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Pakistan’s dysfunctional political system

Zafar Bangash

The political impasse in Islamabad has revealed those with vested interests to protect a system that does not serve the overwhelming majority in Pakistan.

There appears to be no end in sight to Pakistan’s latest political crisis that erupted out of the sit-in launched in mid-August in Islamabad. Political crises are nothing new; in fact, they are the norm in Pakistan. So what is different this time?

Two political groups, one led by cricket-star-turned politician Imran Khan leading the Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI) and the other by the Canadian-citizen cleric, Tahirul Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT) have occupied the main streets of Islamabad and have surprised most observers by their sustainability. Their demands are clear: recount in several constituencies because of alleged rigging in the last election and resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif because he engineered such rigging. Both parties want an overhaul of the electoral system as well as the political system that allow for such rigging and corruption. They have also accused Sharif of bribing politicians, journalists and judges. They have even named individuals without evoking any threats of legal action.

We have personal knowledge of several constituencies in Punjab where election observers of other parties were thrown out during vote counting. Only Sharif party members were allowed to stay. Why? This undermines trust in the fairness of the process. Some commentators have advanced the argument that even if all rigging allegations were proved, this would still leave Sharif with enough seats to remain in office. They have also called for strengthening democracy and upholding the constitution.

How can the system be called “democratic” if such rigging occurred? Further, should upholding the constitution not apply equally to all? When more than 80% of National Assembly members would be ineligible to sit in parliament if the constitution were properly followed, what “sanctity” are they talking about?

Sharif of course has stubbornly refused to resign. It is not difficult to see why... Only by clinging to power can Sharif steal billions of dollars from state resources.

Sharif of course has stubbornly refused to resign. It is not difficult to see why. While he claims to be legitimately elected — what else can he say — he knows that if he is forced out now, he would never be able to return to power again. In fact, this would end his dynastic ambitions. Only by clinging to power can Sharif steal billions of dollars from state resources. Figures of $200 billion have been mentioned; even if a tenth of these sums are stolen, that still amounts to a lot of money.

The question, however, is whether Imran Khan (the more serious challenger) and Tahirul Qadri will succeed in their objectives? There are many vested interests that benefit from the current system in Pakistan. These include the feudal-industrial barons, the military and the bureaucracy. They would not allow their privileges to be taken away. Among them some have personal grudges against Sharif and may want to see his back but they will be resistant to meaningful change in the political system.

This is the challenge Imran Khan faces. Even if he succeeds in driving Sharif from power, he will have to confront many other powerful forces in the country. In the event that he becomes prime minister, he would be frustrated every step of the way because those used to enjoying the perks will not give them up so easily. To eradicate the mindset of the culture of entitlement will be a difficult struggle.

There is a silver lining though: even if he does not realize all his goals, Imran Khan has achieved the near impossible: he has mobilized the youth and the complacent middle class to leave their comfortable drawing rooms and join the struggle for change in Pakistan.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 43, No. 8

Dhu al-Hijjah 06, 14352014-10-01

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