There is never a dull moment in Pakistani politics. It is the theater of the absurd; a high-octane drama full of surprises and unknowns. The only thing consistent about Pakistani politics is its inconsistency; the only predictable factor is its unpredictability. Staying true to its form and nature, Pakistan’s political theater has once again put a serving prime minister in the dock for the second time in his third term. Previously, in 2014, he managed to stay in office by a razor thin margin.
Come October 2016, and it is déjà vu for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. His “winter of discontent” has arrived. Seemingly, all odds are stacked against him: the civil-military tensions are at their highest and relations with India, Afghanistan, and the United States are at their lowest. Sharif’s political nemesis Imran Khan is inciting his supporters to come out on the streets to dethrone the prime minister, and smaller political parties in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan are furious about being marginalized in the CPEC. On top of it all, after a relative decrease in violent incidents, terrorism is resurgent in Pakistan.
A perfectly nightmarish scenario if you are the prime minister of Pakistan.
Some of the above-mentioned travails are of the prime minister’s own making; others have been imposed on him as systematic compulsions that every Pakistani prime minister has to deal with as occupational hazards.
With the November 2 deadline for Khan’s announced march fast approaching, the battle lines of the renewed rivalry between Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) have been drawn. Khan will try to lock down Islamabad and march toward Sharif’s Raiwind residence until his demands are fulfilled, which the government is going to resist tooth and nail. The government has announced it will put the PTI leaders under house arrest and launch countrywide crackdowns against PTI workers.
Astonishingly, barring a few exceptions, the scheme of things in the expected PTI/PML-N showdown is more or less the same as during the 2014 dharna. In 2014, the issue at hand was of pre-electoral rigging (read: corruption); this time the issue is of financial misappropriation. Last time, Khan was on a solo flight; this time, once again, he is coming out as the lone warrior. Previously, the PML-N played hardball with PTI; this time around, it is adopting the same confrontational strategy. Similarly, last time, governments’ relations were soured with the military top brass over Musharraf’s trial; this time, things are tense due to a story of civil-military discord leaked to Dawn by PML-N insiders.
What is different now, however, is that unlike the last time there is no Javed Hashmi in PTI’s camp who will come out of the blue and spill the beans to the rescue of the PML-N. Similarly, the incumbent army chief is retiring next month. If the Long March prolongs and push comes to shove, like the 2014 dharna tipping point, will the new army chief think and act in a similar fashion as General Raheel Sharif did? When things reached a political nadir in 2014, General Sharif prevailed over his five adventurous corps commanders, who thought it was time for the military to intervene.
The sooner the prime minister overcomes the Panama Papers crisis and focuses on more pressing matters confronting Pakistan, the higher his chances will be of a victory in the 2018 general elections. On the contrary, if the PTI manages to bog down Nawaz Sharif on this issue, it will revive Khan’s party’s political fortunes in the next parliamentary elections.
Another challenge confronting Sharif is the deterioration in civil-military relations, which are at their lowest since he took office in 2013. Arguably, the PML-N has shot itself in the foot given the manner in which some party insiders leaked the proceedings of a high-level security meeting to Dawn and mishandled the aftermath. Capitulating under the military pressure, instead of owning the leaked story, PML-N tried to implicate the messenger for allegedly fabricating the story and put his name on the Exit Control List (ECL). This not only antagonized the military establishment but also alienated the media. Rather than emerging as a victim of military’s high-handedness and victor for making the right political noise in the civ-mil meetings, the PML-N came out as a villain playing games with the military top brass and a betrayer in the media’s eye for throwing the journalist in front of the bus to save its own skin.
Growing regional and international isolation is another major challenge facing Sharif. His policies of adopting a comprehensive and diversified approach toward Pakistan’s immediate neighbors have hit snags. The project of diversifying Pakistan’s Afghan policy beyond a narrow security-centric approach lies in tatters. After witnessing non-cooperation from Pakistan, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has gravitated toward India, the arch-foe of Islamabad. Similarly, ties with India have nosedived after the Uri attack. Presently, the bilateral relations are deadlocked: Pakistan insists on putting Kashmir at the forefront of its dealings with India, while India is adamant about keeping terrorism the front and center issue in bilateral dialogue. By boycotting the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Islamabad and forcing some other regional countries to do the same, India has further hurt Sharif’s agenda of neoliberal economic policies, which largely depended on regional economic integration. Given the policies that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hyper-nationalist government has adopted, it is unlikely that these bilateral ties will improve any time soon.
Meanwhile, terrorism is creeping back to plague Pakistan. After the devastating attack on the Army Public School (APS) in Peshawar in December 2014, different terrorist groups were hit hard by the Pakistani security forces across the country under the National Action Plan and operation Zarb-e-Azb. However, after a lapse of two years these groups are now re-emerging, resulting in higher levels of violence. Particularly, the southwestern Balochistan province, which is the key node of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Pakistan’s multi-billion mega development project, is in the cross-chairs of this resurgence of violence. In the last two months, two major terrorist attacks, one targeting the lawyers and the other hitting a police academy in Quetta have been claimed by the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist group. Similarly, different Baloch separatist groups and anti-Shia Sunni extremist groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Jandullah have also resumed their activities. This will undermine Sharif’s efforts to revive the slowing economy.
Politically, Balochistan and KP have showed their reservations with the center for being marginalized in CPEC and the lack of transparency in different CPEC projects. Given the above, anxiety has been growing in Beijing over the politicization of CPEC in Pakistan. China has already expressed its concern over CPEC’s slow pace of work.
Just as Sharif has adopted a consistent policy of resolving all outstanding disputes with India through dialogue, he needs to adopt a similar approach domestically and open serious dialogue with the military and opposition parties as well. The problems confronting Pakistan need joint military-government and opposition efforts to take the country out of the woods.
Abdul Basit is an Associate Research Fellow (ARF) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Singapore.