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October 5, 2017

A bumpy transition


October 5, 2017

The former prime minister had pretty much left the stage, but Nawaz Sharif has staged a dramatic comeback in a rearguard legislative action and re-election as the president of the PML-N. This happened a day after the Punjab Rangers took over to manage the premises of the Accountability Court – as some kind of ‘mini-coup’.

There is much in store before this national security state goes through the not-so-much transformational third general elections of a still very fragile transition. All kinds of factors are adding up to the confusion-at-large to make any predictable reflection on the fate of democracy in what is dubbed an enigmatic /‘martial’ /‘warrior’ /‘banana’ /‘failed’ state by various distinguished academics.

At the heart of the whole crisis is the opposite structural pulls of an uneven civil-military relationship, regardless of who holds the office of elected chief executive or the army chief. With the inception of a pro-active judiciary, it is now a triangular contest for space with the representative institutions getting most of the drubbing with the connivance of one expeditious political adversary or the other – today it is the PTI, yesterday it was the PML-N or the PPP.

The past three days are a testimony to all the ailments that we as a state and political society suffer from. After having been disqualified and ousted for the third time under clauses imposed by military dictators, kept and sanctified by the Supreme Court and not changed by parliament under pressure from a largely pro-army religious right, Nawaz Sharif was also forced to vacate his party office by virtue of a clause that barred a disqualified parliamentarian from political office. This clause was introduced by a military ruler in the Political Parties Act of 1962, removed by Z A Bhutto, and restored by yet another military dictator – Gen Musharraf – to restrain both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif from presiding over their parties. Apart from the abrogation and breach of the 1973 Constitution by successive military dictators, the violation of fundamental rights, Article 17 of the constitution in particular, was so glaring that even the PPP had to create the PPP-Parliamentarian group and take a new electoral symbol – arrow instead of sword.

The electoral reforms bill that proposed to repeal the clause that barred a disqualified parliamentarian from holding party office was in fact proposed by the PPP on November 17, 2014. Nawaz Sharif was thus rescued by his parliamentary party from being ousted from the office of party president. The last-minute effort by Senator Aitzaz Ahsan to reverse this in the Senate was subverted by defectors from the PTI and the MQM, perhaps as a precaution to pre-empt a similar plight for their respective party heads. The ruling party rushed the bill to be notified before the council session of the PML-N, which in a pre-emptive counter-coup elected Nawaz Sharif as its president for yet another term to thwart the designs of those who traditionally favour toeing the establishment’s line.

Meanwhile, the PML-N Council session overwhelmingly approved Nawaz Sharif’s principled narrative for civilian supremacy against the hegemony of the garrison. What will be the response of the GHQ on the takeover of the judicial complex by the Rangers? That is yet to be seen.

Whatever be its response, the no-go-area situation created by the Rangers further reinforced the widespread perception that the powers that be might be too keen to humiliate yet another popular leader who persisted in his defiance of extra-constitutional machinations. In a reversal of the PML-N’s original character of an offshoot of General Zia’s ruthless military dictatorship, a revisionist Sharif has adopted a radical narrative that rejects all past, present and future military interventions and asserts the right to self-determination of the people and restores their sovereignty.

Again, political expediencies are at work and the opposition parties, the PTI and the pro-military religious right in particular, are bent upon capitalising on the difficulties faced by the PML-N chief. If the PTI has exhausted its rallying call of ‘Go-Nawaz-Go’ with Sharif emerging as a fallen hero, the PPP is trying to extract political mileage out of the difficulties faced by the ruling PML-N, which is emerging as the main challenger to a dominant military establishment.

Never in Pakistan’s troubled history has such a unique phenomenon emerged that a party is in government and at the same time playing the role of an opposition to an authoritarian establishment. Sharif’s loyalist Prime Minister Khaqan Abbasi and his team in the National Security Committee are playing ball with the military leadership according to the book at a time when the security establishment is under tremendous pressure from the US and its allies, and requires the support of civilian leadership to wriggle out of the predicaments that it is facing.

In fact, both sides cannot afford a rupture in relationship nor exceed their limits while tackling the formidable challenges they face. While COAS Gen Bajwa has shown greater tenacity and adjustability in the changing geo-strategic environment, Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif has also shown the realism and flexibility necessary to sell a non-dualist narrative since duplicity of words and the reality on the ground cannot work anymore.

Besides short-term challenges to democratic transition, there are other immediate and mid-term challenges that can bring the current political dispensation and the country under tremendous pressure. A constitutional package is required to consolidate democracy and strengthen civilian supremacy; and all democratic parties worth the name must act now together. Both parliament and the judiciary must avoid a conflict that may undermine both the civilian arms of the state.

The Abbasi government must take emergency measures before the external account situation further deteriorates. Postponing certain measures to avert possible financial insolvency would cause great damage to the economy. Both the civilian and military leaderships must take parliament and the nation into confidence about the nature of the security challenges faced by the country and the remedial measures required to mitigate a critical security environment.

There is a need for a grand dialogue among all institutions and stakeholders, as was rightly proposed by Chairman Senate Mian Raza Rabbani. Sharif has also spoken for it. Why don’t the PPP and PTI also support this strategic proposal and make their own contribution? Gen Bajwa had recently showed eagerness to interact with parliament in his very candid discourse with members of parliament’s national security committee. It is now time to act for far greater national interest, rather than fighting for petty interests.

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @ImtiazAlamSAFMA

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