A worrying polarisation

Recent events have deepened the existing polarisation in the polity

A worrying  polarisation


he existing polarisation in national politics took a violent turn on May 9 following the arrest of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf chief Imran Khan. Mobs attacked state installations, especially military installations, in several parts of the country. There was a pattern in the attacks at the GHQ, Jinnah House in Lahore and Mianwali Airbase. The violence openly pitched the PTI against the establishment. The party’s social media campaign further complicated the gravity of the situation. Later, the Supreme Court intervened, providing immediate relief to Imran Khan and declaring his detention illegal. It referred his case to Islamabad High Court (IHC) for hearing the next day. The IHC promptly granted interim and protective bails. Several government leaders and their allies vehemently criticised the chief justice and other judges and accused them of a bias in Khan’s favour. The PDM leadership also called for a sit-in protest in front of the Supreme Court – an unprecedented spectacle. The parliament also initiated a process of filing a reference against the chief justice by adopting a resolution in this regard. The Public Accounts Committee took up the issue of judges’ salaries and audit of the Supreme Court budget. The decision of the corps commanders’ meeting to try those involved in violent attacks in military courts was endorsed by the National Security Council.

These developments have brought about a deep and multi-pronged crisis for the polity.

Confrontational politics have great potential as a destabilising agent and can result in a state of anarchy. Today almost all the major political players are perceived to be in a confrontational mode and unwilling to show suitable restraint. The conflict resolution mechanisms of the state have either been compromised or have collapsed.

The parliament lost its status of the national consensus-building institution once the PTI resigned from the National Assembly. The PTI’s refusal to join a dialogue further shrunk the role of the parliament. The Supreme Court is, unfortunately, being painted by some as divided, polarised and politicised. The court is now seen by many as a part of the problem rather than the solution.

The establishment is struggling to maintain its hegemonic position in the power structure. The open challenge from the PTI has once again exposed the institution’s role as the ultimate architect of the political landscape. The military has announced a zero-tolerance policy with regard to future attacks on its installations and has announced an aggressive strategy to punish the culprits through military courts. Military trials of political workers and alleged instigators risk escalating the confrontation between the PTI and the military leadership. After some initial reluctance to condemn the violence, several PTI leaders including Khan have accused the intelligence agencies of hatching a plot against him. The government and the military claim that unmistakable evidence is available to establish many PTI workers’ and leaders’ involvement in the violence.

Military court trials of civilians can invite criticism both locally and internationally. The establishment has already lost the support of the superior courts that have historically sided with it. The Supreme Court and the military no longer appear to be on the same page. Possible judicial relief could result in further deterioration in the relationship between these two institutions. Polarisation within the institutions is taking a new shape.

Imran Khan’s preference for confrontational politics has marginalised moderate voices. Hawkish policies earn popularity dividends at the cost of political interests. Sometimes political leaders can become hostage to popular sentiments.

The PTI has enjoyed strong support from the rank and file of ex-servicemen and military families due to its associational relationship with the establishment. The violent confrontation has created a dilemma for institutional and political loyalties. This has the potential to shrink the party’s popular base within military institutions. While some may prefer their political loyalty, others may prefer to remain loyal to the institution. The loss of its military constituency can have serious implications for the PTI. The party has enjoyed a strong hold on northern Punjab, considered a traditional recruiting ground for the military. In the 2018 elections, the party had swept the region that had traditionally been a stronghold of the PML-N.

A confrontational style can promote factionalism among party ranks. The establishment can then exploit the voices of dissent. Some of the PTI’s radicalised supporters had declared May 9 as a defining moment for Pakistan. It now threatens to be a defining moment for the PTI itself. The party had been riding a popularity wave since its ouster from power. It had consolidated and expanded its support base through aggressive confrontational politics. The hawkish elements within party ranks had dominated the political narrative. Imran Khan’s preference for confrontational politics marginalised the moderate voices. The hawkish policies get popularity dividends at the cost of political interests. Sometimes political leaders become hostage to popular sentiment. De-radicalisation of the party cadres requires a strategy and a vision from the leadership.

The decisions Imran Khan takes henceforth will critically determine the future of the party and its relationship with other stakeholders. The breakup of the PTI-establishment alliance and perpetuation of confrontational politics can widen the gulf.

The ruling coalition has all but exhausted its political capital. It is now pinning its hopes on the diffusion of PTI’s popular surge.

Given the polarised environment, holding free, fair and transparent elections will be a tough ask. A PTI victory with a radical anti-establishment sentiment could result in another cycle of confrontation and resistance, wreaking havoc on the state and society. The PTI’s response to a potential electoral defeat is likely to be a refusal to accept the results and more agitation, resulting in the continuation of political instability. The space for dialogue may have shrunk but a consensus among all stakeholders including political parties, the judiciary and the establishment is the only way forward. Only free, fair and transparent elections can bring about economic and political stability.

The writer has a PhD in history from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. He is an assistant professor at Allama Iqbal Open University, Islamabad. He can be reached at  sajidkhanhistorian@gmail.com

A worrying polarisation