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  • Writer's pictureSaleem Qamar Butt

Pakistani Politics: A Review

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” ~Albert Einstein.

The subject article recapitulates the tumultuous history of Politics in Pakistan, which may help the worthy readers to cognize the current political chaos in the country and guesstimate as to where it is headed to. Let’s begin with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto whose refusal to accept Mujib-ur-Rehman’s electoral victory in December 1970’s free and fair elections (AL 167 versus PPP 86 including 62 from Punjab), resulted in creation of Bangladesh and most humiliating surrender of the Army to India in December 1971. Subsequently, General Yahya Khan turned the government over to Bhutto on December 20, 1971. Bhutto placed his predecessor under house arrest, nationalized several key industries, and undertook the taxation of the landed families in his first acts as president. After the new constitution (1973) made the presidency largely ceremonial, Bhutto became prime minister. In both capacities, he had also filled the cabinet posts of foreign affairs, defense, and interior. His government, retaining martial law, began a process of Islamisation but intensified the socialism with a vengeance. First and foremost, the nationalisation program was carried out to centralise the large-scale industries, private-sector and commercial corporation to set up the strong state sector. Resentment and heavy disapproval came from the elite corporate sector and PPP intensified its public programs in social circles. Although the general elections were to be held in half of 1977, Bhutto made a move and called for holding the general elections on 7 January 1977. Early calls for the elections was an idea to not to given time to the opposition to make decisions and arrangements for the forthcoming elections. Immediately after the announcement, Bhutto started his election campaign and began allotting party tickets to the party's candidates.

Sensing the difficulty of facing PPP alone, the conservative mass began to consolidate when Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan contacted the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) and Tehrik-e-Istaqlal. The Pakistan National Alliance (PNA), was a populist and consolidated right-wing political alliance, consisting of nine political parties of the country. Formed in 1977, the country's leading right-wing parties agreed upon to run a political campaign as a single bloc against the left oriented PPP in the 1977 general elections. PNA initially called for ending the era of stagflation in the country and its manifesto was to bring back the 1970 prices. On social views, the implementation of Islam was its primary election slogan. They promised to enforce Islamic laws "Nizam-e-Mustafa" and the Sharia laws. Despite each party standing with a different ideology, PNA was noted for its large physical momentum and its right-wing orientation, originally aimed to oppose Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and the PPP. Despite its right-wing populist agenda, the alliance performed poorly in the 1977 general election and levelled accusations of rigging the elections. The government was seized by Gen. Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, the army chief of staff, on July 5, 1977. Soon afterward Bhutto was imprisoned. He was sentenced to death (March 18, 1978) on the charge of having ordered the assassination of a political opponent in 1974; after an appeal to a higher court, Bhutto was hanged on 4th April 1979, despite appeals for clemency from several world leaders. By 1978, PNA met its end when parties diverged in each of its agenda. The left-wing parties later would form the MRD alliance under PPP to oppose President Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s and the right-wing forming the IDA alliance under PML.

Benazir Bhutto (21 June 1953 – 27 December 2007) served as the 11th and 13th prime minister of Pakistan from 1988 to 1990 and again from 1993 to 1996. She was the first woman elected to head a democratic government in a Muslim-majority country. Ideologically a liberal and a secularist, she chaired or co-chaired the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) from the early 1980s until her assassination in 2007. She returned to Pakistan in 1977, shortly before her father was ousted in a military coup and executed. Bhutto and her mother Nusrat took control of the PPP and led the country's Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD); Bhutto was repeatedly imprisoned by General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq's military government and then self-exiled to Britain in 1984. She returned in 1986; and transformed the PPP's platform from a socialist to a liberal one, before leading it to victory in the 1988 election. As Prime Minister, her attempts at reform were stifled by conservative and Islamist forces, including President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and the powerful establishment. Her administration was accused of corruption and nepotism and dismissed by G.I Khan in 1990.

The Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) was a right-wing conservative alliance formed in September 1988 to oppose the democratic socialist Pakistan People’s Party in elections that year. The alliance comprised nine parties, of which the major components were the Pakistan Muslim League (PML), National People’s Party (NPP), Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), with PML accounting for 80% of the IJI's electoral candidates. Allegedly, the Intelligence Agency, under director General Hamid Gul, had a major role in forming the right-of-center political alliance. Care had been taken to ensure that the alliance comprised nine parties to generate comparison with the nine-party Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) that had campaigned against PPP in 1977. The head of the party was Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, but its most resourceful leader was Nawaz Sharif, a budding industrialist with humble background whom Zia-ul-Haq had appointed chief minister of Punjab. Sharif was vying for control of the Pakistan Muslim League, which was headed at that time by former Prime Minister Muhammad Khan Junejo. It won only fifty-three seats in the National Assembly, compared with ninety-two won by the PPP. Most IJI seats were won in Punjab. Nawaz Sharif emerged from the 1988 elections as the most powerful politician outside the PPP. In December 1988, he succeeded in forming an IJI administration in Punjab and became the province's chief minister. It was from this power base that he waged the political battles that eventually led to his becoming prime minister in 1990. In the supercharged atmosphere of the 1990 elections, the electorate surprised observers. Neither the IJI nor the PPP was expected to come up with a firm mandate to rule. Yet the IJI received a strong mandate to govern, winning 105 seats versus forty-five seats for the Pakistan Democratic Alliance (PDA), of which the PPP was the main component in the National Assembly. Opposition groups alleged large scale selective rigging of seats to not just ensure an IJI victory but also prevent those opposed to establishment’s influence from being elected.

In the 1993 national elections, the IJI coalition no longer existed to bring together all the anti-PPP forces. The religious parties expended most of their energies trying to form a workable electoral alliance rather than bolstering the candidacy of Nawaz Sharif, the only person capable of challenging Benazir Bhutto. After the IJI government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was also dismissed on corruption charges, Bhutto led the PPP to victory in the 1993 elections. In her second term, she oversaw economic privatisation and attempts to advance women's rights. Her government was damaged by several controversies, including the assassination of her brother Murtaza, a failed 1995 coup d'état, and a further bribery scandal involving her and her husband Asif Ali Zardari; in response, President Farooq Leghari dismissed her government. The PPP lost the 1997 election and in 1998 she went into self-exile, living between Dubai and London for the next decade. A widening corruption inquiry culminated in a 2003 conviction in a Swiss court. Following the United States–brokered negotiations with President Pervez Musharraf, she returned to Pakistan in 2007 to compete in the 2008 elections; her platform emphasized civilian oversight of the military and opposition to growing Islamist violence. After a political rally in Rawalpindi, she was assassinated. The Salafi jihadi group al-Qaeda claimed responsibility, although the involvement of the Pakistani Taliban and rogue elements was widely suspected.

Founding the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in 1996, Imran Khan won a seat in the National Assembly in the 2002 general election, serving as an opposition member from Mianwali until 2007. PTI boycotted the 2008 general election and became the second-largest party by popular vote in the 2013 general election. In the 2018 general election, running on a populist platform, PTI became the largest party in the National Assembly, and formed a coalition government with independents with Khan as prime minister. The Chairman PTI served as the 22nd prime minister of Pakistan from August 2018 until April 2022. As prime minister, Khan addressed a balance of payments crisis with bailouts from the International Monetary Fund. He presided over a shrinking current account deficit, and limited defence spending to curtail the fiscal deficit, leading to some general economic growth. He enacted policies that increased tax collection and investment. His government committed to a renewable energy transition, launched the Ehsaas Programme and the Plant for Pakistan initiative, and expanded the protected areas of Pakistan. He presided over the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused economic turmoil and rising inflation in the country, and threatened his political position. Amid a constitutional crisis, Khan became the first prime minister to be removed from office through a no-confidence motion in April 2022. In August, he was charged under anti-terror laws after accusing the police and judiciary of detaining and torturing an aide.

In November 2022, he survived an assassination attempt during a political rally in Wazirabad, Punjab.

Just like its predecessors i.e. PNA and IJI, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), a coalition of 13 political parties in Pakistan, was founded in September 2020 as a movement against then prime minister Imran Khan, accusing his regime of poor governance, political victimization of opponents, and mismanaging the economy and foreign policy. The struggle was also joined by several dissident/ thrown out members of Khan's own party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). On 10 April 2022, the coalition succeeded to oust Khan through a no-confidence motion, after which the PDM formed its own government, choosing the opposition leader Shahbaz Sharif as the country's prime minister (as IJI had enabled his elder brother Nawaz Sharif to become CM in 1988 and PM in 1990).

On 9th May 2023 Khan was arrested on alleged corruption charges at the High Court in Islamabad, which sparked unprecedented public outrage and anti-military riots all over the country with some mobsters indulging in destroying a Corps Commander House in Lahore and disgusting desecration of some memorials erected around cantonments in remembrance of Ghazi and shaheeds of past wars. That inanity on the part of some over-charged workers made it Waterloo for IK/PTI and it subsequently helped the PDM regime to unleash a massive propaganda and unprecedented highhandedness against PTI leadership to dismantle the party as a whole. Consequently, PTI stands splintered, badly mauled and isolated with its Chairman Khan facing almost 150 seemingly politically motivated charges. Whether Khan can survive the storm by facing all the charges lodged against him through fair judicial process, or get disqualified from politics, face imprisonment or even worse than that, only time will tell. The rumour mills spin out offers to IK to accept escape to a foreign land and live there happily and wait for the tide to turn and return at an opportune time just like Nawaz Sharif, Benazir Bhutto or Asif Ali Zardari; otherwise, accept the bravest Socrates’ choice and live in the history forever. However, “man proposes, God disposes".

To conclude, suffice to say that democratic process in Pakistan has been repeating the same experiments again and again expecting different results in vain. It has remained one step forward and two steps backward or same old wine in new bottles. The PDM government and allies (especially the PMLN and PPP) are more prone to disintegration like predecessors and resort to old cut throat competition as soon as general elections are announced with PTI probably out of the game and Nawaz Sharif and other convicted politicians getting reprieve by due amendments in the national law to return to national politics; a beaten track of course. The sale and purchase of so called electable/ turncoats continues unabatedly and unashamedly as always with most fairweather birds joining the newly created runaway Tareen group followed by PPP, that is bound to upset PMLN.

Thus the powerful ruling elite remains above the law, the executive and especially the military establishment and judiciary remain targets of harsh criticism for conforming to the exploitation of the powerful ruling elite blowing hot and cold, the public keeps getting crushed gasping for basic human needs like affordable food, energy, shelter, health facilities, clean air and water, education, job opportunities, etc. The land of pure keeps teetering on the brink of total economic default, and serious security crises from within and from outside. The only hope is if the judges could speak fairly only through their timely decisions and the establishment could ensure holding free and fair elections without further delay with equal playing field for all; a wish hard to fancy. The fact remains, that a powerful and stable Pakistan under a bold and dynamic leadership seems a distant dream seeing the fate of Liaqat Ali Khan, Fatima Jinnah, Z.A. Bhutto, General Zia-ul-Haq, Benazir Bhutto and now Imran Khan facing similar circumstances, thanks to external desires, conspiracies and domestic connivance. The examples of Umar Mukhtar, Haider Ali, Tipu Sultan, King Faisal, Saddam Hussain, and Qaddafi also need to be remembered; however, Bashar-al-Assad, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Mahathir Muhammad provide a glimmer of hope. “Our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings”~.

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