‘Naya’ Pakistan as old as ever

Richard Gregson observes Islamabad’s political landscape under the current leadership, where graft and in-fighting abound, militancy is still rife and little has changed for the better

Pakistan has long been, and may remain, mired in uncertainty. Intermittent military coups, dynastic politics, top-level corruption, institutional dysfunction, religious fundamentalism and violence have stalked the country since it was born almost 74 years ago.

That Muslims are a ‘separate nation’ was the premise on which Pakistan was founded. The idea still haunts the ‘nation,’ which has unsuccessfully tried to contain the various strains of Islamic fundamentalists, wielding automatic weapons and trained in the use of deadly explosive devices by the very army that is now a target of their strikes.

In February-March this year, terrorists carried out a string of attacks, resulting in the deaths of dozens of soldiers engaged in anti-terror operations. Many of the scores of Islamic jihadi outfits sponsored, armed and trained by the state have turned rogue and become a major headache for Pakistan. The persecution of minorities, including many Muslim sects, mass bigotry, misogyny and patriarchy are the indelible scars of a sickness infecting Pakistani society.

There has been intense international pressure on Pakistan to stamp out terrorism and block all funding channels. The country is on the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a global money laundering and terrorist financing watchdog, and the threat of being put on FATF’s blacklist, thus inviting sanctions, has forced the Imran Khan government to pass legislation to block funding that sustains these jihadi outfits. Somehow, Khan managed to get much of the legislation needed to leave the FATF grey list passed, despite the opposition parties’ bid to block these bills in the Senate. But FATF is not satisfied with the efforts made by Pakistan, which remains on the grey list.

Corruption in Pakistan goes well beyond the usual politician-business nexus

Prime Minister Imran Khan, who rode to power in 2018 by stitching together a coalition that gave him a thin majority in the National Assembly, appears to be clinging to office as to a wild mustang that wants to throw him. His promise of building a Naya (new) Pakistan has so far proved to be as hollow as his pep talk about Riyasat-e-Madina, an Islamic version of an egalitarian state set up in Madina by the second caliph of Islam, Hazrat Umar.

Despite the backing of the powerful Pakistan army, euphemistically known as ‘the Establishment’, Khan struggles to maintain his grip on power amid threats of ousting by an opposition which, notwithstanding it myriad differences, is united on a one-point programme: ‘Send Imran home’. They allege he grabbed power by manipulating the election process with the help of the military, and that he has been ‘selected’ by the Establishment, not ‘elected’ by the people.

A‘pot calling the kettle black’ situation pervades Pakistan. A majority of politicians have, at one time or another, courted the generals. The military bosses, a parallel power centre, have wielded enormous influence even when civilian governments were allowed to rule. In the wake of domestic and international backlash against military dictatorship and suspension of democratic rights, the generals have, over the years, learned and specialised in the art of back-seat driving.

Hence, the opposition parties have every right to complain. Understandably, most of their wrath is not directed against the ruling Pakistan Tahreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), but against Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) director-general Lieutenant-General Faiz Hameed. The ISI is infamous for carrying out clandestine operations, often through various jihadist outfits, both at home and abroad.

COST OF EATING: Food prices in Pakistan are skyrocketing

This time, though, the Establishment seems rather tolerant and has not hit back at recalcitrant opposition leaders, many of whom have been calling out Gen. Bajwa and Gen. Hameed by name. They seem to be maintaining a god-like silence, allowing the politicians to take the stage.

The Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), formed by 11 opposition parties, has been holding rallies across the country to demand that Khan step down. While some members are small parties with localised influence, the PDM’s mainstay are the two main opposition parties, Pakistan Muslim League (N) (PML-N), led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), led by former President Asif Zardari, who took over thePPP after the assassination of his wife, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Sharif, convicted for corruption, is in London, where he is supposed to be undergoing medical treatment, and Zardari has been in and out of jail on several graft charges. The PML-N is led in Pakistan by Sharif’s daughter Maryam Nawaz, who has also been convicted but is out on bail.

The ISI is infamous for carrying out clandestine operations, often through jihadist outfits, both at home and abroad

As with the PPP – Benazir and Zardari’s son, Bilawal Bhutto, holds theco-chairman’s position–the PML-N is a family affair. As well as Nawaz Sharif’s daughter being leader, his brother Shehbaz Sharif is the leader of opposition in Parliament and a former chief minister of Punjab. He too is in jail, along with his son, Humza Sharif, another PML-N vice-president, on corruption and money laundering charges. The corruption cases against all these leaders were mostly instituted by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) well before Khan’s PTI came to power.

Corruption in Pakistan goes well beyond the usual politician-business nexus – politicians themselves are part of big business. The Sharifs own sugar and steel mills, the Zardari-Bhuttos have interests in the sugar industry and real estate, while Imram Khan’s PTI has been financed by sugar barons and the wheat mafia.

An interesting PDM player is the cleric Maulana Fazlur Rehman. He presides over a large chain of madrass as his father bequeathed to him, along with the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F). Although his party, like most religious political groupings of Pakistan, has small pockets of influence in Pashtun areas of Baluchistan and Kyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), Rehman brings thousands of students from his madrassasto PMD rallies.

In 2019, he led an Azadi March to Islamabad to demand Imran Khan’s resignation, and called off the agitation after 18 days due to insufficient support from the PML-N and PPP. However, pressure from the Azadi March led tothe PTI government, prompted by the army, allowing Nawaz Sharif, then in jail, to get four months bail for medical treatment in London. Since then, Sharif has skipped bail, living comfortably in Avenfield House, an apartment block in London’s expensive Park Lane. The graft charges against him also mentions these very apartments.

Imran Khan – surrounded as he is by politicians, many of whom were either with the PML-N or PPP, and supported in Parliament by equally opportunist political groupings – has miserably failed to deliver on his election pledges.  Food prices are skyrocketing – flour sells at Rs 65 a kg, sugar costs more than Rs 100 – while utility companies are slapping people with big gas and electricity bills. The economy is in dire straits, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, and discontent is growing. Pakistan was on the verge of defaulting on its foreign loans when the IMF released US$500 million to help the country overcome the crisis. AUS$2 billion sum sanctioned earlier was held back for non-compliance of IMF conditionalities.

The opposition leaders’ main problem has been Khan’s insistence on pursuing mega corruption cases through various government agencies, including the autonomous NAB, although the snail-paced justice process has hardly helped bring the culprits to justice.Khan’srefusal to permit Maryam Nawaz to join her father in London irked the father-daughter duo, who had initially maintained a studied silence.

Khan is struggling to maintain his grip on power

Fazlur Rehman, also facing money laundering and income-beyond-means cases, played an important role in bringing the two main opposition parties together to form the 11-party PDM. Rallies were held in different parts of the country where Nawaz Sharif, in video-taped speeches, attacked the army chief and ISI DG for bringing Imran Khan to power. Other leaders followed suit, while Fazlur Rehman brought his students to swell the crowds. Maryam emerged as a charismatic opposition leader, which did not go down well with Bilawal Bhutto, who has been the face ofthe PPP at these rallies.

When Nawaz Sharif proposed that all the PDM parties should resign from Provincial Assemblies and Parliament to create a constitutional crisis, resulting in fresh elections,the PPP – which has a government in Sindh, the second largest province – didn’t like the idea. With nothing to lose, JUI-F was only too keen on the resignations. Curiously enough, the refrain of the PDM has been that the military sack Imram Khan and install a national government comprising all political parties till fresh elections are held. Whether that’s a democratic demand is a moot point.

Things came to a head during the recent Senate election, a three-year cycle when half the members of the house retire and new members are elected. Imran Khan tried unsuccessfully to convince the Election Commission and the Supreme Court that the members of provincial assemblies and Parliamentvote by a show of hands instead of secret ballot. Buying legislators’ votes in these indirect elections is common in South Asian countries. The PDM scored a victory by defeating the PTI nominee, Finance Minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, despite him having a majority in the National Assembly. The opposition’s joint candidate , the PPP’s Yousaf Raza Gillani, a former Prime Minister, trounced Shaikh by five votes.

Amid demands that Khan should resign as he had lost his majority, he struck back and decided to immediately seek a trust vote. Khan won hands down. Those who had voted for Gillani switched sides to back the ruling coalition. Next was the election of the Senate chairman and deputy chairman and, despite being short of numbers in the upper house, the incumbent chairman and ruling coalition candidate, Sadiq Sanjrani, won by six votes against Gillani. Another upset for the PDM was the defeat of JUI-F’s Abdul Ghafoor Haideri by the PTI’sMirza Muhammad Afridi, who won as deputy chairman byten votes.

Now infighting has broken out within the PDM, with the PPP accusing the PML-N of betrayal and the Maulana unhappy with both parties. Publicly, they allege votes Gillani got were wrongly rejectedby improper stamping of ballots, and have approached the court. For its part, the government has approached the court seeking nullification of Gillani’s election on the grounds of horse-trading.

And the circus goes and on.

Richard Gregson is a freelance journalist currently based in Canada

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