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July 1, 2020

Ignoring lessons at Pakistan’s peril

The writer is an analyst and commentator.

In a few weeks, or months, or years, among the explanations that PTI supporters will offer as to why their party was unable to crack the code of 'how to make Pakistan a better country' will be the same ones that PPP supporters and PML-N supporters have used in the past, and use even today. One, above all will shine more resplendently than the others: civil military relations.

The 'how to make Pakistan a better country' project was not launched in 2018, much as so many PTI supporters believe that it was. What was at the heart of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s work to permanently undermine private-sector trust in Pakistan’s economic institutions or Gen Ziaul Haq’s work to institutionalize religious zealotry and moral hypocrisy into rule of law, or Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s work to alienate each and every non elite in Pakistan so egregiously that separatist movements emerged from every nook and cranny of the country, with one eventually succeeding?

At the origin of each of those outcomes was an instinct to do good. The working title of each storyline – when it began? 'How to make Pakistan a better country'. No one sets out trying to govern Pakistan in a manner that leads to failure or disgrace. But sooner or later, regardless of the little good that they manage to do, the damage seems to be so much more profound.

The 1990s, which is marketed to Pakistanis as a lost decade, deserves greater scrutiny. From November 1988 to October 1999, Pakistan enjoyed its first full decade of uninterrupted democratic rule. It was marred, of course, by constant palace intrigue, and unfinished terms. It was stamped with interference and conspiracies to buy and sell politicians. It was defined by incompetence and fecklessness. And of course, throughout the decade, popular culture’s constant addiction to the notion of'“the corrupt elected politician' had manufactured an entire generation of PTI supporters.

The two great lessons of the 1990s have defined Pakistani politics for the entirety of the 21st century so far. Lesson number one was that institutional design in Pakistan guarantees that any empty spaces or voids, real or imagined, which political discourse does not or cannot fill will be occupied by non-political institutions. The war against the TTP and LeJ from 2007 to 2015 reconfirmed this lesson.

Lesson number two was that a political consensus on the rules of the game was a necessary prerequisite to the establishment and sustenance of procedural democracy – and to prevent the undermining of formal civilian authority. This is what helped produce the impetus for the 18th Amendment and the 7th NFC award, through the Charter of Democracy in 2006. The first building blocks of the COD were laid on the floor of the National Assembly in the early 1990s in the small, but fleeting moments of mutual respect between Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.

Anytime these two lessons have been ignored, the ruling individual or party has suffered.

Let’s begin with Gen Pervez Musharraf. When the Charter for Democracy was signed in London, back in 2006, it was mocked by many in Pakistan – a sign of how strong Gen Musharraf’s position was, and how unlikely it seemed that the Charter would ever be tested in any way. Little did anyone realise that within less than two years later, a coalition government made up of the PPP and PML-N would be ruling the country. For those who see the 2008 election and the resulting five-year period as a black eye for Pakistan – and this includes the entire PTI, starting with PM Khan and includes all of the current government’s powerful supporters – it is worth thinking about. How did Gen Musharraf go from almost absolute and unlimited power in 2006, to the horrors of 2007, to the reality of Asif Ali Zardari as president and Yusuf Raza Gilani as prime minister in 2008?

There are of course, many reasons. But among the most important was that it was Gen Musharraf himself who acted so recklessly that he helped forge the political consensus that was necessary to oust him. The trigger point may have been the sacking of the judiciary in March 2007, or the Lal Masjid siege in July 2007, or the declaration of emergency in December 2007, or the martyrdom of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007. But the underlying politics of the end of the Musharraf era was the emergence of political consensus that he had to go. Once you force politicians into a corner in Pakistan, even the strongest general with the most popular appeal, the widest international support and great personal qualities cannot resist the Pakistani street.

By 2013, Asif Ali Zardari had enjoyed a most unlikely five years as president. But the PPP’s inability to demonstrate competence in any area of governance outside of creating and sustaining political consensus was a fatal weakness. The choice of Raja Pervez Ashraf as prime minister, to replace Yusuf Raza Gilani was perhaps the deepest and most egregious mistake of all – but there were vacuums and gaps aplenty from 2008 to 2013. In almost every case, those gaps were filled either explicitly or implicitly by non-civilian forces.

When he won the 2013 election, Nawaz Sharif, quite rightly, believed he would enjoy a real opportunity to govern, unlike any he had previously experienced. He had the parliamentary strength, the popular support and a professional military at his disposal. Yet within a year of his taking oath, the Model Town fiasco had taken place, and Islamabad was already bracing for the PTI’s August 14 dharna, enacted as a protest over the mythical '35 punctures' of the 2013 election.

The Sharif camp was convinced, as were many independent observers, that the size, scale and duration of the 2014 dharna was not possible without behind-the-scenes support. Once the trust was breached, incompetence and negligence in matters of a sensitive nature, was the default, not the exception. The already tenuous manner in which Sharif managed national security became rife with even more secrecy, and sense of intrigue. The culmination of that gap in trust and communication, exacerbated by an unhelpful non-civilian enthusiasm for public engagement, helped seal the fate of the PML-N in the 2018 election.

The lessons of the 1990s apply just as much to PM Khan as they did to Gen Musharraf, President Zardari or Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. But what is remarkable about PM Khan’s two-year run as prime minister so far is just how astoundingly unprepared his lieutenants have been to govern the country. This is the definition of vacuum. And the gaps have been filled, as they always are.

The more worrying problem PM Khan faces is the absence of respect for his opposition. The material difference between whether he feigns contempt for the PML-N, PPP, JUI-F, ANP, JI and all other parties, or whether he actually despises them is marginal. In politics, it doesn’t matter.

What matters is your ability to extract from the bitterness and contempt, a compact or framework for working together. PM Khan is convinced that his small but very passionate base would abandon him were he to make a deal with the opposition. He has programmed his entire party to speak of and to the opposition in so derisive a manner, that it becomes hard to imagine how any major issues of national importance may be resolved.

PM Khan has gone through two years in power while having ignored both lessons. The uncertainty gripping Pakistan is hardly conducive to the kind of environment that can manufacture reform, or change.