This article was published in Dawn on February 24, 2019 and is available at the following link
When Pakistan’s two major political parties – Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)- signed the Charter of Democracy in 2006, naïve observers of the political scene believed that the era of bitter enmity in politics was over. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Since its inception, Pakistan has a bitter history of political enmity which has often resulted in the complete collapse of democracy. PMLN and PPP have fought pitched battles, rallying for blood in the misplaced hope that their opposition might be eliminated from the game.
In 1977, the predecessors of PMLN’s current leadership joined forces with military dictator General Zia ul Haq to oust and later send former Prime Minister and PPP founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to the gallows. This laid the foundations for a bitter enmity that survived the decades between the PMLN and PPP and saw the removal of Benazir Bhutto as PM in 1990 when PMLN and its allies joined hands with President Ghulam Ishaq Khan.
PPP in turn aligned with President Ishaq Khan to have PMLN’s Nawaz Sharif sacked as PM in 1993. Benazir Bhutto was sacked as PM for the second time in 1996 when President Farooq Leghari got the tacit support of the PMLN. Each party when in power, used the pretext of accountability to hound its opponents and put them behind bars, a convoluted political witch-hunt and long drawn out process of political victimization.
The vicious cycles of revenge and counter-revenge continued till 1999 when General Pervez Musharraf staged a coup against PM Nawaz Sharif, in a move initially welcomed by Benazir Bhutto.
Musharraf was successful in breaking the PMLN up to win the support of its sizeable chunk and it was at this point that both PMLN and PPP, pitted against a common enemy, began a wilful repentance of past mistakes. This resulted in the 2006 Charter of Democracy to end the political feud between them and since 2008, both parties showed a marked improvement in their ability to recognize each other’s mandates without trying to dislodge the opponent’s government, barring some exceptions.
The outrage and bitterness generated during the PTI dharna against the PMLN government in 2014 and in the subsequent run-up to the 2018 election shows few signs of subsiding even after the PTI has come to power.
Ahmed Bilal Mehboob
This was a primary reason why the PPP-led federal government completed its 5-year term from 2008 to 2013 while the PMLN ruled the largest province, Punjab. Although PPP did attempt to dislodge the PMLN provincial government, better sense soon prevailed. Similarly, PMLN’s federal government was able to complete its 5 year term from 2013-18 while PPP ruled in Sindh and PTI in Khyber-Paktunkhwa. This political maturity, and the ability to co-exist with rival parties despite ideological differences led to some optimism that the politics of aggressive enmity were over.
Sadly however, they seem to have made a come-back with a vengeance after the last election. The outrage and bitterness generated during the PTI dharna against the PMLN government in 2014 and in the subsequent run-up to the 2018 election shows few signs of subsiding even after the PTI has come to power. Lessons from the bitter PMLN-PPP confrontations of the last three decades stand entirely forgotten. In fact, the opposition staged a noisy protest in the National Assembly on the very day Imran Khan was elected Prime Minister and set a thorny stage for all future government-opposition relations.
Pakistan’s parliament has been largely unable to function because the crucial working relationship between ruling and opposition parties has broken down. The recent hard-hitting speech of Shehbaz Sharif vitiated the atmosphere further. PTI hot-heads have publicly vowed to dislodge the PPP Government in Sindh despite PPP’s comfortable majority there. The recent arrest of Sindh Assembly Speaker is also being interpreted as an effort to push PPP legislators to switch sides.
Although the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) has arrested a senior provincial minister of PTI as well, it does appear to be in overdrive largely arresting senior opposition politicians. Furthermore, contrary to the norms of democracy, the PTI government did not invite opposition leaders to the banquets hosted for the Saudi crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman last weekend.
Little do Pakistan’s quarrelling politicians realise that democracy is simply not designed to work in an environment of enmity and old-fashioned tribal feuds. Will the parties at each other’s throats re-learn the lessons of the past or do we have to wait around for another few decades and a coup to see them sign another charter of democracy?