Wednesday June 12, 2024

Polarized politics needs a healing touch

By Dr Ali Awadh Asseri
March 21, 2023

Pakistan was envisioned as a democratic and progressive nation by its founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, but its chequered history has defied this founding ideal. Aside from the choices made in global geopolitics or relations with India, internal conflict has been a consistent feature of its political life. Today, this conflict is ripping the nation apart.

I recently spent a week in Islamabad, to speak on the evolving trends in the Middle East at a think-tank and on the enduring ties between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan at another. The visit also provided me an opportunity to have insightful conversations with learned fellows and old friends on the current happenings in Pakistan.

I was particularly disappointed to learn about the extent of political polarisation in the country, despite the prevalence of an unprecedented economic crisis. These twin-challenges are, indeed, structurally rooted. But I know for a fact that Pakistan was on a steady course of democratic transition some years ago. It was also being globally rated as one of the emerging economies in the world. Then, what went wrong?

I served as the Saudi ambassador to Pakistan during 2001-09, when it was on the forefront of the War on Terror in Afghanistan. On the instructions and guidance of my leadership, I interacted closely with then-Pakistani leadership on all matters of mutual interest. The Kingdom’s topmost priority was to ensure peace and stability in Pakistan. With this end in mind, we deepened security and economic cooperation and also tried to reconcile differences among our estranged brothers in good faith.

Owing to its unique status as a citadel of Islam, Saudi Arabia always strives for unity among Muslim countries and within a Muslim nation. Our relations with Pakistan are essentially people-driven and, hence, immune from any challenges in government or leadership. Over the years, the bond between our military commands has consolidated. The Kingdom also pursues close ties with all political parties and their leaders, to ensure that Pakistan remains politically stable and economically prosperous.

No country can economically progress unless its political system is stable. Political stability ensures continuity of economic policy. This, in turn, boosts investors’ confidence and vitality of all economic sectors. Conversely, the persistence of political instability undermines the prospects of economic growth. If people are suffering economic pain as a result, any politics in the name of democracy becomes meaningless.

Currently, the problem with Pakistan seems to be two-fold: On the one hand, the recent surge of populism has polarised politics and society. On the other, an economy prone to foreign bailouts needs structural reforms, which are difficult to implement in the wake of political polarisation.

With political conflict and economic crisis reinforcing each other, the end result can only be disastrous. Averting this eventuality requires a renewed spirit of reconciliation and restraint by all political players and state institutions.

I have no doubt that the Pakistani nation has the resilience to emerge successfully from its present quagmire. It has done so, many times before – after the 1971 dismemberment of East Pakistan, during the successive wars in Afghanistan, and in the wake of natural disasters like the devastating earthquake in 2005 and the unprecedented flood disaster last year.

As a friend of Pakistan, with so many fond memories of diplomatic service there and in my current capacity as an independent scholar, let me also take the liberty to suggest two viable courses of action for its leaders.

First of all, there is an urgent need for building a bare minimum consensus on the core issues of national agenda pertaining to economy, national security and foreign policy. This consensus must be built after accommodating differences of opinion among the key stakeholders.

On economy, Pakistan cannot do without reviving the IMF deal. Of course, this requires meeting some conditionalities. The IMF may agree after some give-and-take, and the government may lose some political capital in the process. But recovering the economy from the current crisis is a necessary choice. Support from trusted friends like Saudi Arabia will follow. In the long-run however, investment, innovation and productivity must guide the government’s development agenda.

On national security, there was a rare instance in 2014 when all political parties came together to chalk out the National Action Plan to combat terrorism. Within no time thereafter, Pakistan undertook an exemplary campaign against terrorism. This monster is again raising its head from across the Afghan border. There is no reason why all the concerned leaders cannot be on the same page again to deal with this menace.

As for foreign policy, its core spheres should be immune from domestic power plays. Among others, these include relations with the US, with which Pakistan has periodically enjoyed strategic partnership; with China, whose flagship program of the Belt and Road Initiative, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, completes a decade this year; and the Kingdom and other Gulf nations, with whom Pakistan is connected through rich history and brotherly bonds.

The second suggested course of action pertains to the basic Rules of the Game that all the political stakeholders must agree upon and abide by. It is good that the military leadership has finally decided to stay away from politics. Now politicians have a huge responsibility to act maturely, respect each other and work for the greater public good. Likewise, the executive, legislature and judicial organs of the government need to operate within their constitutional domains through an effective check and balance system.

The political parties need to sit together and develop a code of conduct for regulating political competition and resolving political conflict through compromise in the true spirit of national reconciliation. Pakistan is not only ethnically diverse but also has regional disparities. This diversity should be a source of unity. The disparities can only be addressed through equitable resource distribution and power sharing.

We must understand that the real issues of people in developing nations like Pakistan always revolve around bread and butter and the like. All political parties and their leaders must compete and cooperate to address these issues, rather than engage in mindless political victimisation of each other. For the sake of the national interest, they should have the courage to forgive and forget, and move the country forward.

There are valid reasons why Pakistan is suffering from political and economic instability today, while other South Asian states like India and Bangladesh are making their political and economic mark globally. Pakistan is in dire need of a healing touch. It can count on Saudi Arabia, which wants to invest in the future of Pakistan. But the real momentum for economic recovery and political stability must come from within. The earlier the better.

The writer served as ambassador of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Pakistan (2001-09) and Lebanon (2009-16) and is a board member at Rasanah – the International Institute for Iranian Studies in Riyadh.

This piece was originally printed as ‘Pakistan’s polarized politics needs a healing touch’ by Arab News on