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March 13, 2018

Pakistan’s institutional traffic jam


March 13, 2018

The elections for the Senate chairperson and deputy chairperson are a microcosm of a serious institutional traffic jam in Pakistan. No matter who wins the contest to crown a senate chairperson, the crisis of institutions will not be resolved so easily.

Optimists like me have long believed free and fair elections to have the power of institutional renewal, and so there is at least some hope that the upcoming general election may help revive institutional ebb and flow to the point necessary for Pakistan to move forward. But this hope requires one to be a hopeless romantic. The signs all point in the opposite direction.

The fact that Pakistan is suffering from an institutional traffic jam is not unrelated to the historic and unprecedented intersection that this country finds itself at. The realignment of global and regional economic and political power is helping shape what we may call a ‘Xi Jinping world’, in which economic integration is the tool through which hegemony is sealed and delivered to Beijing. Unlike other efforts to impose hegemony on Pakistan, regional and global, the Chinese vision is not only potent, but also coherent and consistent with almost whatever colour Pakistanis want to paint themselves in. Add to this several other factors (including demographics) and Pakistan should be celebrating its entry into at least half a century of unstoppable economic growth, and a pie that is big enough for every Pakistani to have a share.

Yet by the time you will read this, we will know who the new chairperson of the Senate is, and no matter who it is, there will be at least one segment of the country’s key institutional power brokers that will be up in arms. If the intersection was less important, or the actors more gracious, one could celebrate the beauty of the democratic process; sadly, there will be little to celebrate in the victory of the new senate chairperson, come what may.

Let us consider the array of options. The PML-N thought it could democrat-shame the PPP into electing Raza Rabbani again. The PPP knows that Rabbani is like a red rag for members of the security establishment. So instead of going the Nawaz Sharif way, the PPP seems to be prepared to help elect Sadiq Sanjrani. Sanjrani is a most uninspiring figure with little to no record of parliamentary performance or intellectual wherewithal. Democrats’ complaints about his potential ascension at the cost of Rabbani are well founded. Former president Zardari has done more than his bit to reduce the chairpersonship of the Senate of Pakistan to a contest for union councillor.

But the lady that doth protest too much, aka Maryam Nawaz Sharif, should be careful in how much morality shade she throws the way of those backing Sanjrani. Since 2013 no one has done more to damage the standing of parliament than Nawaz Sharif. If the PML-N was really serious about its federalist credentials, it would have nominated Rabbani on its own, and given the entire country something to really chew on. Instead, Sharif kept the country guessing about which way he would go. The shrill armchair democrats want Pervez Rashid, because that would somehow magically end the dominance of the military in civilian affairs. The traditionalists want Raja Zafarul Haq, for the great achievement of being older than almost everyone except the last senior citizen Nawaz Sharif disappointed – Sartaj Aziz. There are as many candidates for chairperson in the PML-N as there are future PMs in the party. And this fog of confusion and doubt is the ultimate Nawaz Sharif psy-op. He thrives in an ambience in which everyone but Nawaz Sharif knows what is happening.

If Sharif’s candidate loses to Sanjrani, it will be a big blow to the PML-N, but it will fuel a part of the narrative of the PML-Maryam faction. So perhaps the shambolic PML-N management of the Senate elections process has a method to it. But a Sanjrani win will also be a big blow to the PPP’s credentials as a federalist party that has a mind and soul of its own. The PTI is trying to eke out national relevance through less than 40 seats in an assembly of over 340, and a total of 12 senate seats in a house of 104. The PTI’s great fortune is that its principal competitors are as exquisitely dripping with the shameless pursuit of power as the Sharif-led PML and the Zardari-led PPP.

No matter who wins the Senate chairpersonship, the mainstream political parties will all be losers. And when political parties are losing, there is only one winner – and it isn’t the underserved people of Balochistan or Fata. It is of course, the masters of the dark arts of invisible politics.

Nawaz Sharif, the opposition parties and the ‘establishment’ represent three of the four actors involved in Pakistan’s institutional traffic jam. The fourth, of course, is the judiciary. Having beheaded the PML-N, it has spent several months trying to compete for narratives with politicians that have spent their entire lifetimes winning such competitions. The threat of being hauled up for contempt has kept most of the derision that such engagement merits at the margins. But the chief justice is firmly ensconced behind the wheel of one among the four vehicles that has landed Pakistan in a state of institutional checkmate.

It is no surprise then that as the four key institutions in this country are stuck at this seminal intersection in Pakistan’s history – flashing lights on, sirens wailing, horns honking, each refusing to concede any space to the other – we have begun to hear rumblings about the rules of the game again.

Questions around the supremacy of parliament triggered by members of the superior judiciary discussing the responsibility of judges to uphold the constitution? Rules of the game. New vigour to the debate about the impact of the eighteenth amendment? Rules of the game. Dual nationals allowed to vote and operate as full citizens of the country, but prohibited from holding office? Rules of the game. Disqualified parliamentarians running political parties? Rules of the game.

Whenever there is an institutional traffic jam, the eventual destination of the most important political debates will be the rules of the game. No one likes to be checkmated. So when faced with diminishing freedoms, institutions will seek ways in which to recover the space that they believe is necessary for them to do the jobs they need to do.

Understanding this does not necessitate the attribution of ill-intent. Much as it is consistent with a lot of evidence, and much as it makes us feel good to let off some steam, perhaps we don’t need to demonise any of the key institutions involved to understand that we are now entering a long era of political instability and gamesmanship in which the well-being of Pakistanis and the generational opportunities afforded to Pakistan because of its geography will seem to be the least of concern to Pakistan’s most important decision-makers.

No traffic jam at an intersection has ever been resolved by people pulling their handbrakes and refusing to move any way but forward. There is only one way to prevent a deepening of the institutional stalemate that has emerged. At least one, if not more of the key actors will have to concede some space. Essentially, someone will have to shift into reverse and make way for someone else.

Whoever wins the Senate chairperson’s election must know that Pakistan did not win. Not with this build-up, and not in this traffic jam. The question facing all key institutions in Pakistan is now a simpler one: can the 2018 general election be saved from a fate similar to that of the Senate chairperson’s election?

The writer is an analyst and commentator.

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