Polarized politics are tearing Pakistan apart

May 05, 2023
Imran Khan's supporters have held numerous protests and rallies to campaign for an early election
Imran Khan's supporters have held numerous protests and rallies to campaign for an early election

ISLAMABAD — The stakes have never been higher in Pakistan.

Its economy is on the brink, society is politically polarized, millions are still recovering from last year's devastating floods, terror attacks are increasing and, as inflation soars ever higher, many are struggling to feed themselves and their children.

While the country suffers, politicians and institutions have been pulled into a power struggle over who should run Pakistan.

Despite the hours of air time, ferociously delivered ultimatums and street stand-offs, Pakistan seems no closer to answering that question than it was a year ago.

"What makes this current situation unprecedented is the backdrop of other serious crisis," says Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center.

"Pakistan doesn't have the luxury of saying this political crisis is a distraction, eventually we'll get back to where things need to be."

Pakistan's economy is struggling. Its foreign reserves, which pay for imports including fuel, have plummeted to one of the lowest levels in decades. Meetings with the International Monetary Fund earlier this year are yet to result in a deal to unlock $1.1bn in crucial funds.

Meanwhile, militants continue to launch attacks, often targeting security forces. Pakistan's armed forces recently said there had been 436 terror attacks so far in 2023. And militant groups regularly release infographics showing the number they claim to have killed or injured, and the arms they've seized around the country.

Add to this the ever-climbing food inflation, plus the fact that Pakistan is still recovering from the damage done by last year's floods before this year's rains begin again - and there is no shortage of big questions politicians need to answer.

"Political uncertainty is making things even more difficult for the entire system," says Mehmal Sarfraz, a political analyst. "The system is collapsing in Pakistan. If that happens, it won't benefit anyone - neither the political parties or the people of Pakistan."

Analysts say the current situation was sparked when Imran Khan was ousted from his position as prime minister in April 2022 in a vote of no confidence.

"Khan refused to accept it," Kugelman says. "And it was quite clear that the government was not going to ignore Khan's activism and agitation either."

Khan responded with a series of rallies around the country, and a long march to the capital, Islamabad.

The number of court cases against him has been rising — his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party says there are over 100 — and charges include terrorism, corruption and contempt of court. But the former prime minister has made this a part of his campaign, accusing the government of living by the "law of the jungle".

Government ministers, in turn, have accused Khan of acting out of ego and narcissism.

Police from Islamabad have twice arrived at his home in Lahore to arrest him after he failed to appear in court on multiple occasions.

Khan, too, has pulled the government into court. His party dissolved two of the country's provincial assemblies to try to force a national election. When that failed, it appealed; the case is still in the Supreme Court.

These ongoing court battles have split the judiciary. The government has accused some judges of bias in Imran Khan's favor, and the division and furious disagreement has led to some fears of a constitutional crisis.

"Khan would not let the government sit and take rest," says Ahmad Bilal, a political analyst and founder president at Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency. "The entire focus [for this government] has been on maintaining their existence."

Bilal also thinks the stand-off is related to Khan's personality.

"He isn't ready to make a genuine compromise," Bilal says. He argues that Khan's inability to do so is counterproductive and may even hurt him in the long run.

Some think that the deadlock is also a sign that Pakistan's institutions are failing. "There is no group that can mediate. The establishment doesn't have credibility," Ms Sarfraz says.

The establishment is the shorthand often used to refer to Pakistan's military and intelligence services. The army has played a prominent role in politics, sometimes seizing power in military coups, and, on other occasions, pulling levers behind the scenes.

Many analysts believe Khan's election win in 2018 happened with the help of the military. Now in opposition, he is one of its most vocal critics, and analysts say the army's popularity has fallen.

"There are clear indications that there is a lack of agreement within the army on the proper way forward," Kugelman says.

"My sense is that the senior-most army leadership would be happy not to see him involved in politics any more, whereas many elements in the lower and middle ranks of the army are big supporters of Khan. Khan has polarised politics, he's polarised the public and he's polarised the army as well, which is a difficult feat to pull off."

General elections are due to take place this year, but the fear is that it could be delayed using the same reasons used to delay the provincial assembly polls - insufficient funds and the security situation. That would be very damaging, Bilal says.

"I think it would be very unfortunate and will probably damage the democratic process in Pakistan, maybe in an unrepairable manner. We've never seen elections postponed."

The government and Khan's PTI party have already held talks about the elections. While there is common agreement that the national and provincial elections should be held at the same time, there is still no agreement about when that might happen.

But even agreeing on dates might not be enough, according to Ms Sarfraz.

"Even if elections do take place now, there will not be a conflict resolution unless and until the political parties decide what their red lines are." She argues that if both sides don't set out exactly what they expect to keep elections fair, both will dispute the result and continue to divide the country.

That leaves it up to the politicians to come to an agreement, a difficult task in a fraught, politically divided country.

"You're political rivals, you're not personal enemies," Ms Sarfraz says.

"It's time that we take things forward and talk to each other before there's a collapse of the entire system." — BBC

May 05, 2023
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