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Sunday July 14, 2024

A house divided

By I Hussain
May 18, 2023

The current government’s leaders deride the Supreme Court’s decisions, viewing them as partisan due to their perceived leniency towards former prime minister Imran Khan.

Ironically, the very individuals who now rail against the Supreme Court were praising its impartiality just over a year ago during the no-confidence vote against Imran Khan. On that occasion, the court departed from tradition by convening late in the evening to ensure the implementation of its verdict on the validity of the vote in the National Assembly. Such a reversal of sentiments underscores the ever-shifting dynamics of political alliances.

Pakistan’s judicial system undoubtedly requires significant improvements. The extensive backlog of cases and the prevalence of questionable practices such as bribery and corruption undermine the ends of justice.

However, it is essential to acknowledge that despite its flaws, dismantling the foundations of the judicial system would be akin to opening the gates to a hellish Hobbesian state of nature, where chaos and a ‘war of all against all’ would prevail.

Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher and political theorist, witnessed the chaos and breakdown of social order during England’s 1640s civil war. In his classic book, ‘Leviathan’, Hobbes advocated for an absolute sovereign with unchallenged power to suppress anarchy and restore stability. Post the royalist forces’ defeat, Oliver Cromwell emerged as England’s absolute authority in 1653, assuming the title of ‘Lord Protector’ – the first and only military dictator in England’s history.

It is crucial for Pakistan’s political and institutional elite to tread carefully and consider the consequences of their actions. With neighbouring Afghanistan under Taliban rule – and, surprisingly, doing reasonably well as grudgingly acknowledged by the Economist in its May 6 issue – any actions that weaken the state or any of its military or civilian institutions will only serve to empower extremist groups like the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) sheltering in Afghanistan, who are eagerly waiting for an opportunity to exploit our vulnerabilities.

The storming of the Islamabad High Court by dozens of paramilitary personnel and the brutal assault on Imran Khan and his lawyers revealed a disturbing disregard for the principles of justice and due process.

Such acts only fuel public anger and resentment. Indeed, the government’s attempt to assert its authority by forcefully arresting Khan and displaying it through the media backfired, transforming him into a folk hero in the eyes of many – a man of indomitable will standing up against entrenched powers. The repercussions have been swift and significant, fueling an upsurge of violence in its wake.

By attempting to control the flow of information through social media and the internet, the Shehbaz Sharif government has shown a shocking disregard for the collateral economic damage caused by such heavy handed actions. Further, in today’s interconnected world, trying to stifle the dissemination of information is as futile as King Canute’s attempts to command the tide.

Consider the transformation that platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook have undergone, becoming important sources of income for many young Pakistanis. Disrupting broadband services not only cripples the livelihoods of countless individuals, including those employed in online food ordering and ride-hailing services, who rely on these platforms for their daily wages but also deals a severe blow to the sales revenues of numerous domestic businesses. Moreover, the reduction in government tax collections resulting from this disruption exacerbates the economic fallout.

The consequences of the internet disruption extend beyond the realm of commerce. Pakistan’s tech-savvy individual freelancers, whose prospects rely on timely delivery of software projects to build their online reputation and secure new business, find their digital earnings cast into uncertainty.

Additionally, students dependent on online learning platforms suffer immeasurable setbacks especially as many are currently appearing for exams and need to access online educational resources as part of their preparation. It is therefore imperative for decision-makers to identify the second-order effects of their knee-jerk reactions, particularly when the education and future prospects of the younger generation hang in the balance.

One of the government’s fundamental problems lies in its disregard of the Supreme Court’s ruling about elections in Punjab. The Supreme Court may not have any divisions under its command but it does have moral authority by virtue of its constitutional position. Disregarding the Supreme Court’s ruling may not have an immediate cost, but those who are in for the long haul in politics should be aware that the violation of a court order will hang like a sword of Damocles over their heads.

Ministers should also bear in mind that they may well need the court to intervene on their behalf in the future when circumstances change – the proverbial shoe on the other foot – a prospect that may become a reality sooner rather than later.

Shehbaz Sharif occupies the position of prime minister yet his power is tenuous. He came into office not by winning a general election but through a parliamentary vote, akin to Rishi Sunak’s situation in the UK.

Sharif’s power comes from the perception that he is a more malleable option than the strong willed Imran Khan. The thirteen party coalition supporting Shehbaz Sharif, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), is united only by their fear and animosity towards Imran Khan. The glue binding the PDM together can be best understood by the wry comment that Benjamin Franklin made at the time of the signing of the US Declaration of Independence: “We must all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately”.

Despite assurances proffered by government spokespersons, Pakistan teeters on the brink of default if the anticipated IMF funds fail to materialize in a timely manner. With foreign currency reserves dwindling to less than $4.5 billion – a meagre sum scarcely enough to cover a month’s worth of imports – the gravity of the situation cannot be overemphasized.

It is also crucial to recognize that the IMF will not extend funds to a country engulfed in political turmoil.

To assuage the IMF’s concerns and avert an imminent default, Pakistan must swiftly announce the holding of general elections. This crucial step is not merely a formality but a vital means to restore political stability, rebuild confidence, and secure the much-needed financial support from international partners.

The path to elections is, however, riddled with challenges. The political landscape is polarized, and tensions are at boiling point between the ruling PDM coalition and the PTI. Navigating these turbulent waters requires statesmanship, compromise, and a commitment to democratic principles. The Election Commission of Pakistan has an important role to ensure a level playing field for all political parties, allowing for fair competition and transparent electoral processes.

Furthermore, Pakistan’s international standing is at stake. The country’s ability to attract foreign investment, forge meaningful partnerships, and engage in productive diplomacy hinges on a stable and legitimate government. This pivotal moment calls for political leadership that can unite the country, adhere to democratic principles, and set Pakistan on a path of stability and progress.

The writer is a group director at the Jang Group. He can be reached at: iqbal.hussain@janggroup.com.pk