Politics in Pakistan may finally have grown up
And so it has come to pass; a radically altered political landscape in Pakistan, a new party in power, a new government in the making and a new charismatic leader – Imran Khan – for whom the triumph at the polls on the road to becoming prime minister crowns a tenacious 25-year personal struggle.
The defining election slogan was “Naya [new] Pakistan” by Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI). But is a “Naya Pakistan” really here to stay? Or, burdened by expectations of comprehensive change, are the tectonic shifts in the political landscape setting it up for failure? This is the question agitating Pakistan’s sleepless army of intelligentsia, media and twitterati.
Notwithstanding the allegations of rigging and other controversies, there is some cause for optimism. Governed in equal measure by representative political classes and an unrepresentative political military for the past seven decades, Pakistan has mostly been occupied by a struggle for civilian supremacy over a stifling unitary military doctrine to accommodate its myriad political, nationalist, ethnic, linguist, religious and cultural pluralisms, identities and aspirations.
Elections are the best way to cement this and Pakistan’s fourth election in two decades completed the longest stretch without direct military rule. It is also the first time two civilian governments have completed their five-year tenures back to back. If the new government repeats the feat, Pakistan will have had the longest period of representative democracy not interrupted by martial law. Another cause for optimism.
It’s not just the unceasing civil-military struggle that defines Pakistan’s politics. Within the political classes there is fierce competition on ideologies, geographies and policies. Should Pakistan have a secular dispensation, or should it be nationalistic? Or should religion define the country’s mission statement? Should the country continue employing national, ethnic and linguistic templates of governance or administrative approaches to provincial self-governance?
These questions have turned politics into a blood sport. A frustrating lack of consensus resulted in the break-up of 1971, the inability to improve governance through political reforms by carving out additional provinces, and an inability to focus more on governance than religion, which resulted in religious extremism and terrorism killing over 100,000 in recent years and a tanking economy dependent on donor bailouts.
Rather than pursue separate agendas, the opposition will serve as a collective watchdog on PTI to force it to implement its reform agenda in full.
And yet, due to unprecedented democratic continuity, political and economic stability have improved dramatically compared to the last century, and political forces have found themselves resolving these hitherto intractable problems at the broader level.
There has been massive decentralization of powers to the provinces under the 2010 Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, beefed up economic empowerment of the provinces through greater redistribution of national revenues to them, a consensus on merging the troubled tribal areas into the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, a raft of electoral reforms and a broader agreement among key political forces to carve out new provinces as independent administrative units from the Punjab province, which is a political behemoth that otherwise dominates national parliament and therefore all policymaking. And now the elections have thrown up centrist and progressive parties in power and sidelined religious groups and extremist agendas.
Imran Khan and the PTI have secured a mandate at the national level and in three of Pakistan’s four provinces on an agenda of change that is rich in radical economic reforms and social development. For once, the losing parties of Bilawal Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, Asfandyar Wali and Fazlur Rehman have banded together into an “opposition-with-facilitation.” Rather than pursue separate agendas, they will serve as a collective watchdog on PTI to force it to implement its reform agenda in full. This is unprecedented for Pakistan and represents a continuing upward spiral of collective political maturity.
PTI’s electoral majorities may be wafer thin, and the numbers of the combined opposition parties almost equal to Imran’s, but in keeping with the mandate for change, Pakistan’s political forces have the near-perfect opportunity to consolidate reforms, strengthen democracy, and, most importantly, sustain the momentum for a Naya Pakistan that jettisons its weary past in favor of politically progressive new beginnings.
• Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science. Twitter: @adnanrehmat1