System stalled

A precarious crossroad 

Flashing newspaper headlines; news channel tickers, all suggest a scenario most unwanted. Pakistan’s economy, politics and social fabric seem to be on the verge of a massive stall, if not an ultimate collapse. Gossip of divisions within any institution and amongst the institutions are commonplace in face-to-face conversations or WhatsApp groups. People engaged in the conversations on the sidelines of a social gathering or at the workplace; do not hide their political affiliations or sympathies.

As the current analysis is being finalized, the constitutional debate over the holding of elections or otherwise might have taken any decisive turn or otherwise. Whatever might be the outcome, the stalling of the system has created unprecedented polarization in the society.

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The only silver lining for Pakistan seems a supra dialogue initiative. There is no room for kings and followers in the current scenario either. Maybe a Magna Carta is to be encouraged amongst all the prime stakeholders, political parties, men of arms and the men of statutory scripts to take the battered nation-state out of the spin or stall it is in. Conclusively, the only other road available leads to anarchy and civil breakdown

That is not something of a scenario among the poor and lower middle classes only. The elite, upper middle affluent or the proper middle income groups; the battle lines are so starkly defined that it gives a frightening semblance of what US President Bush said in the prelude to the invasion of Afghanistan; “you are either with us or against us”.

The latest manifestation of the stall is the growing concern among the common people that the electoral process since 2008, which has miraculously followed the five years’ timeline; with no abrupt dissolution of assemblies might be disrupted in 2023; otherwise an election year. Despite the fact that the society is deeply divided along political narratives and no one is ready to give the other one a space for dialogue or discussion, uncertainty generated as the result of election confusion is practically hurting the chances of any economic recovery.

Students of economics would agree to the fact that continued political uncertainty is a killer to any sound investment decision. Economic growth is not what routine consumption is; rather its paramount reflection is that people have enough to eat and the fact that they have the purchasing power to consume and save too for the harder days. The current situation is that saving function in society has shrunk. People are literally consuming their savings now to stay afloat without asking anyone for help.

Until any investment scenario can be thought over, the economic slowdown is likely to stay. The political stalemate created out of nowhere after successful five-year electoral process iterations since 2008 has literally bombed out an otherwise smooth experience of democratic polity. The stalemate now as it is, potentially helps the key players create a narrative that Pakistan is passing through a ‘very precarious situation’ which ‘warrants taking equally extraordinary decisions’. That willingness of the key decision makers of the system to prolong the crisis, allow polarization of the society; can be a recipe for civil war, but not any return to normalcy and consequent economic growth.

Here it is important to note that, despite misgiving about the system on the streets; no serious effort is being made by the deep state or the front men to address the despair in the minds of people. The approach towards the issues in hand has been a ‘repressive response’. Generally, an air is being created where conformity to the ‘official narrative’ is the guarantee of a person being accorded the rights as enshrined for a Pakistani in the 1973 Constitution. Any deviation from that path can land the person in trouble; for whatsoever reasons.

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The situation invariably resembles the one witnessed by the political historians and observers in the decade of 1970s and 1980s. The fall from grace of the PPP was followed by polarization encouraged at the highest level of decision-making. A general atmosphere of fear was instilled in a manner that people would think twice before expressing themselves. The political process was held in suspension under one pretext or another.

It was a general comparison during the early 1980s that while a neighbouring country like Iran; fresh from a revolution in 1979 , facing credible external threats on its western borders; internally facing armed insurrection; losing office bearers and leaders in deadly bomb explosions; was able to hold electoral processes. Yet at the same time, the key decision makers in Pakistan, despite being on the right side of international camp following, were at pains to argue that the electoral process could not be staged at any cost.

It was not until 1985, when a defanged political process was allowed to operate; tuned to offer the desired results to the then incumbent dictatorship. Pakistan is still reeling from that staged process. That process in fact threw up a generation of political leaders whose only qualification has been financial capital and not political capital. That financial capital has been an asset for the powers to be since then.

Coming back to the on ground situation, the polarization in the Supreme Court could have been a normal practice in a normal polity; in Pakistan. Now, it is a silent indicator that going forward, the situation might take a turn, under the name of law of necessity or expediency, that elections can be delayed or put on hold under the pretext of economic reform.

History however reflects otherwise. In 1971, a similar situation was addressed and the leadership in what was remaining of Pakistan (West Pakistan), the 1970 elections elected the PPP government, the finance minister devalued the rupee in May 1972. Again in 1993, the caretaker PM Moeen Qureshi left the country after holding 1993 elections, leaving the succeeding government; again the PPP under Benazir Bhutto to move forward the economic reform roadmap.

For a country like Pakistan, which has gone from strides during its 75 years of existence, despite all the imperfections, having achieved some benchmarks in political development; it is a tragic development, where regimentation of the society is being encouraged. Further lamentable is the fact that divisions in opinion are being ruthlessly exploited to create a narrative, which suits the proverbial ‘stalling’ of the system. One of the likely scenarios can be where electoral laws are framed in a manner that a particular cadre is allowed to contest the elections. Consequently, a desirable lot is then allowed to be elected in an equally showcase parliament.

To finetune the political stalemate and its fallout on the economic situation; it is a rational argument; save an objective debate on the same that economic activity encouraged at various tiers is the key to the way out. Here Pakistan can learn from the Greek experience with default starting from 2009 and culminating into a full-blown default in 2015, when despite all the economic emergency; where even banks had to be bailed out, elections were held and a left-of-centre government elected, and allowed to form a ‘civilian’ government. That government oversaw the negotiations and the gradual return to normalcy. The PM during that period still retains his political capital and holds the seat of the leader of opposition in a civilized democracy.

Likewise, the Thai and Turkish economies and polities too have been afflicted with systemic contradictions, which Pakistan has faced through much of its existence as a nation-state. However, at no point, there has been an attempt to stall the system. If for the Turkish deep state Necmettin Erbakan was ‘too much’, the system still had the face in civilian clothing, BB’s contemporary Turkish politician and one-time PM Tansu Ciller.

Here, the only silver lining for Pakistan seems a supra dialogue initiative. There is no room for kings and followers in the current scenario either. Maybe a Magna Carta is to be encouraged amongst all the prime stakeholders, political parties, men of arms and the men of statutory scripts to take the battered nation-state out of the spin or stall it is in. Conclusively, the only other road available leads to anarchy and civil breakdown.


Naqi Akbar
Naqi Akbar
The writer is a freelance columnist


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