The unbearable weight of politics-as-usual

July 26, 2020

The political climate at this point in Khan’s tenure reflects more or less similar pressures and threats as those faced by his four predecessors

A sense of pessimism prevails in Pakistan. Disillusionment with a government that has not even completed two years in office is palpable. The opposition – hitherto generally silenced into surviving the so-called accountability drive against its leaders – is finally getting active and finding its voice.

The opposition is also finally getting its act together to target the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government. A summit of key opposition parties and leaders is planned after Eid to decide what to do with an unpopular government and how.

Significantly, the refrain of ‘Minus One’ fills the chatter on the political landscape. This is a popular euphemism for ‘Minus the Prime Minister’. Even as the premier lurches from one crisis to another, most of his own making, the growing chorus indicates many want Imran Khan gone rather than new elections.

But calls for ‘minus one’ currently emanate more from among the ruling ranks and the political chatterati than the opposition benches. This is peculiar. Because if the opposition does not want Imran Khan ‘minused’ as prime minister, then who does? And why?

Before answers to these questions make sense, the broader context of why an elected prime minister needs to be proverbially thrown under the bus so early in his term is illustrative.

The calls for ‘minus one’ are the product of a formula that seems to have evolved this Century. Pakistan elects its National Assembly and provincial legislatures – and the governments that are birthed by them – for a period of five years since the 1973 constitution came about.

However, it has been possible only this Century for the elected legislatures and governments to complete their five-year terms. The Pakistan Peoples Party and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz governments did so consecutively for the first time in the country’s history during 2008-18.

But while this is what the laws promise, it is not supposed to happen in a country ruled for half of its life by the military – each of the four military strongmen that have ruled has lasted an average of eight years in office.

No such luck for the elected governments and their civilian prime ministers though. Each of them, since the 1973 constitution, has lasted an average of less than three years – even during the times of civilian rule. And that’s because Pakistan’s peculiar civil-military polity is structured to frustrate a free hand for elected governments – both those popularly considered ‘elected’ and those deemed ‘selected’.

The ‘selected’ variety – those governments that openly revel in their active collaborative proximity to the military such as the Zafarullah Jamali-Shaukat Aziz and the Imran Khan dispensations – are not spared the blushes though. The ‘minus one’ chatter against Jamali ended in his removal within two years of his five-year term.

It took longer – about four years of ‘minus one’ calls and conspiracies – to oust ‘elected’ Yousaf Raza Gilani from office and a similar length of time to dislodge Nawaz Sharif, the third time he was premier. He was ousted from office within an average of 30 months in his two previous terms.

Clearly the ‘grand design’ here is to keep elected governments under pressure, the prime minister busy fighting conspiracies and manufactured instability and thereby prevent deep institutionalisation of a productive and functional democratic system that would render non-representative forces redundant.

Cue Khan now, who finds himself in similar circumstances. The ‘novelty’ tactic now to implement the old formula of keeping civilian governments below the threshold of stability this time necessitates the use of his own party to keep the prime minister on edge since the opposition has proved no major threat.

The opposition is making more noises than actually posing a credible threat to engineer an alternative government. The ‘minus one’ calls are coming Khan’s way from the political rumour mill being stirred by the many within PTI who fancy themselves as his replacement. This is why he said he was ‘the only choice’ – referring not to the broad political spectrum but the narrow party ranks.

Calls for ‘minus one’ currently emanate more from among the ruling ranks and the political chatterati than the opposition benches. This is peculiar. Because if the opposition does not want Imran Khan ‘minused’ as prime minister, then who does? And why?

And this is why every few months, his colleague-detractors stir the Punjab pot calling for a ‘minus one’ in the province in the hopes of triggering a domino effect that would topple him in Islamabad. The ‘minus one’ in the Punjab echoes the rationale of ‘minus one’ in Islamabad. Usman Buzdar’s performance is as good (theoretically speaking) or as bad (actually speaking) as Imran Khan’s and vice versa.

To Khan’s major disadvantage, his utter failure in providing even a modicum of decent governance and inability to manage the economy has contributed to the perception that an in-party or in-house change would be a re-set option for the backers of this government rather than a mid-term election.

PTI’s exaggerated antagonism towards the PPP and the PML-N is jarring considering it has no productive value and it actually reinforces Khan’s diametrically opposed economic performance compared to those of the PPP and PML-N prime ministers preceding him. Eight of the 10 years of PPP and PML-N saw the economic growth graph go only ever upwards whereas PTI’s performance has taken it below ground.

In the broader context, the political climate at this point of time in Khan’s five-year tenure reflects more or less similar pressures and threats as those faced by his four predecessors. The machinations of non-representative and unaccountable forces that destabilise democracy, the heavy-footedness of an elected government still finding its feet (admittedly for longer in Khan’s case than in his predecessors’) and the impatience of an electorate that readily compromises its own five-year mandate given to incumbents and happily, if unwittingly, collaborates with their detractors.

Unless Pakistan changes the dynamics of its governance – perhaps a four-year term would allow more tolerance for a government to focus on performance rather than survival; making legislatures rather than cabinets and other shady backrooms the focus of policy-making; helping provinces govern themselves rather than Islamabad running the country; accommodating opposition inputs into legislation rather than hounding them in the name of accountability – politics will remain unproductive and the country will keep going round in circles whereas the only viable option is to go up.


The author is a political analyst and media development specialist. He can be reached at [email protected]

The unbearable weight of politics-as-usual