The clock is ticking

THE events of last week have given a vicious twist to the ongoing power struggle between the ruling coalition and the PTI opposition, diminishing any hopes of the deadlock between the two sides being resolved through negotiations. Both the opposition and the government have hardened their respective positions.

While former prime minister Imran Khan has more than once warned of a plan to kill him, the ruling circles have vowed to take stern action against the PTI, describing the party as a “clique of militants trained by banned outfits”.

Over the past few weeks, PTI supporters have fought pitched street battles with the law-enforcement agencies in Lahore and Islamabad, successfully resisting all attempts to arrest Khan. The stand-off worsened after police personnel broke into Khan’s Lahore residence soon after he had left for Islamabad by road to attend the hearing in one of the cases against him.

In the aftermath of the violent clashes, scores of PTI activists are being arrested in a crackdown. The law-enforcement agencies have now been given a free hand to deal with the protesters. All this is happening just weeks before the Punjab Assembly elections that have been scheduled for April 30. It has only added to the prevailing political uncertainty.

In fact, it is becoming increasingly clear that the polls may not take place on the stipulated date in Punjab, while the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa governor has yet to give a time frame for the assembly polls due in the province.

Going by the statements of the leaders of the ruling alliance, it is possible that there is a move to outlaw the PTI. The civil and military leadership have reportedly agreed to deal strictly with the party for using force against the law-enforcement agencies.

In a strongly worded statement issued after a marathon meeting of the coalition leaders, followed by a huddle of the civil and military leadership, the government said, “Taking up arms against the state, targeting its officers and men” would not be tolerated by the state.

Any move to ban the PTI or arrest Imran Khan could push the country towards civil strife.

It is a clear signal that the government is preparing to resort to the coercive power of the state thus slamming shut the door of dialogue on the opposition. Some federal ministers have already declared that there was no question of talking to a ‘militant outfit’.

The PTI’s own belligerence has not helped matters either. Imran Khan’s increasingly aggressive tenor and his refusal to sit with the government politicians to resolve key political issues facing the country have also contributed to the current impasse.

In a surprise move, the government has summoned a joint session of parliament on Wednesday apparently to consider action against the PTI. But the decision by a truncated parliament will have no legitimacy.

Any repressive measure is likely to only intensify the confrontation and deepen polarisation. The former prime minister is already facing dozens of cases on charges ranging from terrorism to corruption to receiving illegal funding from foreign donors, in various parts of the country.

Not only would such intimidatory actions be counterproductive, they will also weaken the democratic political process in the country. Interestingly, the crackdown seems to have increased popular support for the former prime minister as demonstrated in recent opinion polls.

Khan’s popularity has catapulted in the past few months, taking him far ahead of all other political leaders, while the government’s incompetence and failure to deliver on critical policy issues have added to its growing unpopularity.

This political culture of reprisal is not new to us. And yet, our political leadership does not seem to have learned any lesson from the past and is stuck in the politics of revenge.

It is now Imran Khan’s turn to face persecution the same way that the previous opposition leaders did during his incomplete tenure. The noose seems to be tightening around the former prime minister and his party as the power game turns extremely ugly.

Yet any move to ban the party or arrest Imran Khan could vitiate the political atmosphere further and push the country towards civil strife, thus completely destroying whatever is left of the democratic political process.

The use of violence and attacks on law-enforcement agencies by PTI activists is certainly deplorable and action must be taken against those involved. But a political party cannot be outlawed for those actions. The allegations of a banned militant group being involved with the PTI in the violence must be investigated. But it still does not provide any justification to list arguably the most popular political party in the country as a militant outfit.

Any attempt to uproot one of the largest political parties in the country from the political process will have serious consequences. A weak dispensation with a diminishing mandate will not be able to control the situation in the face of a popular backlash and widespread violence.

With a dysfunctional parliament and persisting political deadlock, the courts have now become the main battleground for the warring sides. But judges playing the role of arbiter on political disputes has its own perils, making the judiciary appear controversial and further eroding the rule of law.

With every state institution now becoming controversial, the writ of the state has been eroded. It is extremely worrying that the ongoing political power struggle has sharpened the clash of institutions, raising fears of a systemic collapse.

While the civil and military leadership have reportedly agreed to hold elections to the national and provincial assemblies simultaneously, there is still no clarity about the time frame. It may be true that scattered provincial assembly polls will be extremely problematic and conducting all elections at the same time is much more convenient. But this idea must not be used to delay the polls.

A date for simultaneous elections must be decided on, with an agreement between the government and the opposition. Any unilateral decision could deepen the crisis.

What is happening now may not be unfamiliar to Pakistani politics that has remained stuck in a vicious cycle of vendetta, but the current chaos seems far more consequential, with the country on the verge of economic collapse. The clock is ticking but our power elite appear to be least troubled by the gathering storm.

The country’s fate is now hostage to a senseless power struggle between a reckless populist force and an obsolete conglomeration at the helm. With the democratic political process all but dead, the spectre of despotism is staring us in the face.

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