‘Coincidental’ Coalitions

It has been a season for coincidences. As many including myself have noted in the past few months, it seems quite convenient that in the aftermath of the Supreme Court judgment that disqualified Nawaz Sharif from the premiership on grounds of corruption (with the judgment itself inviting both confusion and criticism), the PML-N government has been beset with problems; in addition to the on-going investigations into corruption that seem to be ensnaring an ever-widening circle of PML-N stalwarts (some more justifiably than others), the sudden emergence of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Rasool Allah (TLY) and its dangerous mix of populism, religious bigotry, and agitation politics seems geared towards eroding the PML-N’s support on the Right, just as the unexpected reappearance of Tahir-ul-Qadri and his recently announced alignment with the PPP and the PTI represents yet another threat to the PML-N’s electoral prospects in 2018. Similarly, it is impossible not to wonder why after years of dormancy; the various religious parties that once came under the umbrella of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) would now seek to revive that formation sans the JUI-S, which has chosen instead to announce an electoral alliance with the PTI. A lot seems to be happening and while the defections, horse-trading, and coalition building that are taking place are only to be expected as we move closer to the general elections of 2018, there is some reason to suspect that there is more to what is taking place than meets the eye.

It is important to clarify that the PML-N has no one to blame but itself for much of the misfortune that has befallen it. While the party can point towards some ‘accomplishments’ – such as its investments in roads and public infrastructure in some of Punjab’s larger cities – much of what its government has achieved has either been due to favourable external circumstances, such as the windfall from early-harvest CPEC projects in the energy sector, or simply a consequence of how low the bar is set in Pakistan to begin with. At a broader level, the PML-N government’s current tenure has been marked by a fundamental inability to tackle issues such as rampant poverty, inadequate public service provision in areas like health and education, and widespread graft and nepotism in many of the infrastructural projects undertaken in the past decade. More significantly, the PML-N has not done much to strengthen democratic institutions, preferring to centralize power, suppress dissent and opposition (often in collusion with the security establishment), and, ironically enough given recent events, demonstrate considerable sympathy and tolerance for the very same religious parties and organizations that are now baying for the government’s blood. The PML-N was and is a right-wing party with dubious democratic credentials, and an interest in seeing the continuation and entrenchment of democracy in Pakistan should not mean providing parties and governments with carte blanche to do as they please once in power.

Nonetheless, the Opposition’s politicking around the PML-N’s problems cannot be seen as a simple and benign exercise in democratic accountability. There are two main reasons for this, the first of which has to do with the history of democratic transitions and consolidation in Pakistan. As was made abundantly clear during the 1990s, for example, the end of military rule in the country did not bring with it a corresponding decline in the influence wielded by the military establishment. Instead, as we now know for sure through, amongst other things, the proceedings of the Asghar Khan case in the Supreme Court in 2012, the military played a significant role in destabilizing and toppling civilian governments through a behind-the-scenes engagement with the political process that often entailed the cultivation of civilian allies within the opposition parties. This was not something new; as far back as the 1950s and the 1960s, entities like the Republican Party and the Convention Muslim League briefly winked into existence under very similar circumstances, representing motley collections of politicians willing to collaborate with the military in exchange for power and patronage. In this context, particularly given how the military’s response to the TLY’s recent sit-in in Islamabad was widely viewed as explicitly condoning that organizations aims and tactics, there is more than a little reason to believe that the sudden coalescing of disparate opposition groups around the aim of defeating the PML-N is much more orchestrated than it is coincidental. This view gains further credence from how otherwise marginal characters like Tahir-ul-Qadri can suddenly assume so much prominence in the months prior to an election. Given how the establishment has long been wary of consolidated and stable civilian parties and governments, it seems reasonable to remain sceptical about its demure disavowals of any interference in the political process.

Secondly, the very nature of the alliances being made raises troubling questions about the trajectory that will be taken by Pakistan’s politics in the years ahead. Consider how the PTI’s announcement of its alliance with the JUI-S provides yet more evidence of the party’s cynical rightward drift, with statements about Islamizing society and dealing with ‘khooni’ liberals playing right into the hands of the very forces of dogma and extremism that are tearing the country apart. Imran Khan and many in his party have long been suspected of simply presenting a more respectable face for religious bigotry, and the party’s latest actions only confirm this. Similarly, the PPP’s willingness to work with Tahir-ul-Qadri, a man who led a Long March against its government in 2013 as part of what was then seen as yet another establishment ploy to manipulate the elections held later that year, smacks of naked opportunism. It goes without saying that all of these alliances and configurations also underscore the ideological hollowness of Pakistan’s politics; amidst all the speechifying about corruption and justice, there is no mention of anything that pertains to actual governance, nor does there appear to be any grand vision or plan for dealing with the country’s myriad problems beyond empty rhetoric and meaningless clichés.

Those who defend the antics of the PTI, PPP, and other parties might argue that the PML-N must be knocked out of power at any cost, and that its challengers have the potential to bring about meaningful reform once they succeed at the ballot box. However, it is important to ask if the ends really justify the means. Does winning power, even if it is for achieving ostensibly admirable goals, legitimate and justify the machinations through which it is obtained? Do good intentions, if they exist at all, count for anything if those seeking public office can only do so by giving up on the very principles they ostensibly stand for? Is it even possible for noble ambitions to emerge unscathed from the grubby compromises and moral concessions that seem endemic to the pursuit of power in the Land of the Pure? If history and what we know about the current crop of political players is anything to by, the answer to all these questions is an unequivocal no.


The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.


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