What a year it has been. 2018 began with three events that, in retrospect, really set the tone for what was to follow. On the first of January, Donald Trump greeted the new year with a tweet that lambasted Pakistan for its alleged treachery, claiming that the $33 billion given to the country by the United States over the past fifteen years had been repaid in deceit and treachery. At the same time Imran Khan, still in the Opposition, castigated the PML-N government for increasing petrol prices even as Nawaz Sharif defended himself from accusations that he had visited Saudi Arabia to secure some kind of NRO-type deal for himself. Finally, and perhaps incongruously, professional clothes-wearer and twitter provocateur Hamza Abbasi, a man unlikely to be remembered for the depth of his thinking or the profundity of his teachings, took to social media to proclaim his love for Hafiz Saeed, calling the UN-designated terrorist and alleged mastermind of the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai ‘polite’, ‘humble’, and ‘misunderstood’.

Twelve months later, a lot has changed and yet everything remains the same. Trump is still in office in the United States, despite the best hopes and efforts of his domestic detractors, and his administration’s posture towards Pakistan continues to be sceptical at best and hostile at worst. After finally winning the elections held in July 2018, Imran Khan is now the Prime Minister of Pakistan although the first few months of his tenure, when not marred by sheer incompetence and confusion, have been marked by a strong sense of continuity including ritual increases in petrol prices and trips to Saudi Arabia to negotiate relatively opaque deals. For his part, Hamza Ali Abbasi continues to attack the real enemy – real and perceived liberals on Twitter – while finding ever more inventive ways to defend the religious right, laud the PTI, and give his co-stars smouldering looks through kohl-rimmed eyes.

To the extent that 2018 was shaping up to be a year of hope and change, it is now clear that such hopes were misplaced. When the year began the Sharif clan’s legal troubles, including Nawaz Sharif being ousted from the premiership and his disqualification from politics, had cast a cloud over the PML-N’s electoral prospects. A party that had seemed poised to secure an unprecedented victory by being re-elected to the National and Punjab Assemblies now faced an uncertain future and as the elections drew closer, the relentlessly negative press coverage and mounting defections experienced by the party meant that the first half of the year was essentially spent waiting for the government to be replaced so that a fresh set of hands could be entrusted with navigating the country through its (always) myriad crises. Yet, since coming to power, the PTI has not failed to disappoint; from auctioning buffaloes to plug the country’s current account deficit to providing a full-throated endorsement for the Chief Justice’s plan to crowdfund a $14 billion dam, the new government has not yet met an absurd idea it has not been willing to push forward. At the same time, the problems Pakistan faces going into 2019 are both serious and challenging; difficult negotiations with the IMF over the size, shape, and conditions of a much-needed bailout package, the imminent American withdrawal from Afghanistan, the war clouds gathering over Tehran, a moribund economy, dysfunctional institutions in urgent need for reform, the list goes on and on and thus far, there is little evidence to suggest that the government has the desire or intellectual wherewithal required to deal with these issues.

Instead, what we have seen in 2018 is the military, judiciary, and parliament finally get on the ‘same page’. What this has meant in practice is a further hollowing out of Pakistan’s already weak democracy. Amidst allegations of widespread pre-poll rigging in the 2018 elections, observers and those directly affected by events have continually pointed towards a narrowing of space for dissent and criticism in Pakistan. When not being harassed online by armies of trolls proclaiming their allegiance to the military and the PTI, activists and journalists have been subjected to all forms of arbitrary harassment by the state, including forced detention and disappearance, being banned from speaking in public at events and festivals, and even outright violence. This crackdown on civil society has been accompanied by a deepening of the repression experienced by outfits like the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, whose arguably legitimate demands and grievances have been undermined by a narrative suggesting its leaders and cadre are foreign-funded agents seeking to destabilise Pakistan. Indeed, the concept of ‘Fifth Generation Warfare’, an almost uniquely Pakistani idea blending paranoia with conspiracy to suggest the country is waging an ideological battle against internal enemies, has been deployed all year by the powers-that-be to further delegitimise those who fail to fall in line and back the official line. In a dark twist worthy of Orwell, the state’s paid propagandists have taken to the airwaves and social media to denounce all criticism as fake news and enemy-sponsored misinformation, even as they themselves spread falsehoods and untruths in their quest to protect and pursue the agenda of Pakistan’s true powerholders.

It is in this context that 2018 also saw the arrival of accountability to Pakistan, with Nawaz Sharif convicted of corruption by an accountability court, Asif Ali Zardari and his family under investigation for money laundering, and formerly untouchable characters like Malik Riaz being hauled before the courts to account for their wealth. While welcomed by many as an overdue reckoning for those who have plundered Pakistan over the years, a whiff of political persecution hangs in the air as critics of the government point towards how, in addition to often being based on faulty reasoning, the cases being brought forward in the name of accountability conveniently seem to be focusing on opposition politicians alone, with nary a word being said about allegations of corruption by the ruling party itself or other state institutions. The selective nature of the accountability currently being pursued in Pakistan is impossible to miss, and the implications this has for the future of democracy in the country are worrying to say the least. If things continue in this vein, 2019 is likely to be very similar to 2018, amplifying and exacerbating the worst tendencies of the government and the powers-that-be as they preside over a political landscape increasingly bereft of opposition.

2019 will also see Hamza Ali Abbasi channel Khal Drogo from Game of Thrones in the upcoming remake of Maula Jutt. If nothing else, this marks a huge improvement over sanitising and lionising globally recognised hate figures. Happy New Year.


The writer is an assistant professor

of political.