Pakistan’s Democratic Opening?
Dr Yatharth Kachiar, Research Associate, VIF

Pakistan’s opposition parties under the banner of Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) have unleashed a direct attack on Imran Khan Government and its military backers. After two rallies in Gujranwala and Karachi by PDM, Pakistan’s hybrid regime is feeling the heat of pro-democratic protests in the country. The recent humiliation meted out to Karachi IG Mushtaq Mahar by Sindh Rangers- a federal institution answerable to Interior Ministry- indicates the recklessness with which the Imran Khan government is undermining the institutions within the country. At the same time, it reinforced the three-time former PM Nawaz Sharif’s claim that the Pakistan army has created a ‘state within a state’.1

Karachi incident

As the reports indicate, “rangers had abducted the Sindh IG and taken him to a sector commander’s office where he was forced to issue arrest orders” for Captain Mohammed Safdar.2 Consequently, Sindh police forcibly entered the hotel room in Karachi to arrest Capt. Safdar where he was staying with his wife, Maryam Nawaz. The subsequent arrest of PML-N leader retired Captain Mohammed Safdar, son-in-law of former PM Nawaz Sharif and husband of PML-N vice President Maryam Nawaz, proves the dismal state of the rule of law in Pakistan.

The apparent reason for the arrest is an FIR filed against Capt. Safdar, Maryam Nawaz and their supporters for breaching the “sanctity of the Quaid-i-Azam’s mausoleum, and damaging government property”.3 In protest against the disgraceful treatment inflicted on IG Sindh by Pakistani rangers, the police force of Pakistan’s second-largest province announced en-masse leaves. Although later, the police officers in Karachi deferred their leaves, the ugly showdown between the law-enforcement agencies in Sindh indicates an alarming situation towards which Pakistan is heading.4

Opposition Unity

At present, the unity achieved by the opposition parties in Pakistan under the PDM is a considerable achievement for democracy in the country. In the last two years, there have been anti-government protests in Pakistan. However, in previous protests, the opposition could not unite to challenge the incompetency of the PTI government. In this regard, the PDM alliance is a laudable attempt by the opposition to restore the democracy in Pakistan. A healthy opposition is a prerequisite for any functional democracy, and perhaps the unity achieved under PDM is what threatened the undemocratic forces in Pakistan. The PDM leaders have alleged that the arrest of retired Capt. Safdar in Karachi was an attempt by the Imran Khan government to plot a split within the PDM alliance.5

PM’s Silence and Army Chief’s Intervention

In the whole episode, what is most unfathomable is the silence of Prime Minister Imran Khan especially when there is an involvement of Sindh rangers, a federal institution that reports directly to the interior ministry of Pakistan. It was after an appeal by PPP leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari that Pakistan Army Chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa took cognizance of the matter and ordered an enquiry to determine if the uniformed law-enforcement agencies in Sindh crossed their institutional authority.

Undoubtedly, the intervention by the Army Chief is a face-saving move to avert further escalation. At the same time, it indicates the precariousness of the situation in the country where an opposition leader has to appeal to the army chief against the blatant use of institutions- the federal paramilitary force, i.e. Sindh rangers, for political ends. Unsurprisingly, the opposition parties have tabled a resolution in the Senate demanding the formation of a Senate committee to probe the Karachi incident.6

Reshaping the National Discourse


The ongoing democratic movement in Pakistan is slowly reshaping the national discourse in the country by directly challenging the supremacy of the army in politics. Although Pakistan has seen many face-offs between military rulers and democratic forces, what makes present movement exceptional is its attempt to create a debate on the role of the army-a taboo subject- inthe public sphere. Many issues confront Pakistan today such as growing economic crisis, rising unemployment and disparity, enforced disappearances, narrowing space for civil liberties. Any genuine debate and discussion on these issues are not possible without confronting the hegemonic status of the army and its top echelons in Pakistan. Previously, it was primarily leaders from marginalized ethnic groups, such as Balochs or Pashtuns, who have raised the issue of the preponderance of Pakistan military and its human rights abuses against its citizens.

In this regard, Nawaz Sharif’s fiery speech at Gujranwala rally is the first attempt by a mainstream Pakistani politician from Punjab to strike at the root-cause of illiberal nature of democracy in Pakistan. In his speech, Nawaz Sharif opened new vistas for democratic debate and discussion in the country by challenging the army’s controversial role in various issues. For example, he regretted the framing of Mujbir-ur-Rehman, the founder of Bangladesh, a traitor in the 1960s. In straightforward terms, former PM of Pakistan stated that the accusations of treason pushed Mujbir-ur-Rehman towards hard separatism which eventually culminated into the formation of Bangladesh. In this respect, the PDM rallies are continually challenging the prevalent discourse in the country. Other opposition leaders also criticized the army and its interference in politics although not as bluntly as Nawaz Sharif. It is crucial to mention that unlike Nawaz Sharif, the other opposition leaders have not yet burned their bridges with the army.

Conclusion

Until now, the Imran Khan government has used the “anti-state” and “Indian hand” card to malign Nawaz Sharif and discredit the whole movement. In any case, the PTI government does not possess many viable options to subdue the protests across the country. As an analyst observes, “the decline of the Khan government is indeed phenomenal. It has failed on almost every front. That has provided the opposition with a very favourable situation to launch an offensive.”7 It is crucial to mention that outside PDM’s umbrella as well; there are already a series of mass protests taking place in Islamabad, Balochistan, and Sindh. The declining economy and rising unemployment have fuelled these protests. If Pakistan military continues to back the ineffective Imran Khan government at a time when all the major political forces are rallying against it, then it will be pushing the country towards greater political, economic, and social instability. But perhaps that is what the generals in Rawalpindi are aiming at- a perfect prelude for Pakistan army to wield direct power in Islamabad yet again.

Endnotes
  1. Nawaz Sharif Full Speech at Gujranwala PDM Jalsa, BBC NEWS, 17 October 2020, URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=acRb518_-aQ
  2. CaptSafdar’s arrest, Dawn, 21 October 2020, URL: https://www.dawn.com/news/1586183
  3. Ibid
  4. A police force undermined, Dawn, 22 October 2020, URL: https://www.dawn.com/news/1586410/a-police-force-undermined
  5. ISI, Rangers take orders from the PM: PML-N's Abbasi on Safdar's arrest, Dawn, 22 October 2020, URL: https://www.dawn.com/news/1586441/isi-rangers-take-orders-from-the-pm-pml-ns-abbasi-on-safdars-arrest
  6. Opposition tables resolution demanding constitution of Senate panel to probe 'Karachi incident', Dawn, 22 October 2020, URL: https://www.dawn.com/news/1586463/opposition-tables-resolution-demanding-constitution-of-senate-panel-to-probe-karachi-incident
  7. A precarious situation, Dawn, 21 October 2020, URL: https://www.dawn.com/news/amp/1586187

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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