Academics across the country are receiving threats from unknown numbers and anonymous callers. At least one, Ammar Jan, has been removed from his position at Punjab University for his efforts to raise the political and social awareness of his students. In a similar and not unrelated set of developments; the media is slowly but surely being muzzled; at least one news network has been taken off the air without any official announcement or decision, columnists are being censored, and blackouts on the coverage of certain ‘sensitive’ events and movements have been imposed by unknown quarters. In the background, the political machinations of the past few months continue unabated; the courts continue to extend the limits of their jurisdiction in matters that many would argue rightly lie in the domain of the executive and legislature, horse-trading and apparently engineered defections are destabilising the mainstream political parties, and efforts to eliminate the Sharifs and the PML-N as viable electoral forces proceed unabated.
It has been clear for some time now that all is not well in the Land of the Pure. Amidst the triumphant narrative of progress and development pushed forward by the state and establishment, focusing on the economic divided to be yielded by CPEC as well as a broader reduction in violence and militancy throughout the country, there are troubling signs indicating turbulent times ahead. The assaults on universities and the media, for example, are nothing less than an attack on free expression and thought, ham-fisted attempts to silence the few critical voices that are unafraid to ask uncomfortable questions that the powers-that-be wish to avoid answering. Similarly, the demonisation of social movements airing entirely legitimate grievances regarding enforced disappearances and repression arguably represents a return to form for a Pakistani state that has always chosen the path of most resistance when engaging with the demands of marginalised groups seeking redress for the injustices they have endured.
What we are currently witnessing in Pakistan is the consolidation and re-assertion of power by authoritarian forces after yet another decade of desultory experimentation with democratisation. While it would be obviously incorrect to suggest that the past ten years of democratic rule were a resounding success, it is important to recognize the small, incremental gains that have been made. In addition to the passage of important legislation, such as the 18th and 20th Amendments, that took some steps towards addressing the institutional imbalances that have long characterised Pakistani politics, it was increasingly evident that the competition driving the rivalries between the mainstream parties had started to translate into more responsiveness to the demands of the electorate. For all their manifest imperfections, the PML-N and the PTI’s relentless attempts at one-upmanship through the invocation of their achievements in Punjab and KP respectively are evidence of this, as is the fact that their claims of good governance are not entirely inflated. But perhaps most importantly of all, this past decade finally began to see the emergence of civilian political entities that could finally begin staking a claim to popular legitimacy, and whose time in power provided them with the opportunity to cultivate and develop the institutional and electoral resources needed to effectively stave off the ever-present danger posed to the system by non-democratic forces.
Herein lies the key to understanding the unfolding crisis of democracy engulfing Pakistan. Twenty years ago, removing a democratically elected Prime Minister from power was a relatively simple matter; have the president use his powers under the 8th Amendment to dissolve parliament, use the state-controlled media to demonise the party being kicked out of office, and take advantage of the opportunism of the political class to cobble together a new coalition that would be brought to power through conveniently engineered elections. This formula was arguably perfected during the Musharraf years, when the experience amassed during the 1990s led to the installment of what is arguably the most transparently rigged parliament in Pakistan’s history after the 2002 elections.
Today, however, things appear to be different. Several years of constant political pressure, through sit-ins and mass demonstrations, and a series of damning judgments by the Supreme Court, all of which would have brought governments crashing down in the not so distant past, have thus far failed to dislodge the PML-N. It is far too early to predict what will happen when elections are held this summer, especially considering the breakneck speed at which political developments are currently happening, but it is obvious that cutting democracy down to size has become a much harder task than it once was. This does not mean that attempts to derail the system are bound to fail; rather, it helps to explain precisely why the assertion of authoritarian power is becoming increasingly obvious and visible. In its attempts to curtail dissent and challenges to its authority, the state is being forced to rely in increasingly blunt instruments to pursue its agenda.
It is axiomatic that truly powerful states do not need to rely on coercion and repression to gain support and legitimacy. Instead, they rely on the establishment of ideological hegemony, inducing citizens to buy into the broader system of rules through which states hope to control and direct political processes. It is when this hegemony collapses – when citizens start to refuse to play by the established rules – that states begin to rely on more traditionally coercive mechanisms to achieve their objectives.
Democracy may or may not survive the attacks it is currently being subjected to in Pakistan, and it is by no means certain that the critical voices and movements questioning the state’s narrative will be able to continue doing so without incurring terrible retribution at the hands of their antagonists. Nonetheless, there is cause for optimism as the cracks in the ideological façade of the state are become more and more visible.
writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.