to power resulted in another military takeover. Yahya Khan, his successor, had to step down after the humiliating breakup of Pakistan. Although two populist leaders emerged from the direct elections, they assumed dictatorial powers in Bangladesh and ‘new’ Pakistan. Both Mujib and Bhutto were overthrown by the army. The second lesson is that civilian rulers drifting towards authoritarian rule are likely to face consequences.

The 1977 elections, which were called ahead of time by Bhutto, showed the flaws of conducting polls under a sitting government. The results were contested by opposition parties, which led to a bloody movement and the July 5 coup. The overthrow of a popularly-elected premier once again demonstrated the limits of patience with civilian rulers in the face of a chaotic political situation. The third lesson is that a sitting government can’t be trusted to conduct fair elections. Hence, caretaker setups were introduced. We owe it to the youth to recall that Ayub and Zia co-opted second-tier politicians to run their governments – something that was repeated by Musharraf. The fourth lesson is that the mainstream politicians would reemerge at the first opportunity.

Benazir became PM at a young age and fumbled as the head of government. Although Sharif had been the Punjab CM, he also wasn’t equipped to run the federation. The powers that be helped Benazir return to power in 1993. She was later sacked. This was the period when it became clear that no PM could complete his/her term in office. The military takeover of 1999 reiterated the limits of patience with freewheeling civilian politicians. Sharif and Benazir were considered to have a reconciliatory approach towards India, something that was diametrically opposed to the garrison’s perception of India, posing an existential threat to Pakistan. The PPP showed a greater understanding of the army command’s view than Nawaz did. Vajpayee’s Lahore yatra was followed by Musharraf’s incursion in Kargil. The fifth lesson is that hobnobbing with India is a cardinal sin in a security state.

Like his military predecessors, Musharraf co-opted the B-team of politicians and technocrats to gain acceptance and legitimacy. He refused to take off the uniform or prepare for a methodical transition. Like Ayub and Zia, he wished to rule indefinitely. His unceremonious departure from power and inability to make a successful political career brings us back to our first lesson: the welcome offered to dictators has an expiry date. The people also don’t relish their desire for reincarnation as civilian rulers.

The sixth lesson that may have been learned is that the age of toppling civilian governments is passé. This enabled the PPP and the PML-N to complete their terms, even though their premiers were barred from politics by the SC.

These six lessons from Pakistan’s history are now accompanied by another phenomenon: the rise of a third political force. The PTI has gained so much popularity that the party is widely expected to beat the PPP and the PML-N in today’s elections. There is little doubt that the PPP and the PML-N are on the defensive because of their massive accumulation of wealth and corruption cases. The PTI may also reach the magic figure of 137 seats in the NA.

Whether we agree with the Kaptaan’s politics or not, let it be acknowledged that he has the capacity to struggle till success comes around. Yet, the PTI will need the support of smaller parties and independents to reach the figure of 137 seats needed for a working majority in the NA.

The real challenges of governance lie ahead and require agility as well as a sense of responsibility to tackle socioeconomic problems. Whether it comes to a crippling debt and balance of payments situation or the declining human development indices, the PTI – if it wins the election – won’t suffer from a tainted reputation, and that should give a headstart to the new government.

Email: saeed.saeedkgmail.com


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