Politics in Pakistan is failing its people
The electorate has little to choose between the traditional politicians and Imran Khan, who promised a “new Pakistan”, but showed a lack of farsightedness needed to deliver
Floods submerged one-third of Pakistan in August and left over 1,400 people dead, 33 million displaced, and 1.7 million homes damaged. Estimated to cost $30 billion or 9% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the deluge was a double-whammy, coinciding with a widening current account balance and depleting hard currency. Soaring commodity prices shrunk Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves by over half in July to over $9 billion or about six weeks-worth of imports.
True to form, Pakistan’s politicians continued their game of thrones when they should have been expected to bury the hatchet as the country faces a debt default. Former prime minister (PM) Imran Khan’s insistence on having snap polls despite the devastating floods added to the political instability. He refused to back down and addressed rallies to force the ruling coalition out of power, claiming it was installed to replace him at the behest of the United States (US). The alliance rejected the allegations and said the elections will be held as per schedule next year. Both sides have resorted to fiery rhetoric amid Khan’s protest campaign, which is set to culminate with a march to the capital Islamabad.
A lack of mutual tolerance and forbearance marred Khan’s tenure. He refused to accept opponents as legitimate rivals and chose confrontation over consensus, which are recipes for disaster in deeply polarised Pakistan. Khan contributed to Pakistan’s flawed political culture by seeking to replace the self-centred politics of dynasts with a personality cult instead of focusing on governance.
The electorate has little to choose between the traditional politicians and Khan, who promised a “new Pakistan”, but showed a lack of farsightedness needed to deliver. His successor, Shehbaz Sharif, and the coalition he heads, exemplify the rot in traditional politics. He was nominated for the top post only because his brother, three-time PM Nawaz Sharif, and his daughter are ineligible for it as they were convicted of corruption.
In the middle of the crisis, Shehbaz Sharif and his colleagues travelled to London repeatedly to confer with Nawaz Sharif, who has been in the United Kingdom since 2019 when he was allowed to go there for treatment on the condition that he will return to serve his remaining prison term. He did not return but managed to install his brother, who too faces graft charges, as the PM.
Shehbaz Sharif earlier replaced his brother as the chief minister of the most populous Punjab province after Nawaz Sharif became the PM. He also took over Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) following Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification from holding public office over alleged offshore assets. Nawaz Sharif now lives in a luxury flat in London despite earlier denying his family’s ownership of the property while trying to avoid disqualification.
A culture of impunity and lack of accountability have perpetuated corruption and dynastic politics with no real commitment to ideology.
Dynasts lead almost all political parties and use their wealth to nurture kinship and patronage networks for power. The Sharifs come from the influential Kashmiri community. Their alliance with the Arains has been so formidable that all but two Lahore mayors have been from these two communities since 1947.
Kashmiris have always held key positions in the governments of the Sharifs. In 1999, Nawaz Sharif’s insistence on naming Ziauddin Butt, a Kashmiri, as the army chief was among the reasons that prompted Pervez Musharraf to remove him. Former president Asif Ali Zardari, who came to be known as ‘Mr 10%’ for the commissions he allegedly charged for contracts when his wife, Benazir Bhutto, was the PM, leads the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the country’s third biggest party.
Zardari, who also faced allegations of offshore assets and has been imprisoned on murder, corruption, and smuggling charges, took over PPP’s leadership after Bhutto’s assassination. His wife reportedly left a will nominating Zardari as the chief of the party she inherited from her father. Zardari was to act as some sort of a regent until his son, Bilawal, who was 19 then, assumed the leadership.
Zardari brought together assorted parties to oust Khan after joining hands with the Sharifs, one-time arch rivals. The coalition includes parties that identify themselves as conservatives, secularists, centrists, Leftists, and also those accused of being foreign-funded to orchestrate unrest in Pakistan.
Maulana Fazlur Rehman, who leads his faction of the clerical party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, also played a key role in Khan’s removal. Khan’s rise in 2018 pushed Rehman into the political wilderness after being part of governments for two decades, irrespective of which party was in power. Known as ‘Maulana Diesel’ for cutting a diesel franchise deal with Bhutto and supporting her after a bitter campaign against her, Rehman once stoked anti-American sentiments but secretly lobbied United States envoy Anne Patterson for support to become PM in 2007.
In a leaked 2007 cable, Patterson wrote Rehman’s “still significant numbers of votes” are up for sale and that he enjoys “being courted” by both Musharraf and Bhutto and sees himself increasingly in “the lucrative position” of a kingmaker. Rehman cautioned Patterson “not to put all the eggs” in PPP’s basket months before getting a lucrative ministry after it swept to power.
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