Politics in Pakistan can be ugly, but it is also fascinating.
There is politics in everything, even in education, health, business, sports and culture. Almost every person has views on issues, though many people who are articulate and opinionated stay away from active politics as they consider it rough and dirty and, therefore, not their cup of tea.
Political parties are led by families that have set up dynasties. Most parties are fan clubs looking up to personalities who are often lacking in many respects. Politicians are forever stressing the need for democracy in the country, but are unwilling to democratise their own parties. It is, therefore, not surprising that elected governments in Pakistan are largely autocratic whenever the military isn’t in power and has allowed politicians to rule the country.
Since the Islamabad protest dharnas by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Tahirul Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) around Independence Day in 2014, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government is believed to have become weak and vulnerable. In the process, the powerful military is said to have become stronger. Obviously, this isn’t something the ruling PML-N or the army would admit.
Still certain actions and statements raise eyebrows. This include the way Army Chief General Raheel Sharif is seen all over the place, paying visits to important capitals and holding meetings with visiting military and political leaders.
His statements declaring war against terrorism are nothing new and understandable as his troops are fighting and sacrificing on the frontlines, but his public determination to tackle corruption and follow it up by sacking several army officers, including two generals, was seen as an attempt to push the Nawaz Sharif government into action on this front. If this isn’t happening, the obvious outcome would be rise in General Raheel Sharif’s stock and image and a fall in Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s already battered reputation post-Panama Leaks.
There is also this perennial question about the state of civil-military relations at this point in time and its impact on Pakistan’s foreign policy. There isn’t much doubt that the military is an important stakeholder and key player in the decision-making in the context of the relations with Afghanistan and India as both are security-related issues. The Nawaz Sharif government, or for that matter any other one in the recent past, has been aware of this reality.
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The democratically-elected government won’t do anything to upset the military leadership on this count and would accept its wishes even if it has to do this reluctantly. Nawaz Sharif’s views and keenness on improving ties with Afghanistan and India are well-known, but he is also aware that Islamabad cannot take unilateral steps overriding its principled stand on issues, such as Kashmir and the use of Afghanistan’s soil for destabilising Pakistan to make this happen.
Pakistan’s relations with both Afghanistan and India aren’t friendly and all three are engaged in a triangular contest for strategic gains, with Kabul and New Delhi moving ever closer to each other to build an alliance against Islamabad. The military command is sensitive to conceding ground to India, and also Afghanistan, without getting anything tangible in return.
Normally there aren’t any real leaks happening in Pakistan that can unnerve political parties and politicians. Some leaks and scandals surface when they are out of power, but then it is late as they have completed their term and done the damage. Politicians in power can manage to overcome scandals that are indigenously disclosed.
The Panama Leaks, however, are different as these were revealed abroad and cannot be easily wished away or denied. Still the investigation into this issue could be delayed as is happening right now or eventually swept under the carpet until the government is able to complete its five-year term and it is time for the next general election in 2018. It will be a case of déjà vu.
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In fact, the issue is slowly fading away despite the best efforts of some of the opposition parties, particularly the PTI to keep it alive. The proposal to investigate those named in the Panama Papers as owners of offshore companies has fallen by the wayside due to the failure of the government-opposition negotiations to agree on the terms of reference for the judicial commission that was supposed to undertake this onerous task.
Though there are nine opposition parties that got together to make the prime minister accountable for the deeds of his three children for secretly maintaining offshore companies, only a few are ready to go the full distance to make this happen. It seems in the end the PTI would be the only party left in the field to campaign on the streets for the prime minister’s ouster. And true to his style, Imran Khan would once again be leading an endless agitation to remove Nawaz Sharif from power and testing the patience and stamina of his out of breath followers.
The prime minister’s illness has added to his vulnerability. Just when he needed strong nerves and good health to cope with the post-Panama Leaks situation, he fell ill and had to leave for the United Kingdom to undergo open heart surgery. It was unfortunate that his surgery too was politicised and even doubted. His 39-day stay outside the country and the debate that was triggered the way he ran the government from his hospital bed contributed to the speculation that things weren’t moving in the right direction.
Another avoidable controversy was generated when the prime minister chose to fly in a dedicated plane of the troubled Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) along with his family members, aides and staff of the prime minister’s camp office that was supposedly set up in London during his illness. The fact that he is still in his hometown Lahore and is running the affairs of government from there instead of the federal capital, Islamabad, has also been seized by his opponents to criticise him. Unwilling to give any quarter to a man recovering from a serious illness, the critics are ready to pounce on any misstep by him and his beleaguered government.
However, a greater concern for the prime minister would be to oversee the transition from the popular General Raheel Sharif to the new Pakistan army chief in the coming months should the latter opt not to seek an extension in service as promised by him and step down as scheduled in November. After remaining more than three years in power, he has by now become familiar with the opposition’s strength and the division in its ranks and would, therefore, not be overly concerned about its ability to topple his government through street-power.
What he doesn’t really know is the mind of the generals and any turn of events that could lead to an uncontrollable situation. Despite the clumsy calls by some failed politicians to General Raheel Sharif to seize power, there is no indication that an army takeover is likely. The army has dissociated itself from such calls and the banners echoing the appeals to General Raheel Sharif to take charge of the government.
If the General has any political ambitions, he has accumulated enough capital through his determined leadership of the army-led war against terrorism and could use it to reach even a higher office once he completes the mandatory two-year period after retirement before embarking on a political career.