Playing Nostradamus

A look at possible outcomes from the current political mess

Playing Nostradamus


he citizens of Pakistan find themselves between the Scylla of populist fascism and Charybdis of establishment authoritarianism. A way out is eagerly sought by the people who are at the receiving end of both these cataclysmic scenarios. Nations are sometime faced with such predicaments; statesmanship is what helps them out of those. Otherwise, they fall into a vicious cycle.

Lord Acton, the British historian, politician and moralist, has said that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Hence, there must be a balance between power and accountability within an institution and among the state institutions. This appears lacking in our country, unfortunately. Impunity rules the roost in the Land of the Pure.

The institutional meltdown has relegated Pakistan into an unprecedented confluence of political, economic, environmental, social and security poly-crisis. The solution to all these problems can be found by strengthening the political system and establishing long term stability. Political stability reinforces economic prosperity and vice versa.

The unprecedented violence and destruction of state properties that some of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) followers perpetrated was a consequence of their past baggage. They had been encouraged to take over government buildings in 2014, as part of the PTI-PAT sit-ins in Islamabad. The recent demonstrations in support of the government coalition, demanding the resignation of the chief justice of Pakistan for alleged favouring Imran Khan, were more of an exception. However, the kind of retribution unleashed by the establishment-backed government for vandalising army installations, especially military trials of civilians, has attracted severe criticism from human rights monitors at home and abroad.

The present political crisis is all encompassing in the sense that it involves nearly all state institutions, including the Executive and the Legislature, the Election Commission and the Supreme Court. The institutional clash is the result of a sad but recurring story of overstepping the constitutional authority and of interference in the domain of other institutions. A long term normalisation of political process can only be achieved through the realisation at the level of institutional leadership of separation of powers.

If it continues unabated, the present political polarisation and confrontation may lead to a further postponement of elections, which will result in a widening of the fault lines in and between various state institutions. If the Imran Khan-led PTI decides to go to elections in a confrontational mode, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) and the establishment might opt for a postponement of elections. This will not only increase uncertainty and instability but also further the economic meltdown that Pakistan cannot afford at this stage. The country is already on the verge of default. The single most important cause of economic crisis in Pakistan is political instability. It is exacting a heavy toll on ordinary Pakistanis.

If Imran Khan, through a successful assertion of his popular appeal, can force the PDM government to accept early elections, this may lead to de-radicalisation and could prove a step forward towards normalisation of the political process. Some quarters have questioned the possibility of holding elections in a highly charged and politically toxic atmosphere. However, holding largely fair and free elections will bring down political temperatures and contribute to political stability which will, in turn, boost the economy.

The PDM government should therefore announce the date of the elections. This could pull the country out of political uncertainty and provide dividends in the form of economic improvement and national unity. It is highly advisable that the government should start talking with the opposition parties and hold a grand dialogue for political and economic stability. This should be on the pattern of the 2006 Charter of Democracy. All the parties should agree to respect the mandate of other political parties and the election rules. Such a breakthrough had looked imminent only a few weeks ago. However, the recent crackdown and arrests have vitiated the environment for such a dialogue.

Another scenario is the possibility of Imran Khan’s disqualification and factionalism in the PTI. Some of the frontline leaders of the PTI have started deserting its supreme leader. Members are leaving the party on a daily basis in the same manner and the speed with which they had been brought into the party, a few years back. Ideological elements had then been squeezed out. The ‘late comers’ to the party are leaving earlier than expected. The government formed after the forthcoming elections is likely to be a coalition. In such a case, the PTI may find itself isolated and reduced to a small opposition party. It should still play its role and retain its stake in the system.

The PTI could also be dealt with on the 2002 model, the way PML-N was marginalised through repressive measures by the powers that be. That can lead to a massive reduction in its share in the parliament. However, the time and context are different and such an extreme scenario might not materialise. In 2002, the military was ruling directly. That is no longer the case. The media landscape, too, has transformed and human rights violations are likely to attract more international reaction because Pakistan is no longer a ‘frontline state’ for the West.

A recurrence of the 2018 situation appears most likely. However, the PTI’s capacity to resist and its endurance are complete unknowns. The electables, brought to join the party close to the 2018 elections, will be as much in a hurry to leave it as they were in a panic to join it then. Had Imran Khan not elbowed out some of the ideological workers during his stint in power, the party might have been stronger today.

In the long run, any attempt at political engineering is likely only to add to the list of missed opportunities. The people of Pakistan are paying the price of the current political instability and an economic meltdown. Ensuring that free and fair elections are held without any unnecessary delay is the need of the hour.

The writer has a PhD in history from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. He heads the History Department at University of Sargodha. He has worked as a research fellow at the Royal Holloway College, University of London. He can be reached at He tweets @AbrarZahoor1

Playing Nostradamus