Pakistan: Time for a Timeout

Syed Sharfuddin

Nations are like human beings. They live, breath and develop. They also have their health scorecards. Sometimes they are low on energy, high on tempers and traumatised by shocking events in their history. At the end of the Ottoman empire a weak and truncated Turkey was known as the sick man of Europe.

Human beings don’t just get physically unwell; they also suffer from mental or nervous breakdowns in extreme circumstances. They get panic attacks or suffer from PTSD, phobias, manic depression, and extreme anxiety. When they experience any psychotic episode, they become physically uncontrollable, dangerous, suicidal, or totally incapacitated. The history of mental illness is as old as man himself. It has existed in every nation in every era irrespective of geographical location or social status.

Nations also go through similar phases in their bad times. In this state of collective malfunction of national mindset, their behaviour also becomes out of sync with rationality. Reason and law lose their meaning, and a frenzy takes over their leaders and peoples that drive them to do abnormal acts. In extreme circumstances they harm themselves with violence or attack others grievously, including committing crimes against humanity. When a nation experiences collective mental breakdown, the result is hate-speech and a desire to remove dissent by force, whatever it takes.

At their worst, nations in this sick state of mind have gone through genocides, civil wars, and ethnic cleansing. No country can claim exemption from this unwanted phenomenon. Germany experienced the holocaust of the Jews by the Nazis, Bosnia-Herzegovina saw killing fields of Muslims at the hands of Serbs, Rwanda witnessed its Tutsi and Hutu sons become sworn enemies, and Myanmar made its Rohgingya population alien in their own homeland. A ten year war lasted in Sri Lanka where two of its major ethic groups went on a killing spree that saw thousands of young men and women die before reaching their prime. The Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Sudan went through savage civil wars. In our own region, India and Pakistan suffered heavy losses of life and property in the bloody partition of 1947.

Revolutions are also a manifestation of this uncontrollable national behaviour which cannot be explained in rational terms. The French revolution, Iranian revolution and the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are examples of nations turning on themselves in recent history.

Like human beings, these breakdowns of nations do not happen suddenly. Their symptoms are largely written on the national billboard. It is only when the governing elites, the civilian administration, the military, and the elders of the nation, represented by religious or tribal leaders, civil society, media, lawyers, writers, and intellectuals continue to ignore these signs, that these build up like a volcano’s magma under the surface only to explode and cause damage one day. When a state fails to provide security, jobs, education, healthcare and food to its people; when warlords emerge in pockets of the state to establish their own authority apparently to fill in the breach; when NGOs start doing most of the work that governments are supposed to do for the welfare of their people; when state institutions start blaming each other for failure to perform and attempt to do the work that is not theirs; when the primary and secondary laws are amended to shelter the rich and punish those who are not from the same tribe as the rulers; and when corruption and immorality exceed their limits, the odds of that nation moving from normality to a mental breakdown are greater and imminent. However, states can retract themselves from such situations by reversing their path and putting the necessary measures in place in all the required niches to save themselves from exploding from within and causing a huge damage to their people and property with wounds that take decades to heal.

What Pakistan is witnessing today is a rapid march toward a state of mental breakdown of a nation that once stood tall and above its weight in the international community. Its leaders have been using hate speech with such vitriolic vigour that is appropriate only for sounding a war clarion. Its people are deeply divided politically. One side believes that the military establishment has imposed a corrupt cabal of rulers on the country, whose government rests on the razor thin support of smaller, coercible parties in the national parliament that was elected in 2018 with the establishment’s calculated manipulation, and whose term is now coming to an end. This side further believes that the present rulers do not have the good of the country at their heart except amassing wealth for themselves and for which they are even prepared to sell off Pakistan’s nuclear assets in return for a guarantee for Pakistan to stay afloat but only like Ukraine without its nuclear weapons.

The other side believes that the former prime minister whose election was itself dependent on the establishment’s goodwill indulged in corrupt and dishonest practices when he was in power, and who whipped up imaginary stories of regime change and establishment’s interference in his removal by a parliamentary vote of no confidence last year for his inaptitude and lack of performance. This group further claims that his charm and populist slogans have given him huge following in the country but if he returns to power again, he would make no progress in the country because he has no economic recovery programme, no team, and no friends overseas to give the much needed funds, because he has already lost his credibility with the powerful countries and institutions in the West whose support is crucial for Pakistan to overcome its current economic crisis.

The present National Assembly will complete its five years’ term in September this year and will need to be reconstituted with a fresh mandate from the people through a general election. All hopes are centred on whether the next elections will be held on time, or these will be held but will bring results that would cause a barrage of legal disputes on charges of rigging. This will start another chapter of instability and uncertainty in the country. Or the elections will be postponed on grounds of extreme polarisation and fear of violence. The chances of a free and fair election are unlikely this year because there is too much at stake for all political parties, and even for the country. If PTI does not get two third majority which it has announced several times as the outcome of the next poll, it will dispute the results and hold rival political parties and the military establishment responsible for rigging, thereby resulting in a judicial and de facto impasse.

If the ruling coalition contests PTI as an electoral alliance and does not win outright majority, it too will dispute the results blaming the establishment for taking a U turn and calling for recounts and repolling in many constituencies. Or it may win Sindh and Baluchistan legislatures and lose in Punjab and KPK, thereby throwing up the same situation as exists now in the strength of parties in the assemblies of these provinces. A coalition government will suit the establishment because such a government can never bring amendments in the laws to change the political status quo that helps the military to play the role of a power broker when important votes are called in the national assembly and senate on money bills and other national issues. It also gives the military establishment a degree of satisfaction for keeping a leash on politicians who cannot be trusted fully when in overwhelming majority.

All this is stuff of a normal democracy where political rivalries and disagreements are played out within the limits of its laws and political processes. However, the current situation in Pakistan is far from normal. Political parties and their supporters are directly pitched to the extent of eliminating each other if they can get away with it. The higher judiciary is divided within it ranks. One section of the judiciary backs the government’s constitutional interpretation on political decisions, but the other section thinks its actions are in violation of the constitution and beyond judicial tolerance. The military establishment is under severe pressure because, never in its history it has faced embarrassing criticism of its leadership from its own citizens.

The division runs deep throughout the entire body politic of the state where the civil society, media, lawyers, religious leaders, writers, youth and women groups are either supporting the coalition government blindly or condemning it blindly. In two provinces the caretaker governments have exceeded their 90-day mandate to hold elections of provincial assemblies in Punjab and KPK but are caught in issues of funding and administration of polls. It also makes little sense to hold these elections when the general election is only a couple of months away.

Before the next general election is announced by the election commission, there are dozens of court cases against Imran Khan. If he is convicted of corruption in any one of these cases, he can be disqualified from contesting the election. The judicial process will take much later than October to hear out the appeals against any disqualification. In the current scenario, general elections, even if held this year, will not change the ground reality, except that there will be more confusion when people find out that following a controversial election outcome, there is no constitutional way out of the impasse. Pakistan has gone through such gridlock before in 1971 and the outcome has not been a happy one to write in the book of Pakistan’s democratic evolution.

The current political and security situation in Pakistan is anything but normal. The threat from TTP from across the border in Afghanistan is very much live today at it was before the costly Zarb-e-Azb operation. What has happened this month is like a fantasy movie on Netflix. There has never been a precedent of Punjabi people attacking the official residences of corps commanders of their own Punjabi army in reaction to the arrest of Imran Khan. There is no precedent where a former Prime Minister who survives an attack on his life reads out in public the names of high level serving military officers as masterminds of his assassination. There has never been an instance where the parliament and high judiciary came to blows against each other in public. The election commission’s neutrality and authority is openly questioned by the very leaders who set it up when they were in power. There is also no precedent where the accountability institution of the country, headed by a retired military officer, uses the paramilitary wing of security instead of police to arrest a serving prime minister from inside the premises of the High Court. There are too many Ts that do not cross to deny that Pakistan is not going through stressful times.

In real life when abnormal behaviour is detected in a person, he is admitted in a health facility for his own good. The priority of the doctors is to calm him down, first by removing the cause of his irritation away, then by giving him psychotropic medication and if it fails, administering a mild electric shock for a nervous re-set. A nation going through a psychotic episode where facts are replaced by fantasy and personalities are being rated above national interest, needs immediate help. It needs to destress and take a break from every small thing that is causing discord and instability in the country not in a normal scale of things but at the height of emotionalism and manic proportions that affect all state institutions negatively. If it is not done on time, this vulnerable nation may experience a total burn out from within and walk into a suicide trap resulting in a breakdown of civic and administrative order. It can also become vulnerable to an attack by the outside enemy through cross border terrorism or naked aggression on its borders.

Rehabilitation and reconciliation take time. They are not like electric switches which can be pushed with a finger to bring the power on or off. States that experience mental breakdown or psychological trauma take years to heal. The time out period needs to be sufficiently long and quiet to allow the healing to take place slowly and kindly, without display of authority or coerced measures. In March 2022 the then corps commanders and the former army chief decided that the establishment will stary neutral and not interfere with the democratic process which was the domain of political parties and their elected representatives in parliament. To be honest, they seem to be firmly following this decision. But one should not forget that it is not an ordinary decision. The hands that were used to move levers of power over the head of government, or fix electoral results at a general election, or broker formation of coalition governments, or get their pound of flesh in return for upping politicians on the power ladder will take time to stop and get used to the new order.

It is only one year since the military establishment took the hard decision to keep away from the democratic process. It might take two or more years before the bipolar centres of political power at the level of the prime minister and head of army establishment cease to exist. It might take five years before a military chief becomes subordinate to a civilian minister of defence. It might take an equally long time before a truly independent judiciary, a parliament that is elected by the voters and not influenced by an undemocratic power broker or institution, an election commission that functions independently and is autonomous in its role, and an accountability bureau that functions as a neutral watchdog over all corrupt practices and persona, begin to play their constitutional role. Until that happens Pakistan needs to go into a voluntary internment to take time off and save itself from internal political discord and economic self-destruction.

The time off period should be at least two years to get back to a normal functioning democracy built on a non-controversial election and a friendly working relationship between the executive, parliament, and judiciary. The rights of speech and association in the constitution should be temporarily suspended during this period to promote tolerance and accommodation among all segments of the political divide. The general election due this year should be postponed for two years and the existing national assembly and provincial assemblies should continue with the membership of current incumbents in parliament plus all the PTI legislators who were elected in 2018 or subsequently in the bye elections but had resigned on the advice of Imran Khan in the hope of forcing an early election. PTI leadership and legislators should return to the national assembly as the opposition party.

There should be complete ban on everyone, including political leaders and parties from criticising any political party or political person whether in power at present or in the past by name in public. Only the floor of the parliament should be allowed for political speeches but verbal personal attacks and the criticism of other leaders even on the floor of the parliament should be banned. Only policies could be singled out for criticism with the use of proper parliamentary language. In these two years private media should be given a code of conduct which should promote national unity instead of reporting news that spreads confusion and despair and foments hatred against political leaders and state institutions. The election commission should disqualify those who violate this ban from taking part in next elections.

All public rallies where political flags or hoardings are displayed, or political speeches are made by politicians or non-politicians should be banned for two years. The media should be banned from covering the live reporting of proceedings in anti-corruption courts, anti-terrorism courts and higher judiciary proceedings until the final judgement is released by the courts. Any activity that raises the political temperature, causes division among public or cuts across national unity and harmony should be outlawed by the current parliament for two years.

As a sign of goodwill and participation in the national cooling off process, the military establishment should become genuinely invisible from civilian institutions, hold fewer press briefings from the platform of its public relations department, and act against those military officers who are found to finance, entertain, or influence elected representatives, politicians, and other civilian institutions clandestinely for achieving desired decisions or political outcomes. It will be a welcome step if the establishment itself takes another big decision to disband the political wing of its intelligence organisation and diverts its resources on fighting terrorists and anti-state elements within and outside the country.

The two years’ break to cool down temperature should also be used to give deadlines to the election commission to complete the work on voters’ lists and other arrangements required for holding truly free and fair elections in 2025; the country’s accountability bureau should dispose all cases of corruption involving politicians; and the courts should complete judgements on cases filed before them for redress of a political grievance or appeals against decisions of lower courts. The military should back the implementation of the apex court’s judgements and remain ready to assist in maintenance of law and order when requested to do so by the civilian government. During this period no agreements of far reaching consequences such as long term investment loans or issuance of long term bonds in the international markets should be signed with foreign investors by the federal or provincial governments, and no decisions should be taken that impact on the ability of the next government formed after the 2025 election to function freely without its hands tied. The view of the supreme court on what constitutes such decisions of long term impact should be final and binding on the incumbent government.

It is not difficult to reach a consensus on this package and pass a constitutional amendment with two third majority in the 2018 parliament with the opposition joining it again to give it legal effect, and the judiciary supporting the required curbs on fundamental freedoms for a set period of time. During President Musharraf’s time an elected parliament happily passed the military dictator’s LFO to make it a part of the constitution because necessity and prudence required it. In the past it was always the military that took the initiative to save the nation when it was at its weakest point. This time why can’t the politicians come forward to join the military establishment to administer the medicine this nation needs for its immediate healing!

11 May 2023






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