It is the season of statements. Big, uncensored, unfiltered, ominous statements. Some are beeped through video links on giant screens. Some are made in conferences. Some are uttered in TV shows. Some are susurrations in private gatherings. Some are hissed in WhatsApp chats. Some are bellowed in press conferences. Some are in the form of tweets that despite their careful wording pulsate with a palpable nervousness.
The most noticeable aspect of these statements is the threat of war against the incumbent government. What I hear is an echo of the drum rolls of the last forty-three years. Notwithstanding the apparent loftiness of the trumpeted intentions and the end-goal, not much changes in Pakistan, not even the placement of words in a statement.
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As the scorching days of summer whimper into the placidness of the fall of 2020, there is a déjà vu of 1977, 1990, 1993, 1996, 1999, 2012 and 2017 in the political landscape of Pakistan. Mian Nawaz Sharif, in London, and his alliance of eleven opposition parties, in Pakistan, entitled Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), have announced their war against Prime Minister Imran Khan. From making pious statements to verbose speeches to announcing a plan of action spanning over several months, the agenda of the PMD for “restoration of civilian supremacy” –quotation marks mine–is a blueprint of the…
Your guess is as good as mine.
In a democracy, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the opposition–one party, many parties, a coalition–joining hands in repudiation of the incumbent government’s short and long-term policies and their implementation. A formidable opposition is imperative for a fully functioning democratic system. A robust opposition is the right kind of opposition. An honest opposition is the force that ensures governmental transparency of strategy and action. A vigilant opposition is an adherent of the principle of checks and balances to keep the government on its toes. An opposition dedicated to the fundamental principle of the wellbeing of the people acts as the conscience of a government.
Is the current political opposition of Pakistan all this and more? I leave the question unanswered.
The reality of the issues of the political opposition is far from the beatific revolutionary zeal that the latest speeches of Nawaz Sharif seem to espouse.
Nawaz Sharif, three-time prime minister of Pakistan, is in a self-imposed exile in London. In November 2019, he went to the UK for treatment after teams of his personal and government doctors declared his condition to be critical, his family insisting that his treatment only possible in London where he had undergone heart surgery in 2016. Media took up the case with all its noisy preachiness and didn’t rest until Sharif was seated in a chartered plane, as his opponents in government and others exclaimed, looking anything but critically ill.
Sharif was supposed to return after his treatment, but despite various sightings of him in and from London–walking, having coffee, chairing party meetings, giving media statements, speaking via video links to PMD’s first All-Parties Conference on September 20, and addressing his party’s CEC and CWC meetings on September 30 and October 1, respectively–his party, currently invested in making an announcement every few hours, has refused to give a deadline for his return. Their single stance is that his return is connected to his full convalescence, and that remains uncertain, as due to coronavirus even life-saving surgeries have been postponed in London since March. Their stance, not mine.
The Islamabad High Court, on September 1, lambasted Sharif for his refusal to return to Pakistan. It is understood that his self-inspired return would have honoured his party’s leadership’s guarantee to the government. The court stated: “The accused [Nawaz Sharif] knows that he went abroad after defeating the system. He must be laughing at the system while sitting abroad. It is a shameful conduct by the accused.”
The PDM–the latest alliance for restoration of civilian and democratic supremacy–is tight-lipped on Islamabad High Court’s categorical statement on the conduct of three-time prime minister of Pakistan.
The latest trigger for the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is the NAB’s arrest of Shehbaz Sharif, younger brother of Nawaz Sharif, President of PML-N, and Leader of the Opposition in National Assembly, after the Lahore High Court’s rejection of his plea for bail in a money laundering case. Instead of responding to the arrest with rational arguments–that PML-N will fight the case in court, all allegations will be answered, and evidence to prove his innocence will be incontestable–PML-N’s sole reaction is labelling the process of accountability a political witch-hunt. The reasons given are many, none of them related to the intricacies of a legal process.
The war has begun. The PDM demands the resignation of Prime Minister Imran Khan. They say that he was brought in by the establishment through a rigged election in 2018, robbing the traditional power holders, PML-N and PPP, of their right to formation of government in the centre. Sharif and his PML-N and its current leader Maryam Nawaz say that it is to time to take Pakistan back from the clutches of the establishment. That there should be a clear delineation of the separation of power in Pakistan: military establishment must not interfere in civilian matters. That all elections must be fair and transparent without any pressure from the men in uniform.
Prime Minister Imran Khan says that his party won the mandate of the public, and no one [but the voter] has the power to remove him from his position until the next elections in 2023. Khan is also categorical that the army is an institution of government and not vice versa. The prime minister is the democratically elected leader of the country, and the current military leadership is cognisant of and fully respectful of this constitutional imperative of Pakistan.
The PDM’s plan is to hold rallies in provincial capitals, and then nationwide, demanding the resignation of an “inefficient” prime minister and his government, citing their inability to control prices of commodities, tariffs and availability of electricity and domestic and commercial-use gas, and unemployment, among other issues. In 2020, when millions of Pakistanis are still suffering the financial aftermath of the COVID-19-necessitated lockdown while facing inflation and unemployment, trying to arrange three meals for their families, they are being asked by the new champions of democracy to come on roads to unseat a democratically elected prime minister.
What were the accusations on the governments of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1977, Benazir Bhutto in 1990, Nawaz Sharif in 1993, Benazir Bhutto in 1996, and Nawaz Sharif in 1999 when they were ousted through military coups and/or presidential or judicial decrees? What were the reasons given for the dismissal of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani in 2012 and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 2017?
Today, the PDM’s war slogan is the elimination of the detrimental political and power dynamics prevalent in Pakistan for decades. Redundant it is to point out that it is the system endorsed and enabled and exploited by most of them for their own benefit and/or to harm other political parties, including some that are part of the PDM today. Today, their strategy is the achievement of the same end-goal that they have been ostensibly fighting against for decades: ouster of a democratically elected prime minister, on one pretext or the other. Mind boggling, isn’t it?
The question is unambiguous. If the entire Sharif family had been given a “behind-the-scenes” pardon in their accountability cases and allowed to leave Pakistan, if Shehbaz Sharif had not been arrested, if his son Hamza was released from jail, and if Maryam were allowed, with “a secret deal with the establishment,” to travel to London, would Nawaz Sharif and his party and its new leader Maryam be still declaring a war on Khan and his government and on the establishment for the “supremacy of democracy?”
Despite the dismissal of the last two prime ministers, the silver lining in the convoluted system of power in Pakistan in the last decade has been the completion of the terms of the two democratically elected governments, one of PPP, one of PML-N. Those were hugely important milestones that all advocates of democracy justifiably celebrated. Now both these parties are in cahoots to demand through protests and rallies and a long march the ouster of a democratically elected government. Sense defying, isn’t it?
In 2020, all rational, all democratic Pakistanis–including Prime Minister Khan who proudly calls himself a democrat, and the leadership of the armed forces and intelligence agencies–support the constitutional delineation of civilian-military power. Pakistan is a democracy in which there must not be any blatant or overt interference of the establishment in an electoral process, and/or the running of the country. Prime Minister Imran Khan, the civilian leader, is uncompromising about this demarcation. Chief of Army Staff Qamar Javed Bajwa, the military leader, is also unambiguous about this delineation.
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Now which credo of democracy Sharif and his party and their alliance wish to strengthen through their plan of the ouster of Prime Minister Imran Khan?