Dr. Hasan Askari
Conflict is on the rise in Pakistani politics. Two major political parties, the PMLN and the PTI, are persistently hostile towards each other in their statements inside the parliament, in public meetings and TV political talk shows. Often time they use non-democratic idiom. On January 26, 2017, the PMLN and the PTI members exchanged punches on the floor of the National Assembly. This incident is the proof of the growing tensions between the two major political parties. In this growing conflict between the PMLN and the PTI, the PPP is pursuing a two tracks strategy. Asif Ali Zardari adopts a soft approach towards the PMLN but Balawal Bhutto often adopts harsh disposition toward Nawaz Sharif and the PMLN. However, Balawal makes sure that he is not seen as a partner in the PTI’s political struggle against the PMLN. It is not clear what will be the ultimate disposition of the PPP as Pakistan moves closer to the general elections.
The growing conflict in Pakistan’s politics can be explained with reference to two important events: the news about a national security meeting in the prime minister house that blamed the Army for supporting some militant groups; and the on-going Panama Leaks case in the Supreme Court.
The PMLN federal government would like to sleep over the news item issue. It is not keen to officially disclose if it has received the delayed report of the inquiry about the publication of the news item. The report may or may not be released to public but the government appears confident that it can set aside the matter by taking some dummy action. The Army top command is very unhappy on this issue but it does not have any easy option to take a direct punitive action against those responsible for fabricating the news item and getting it published. This will, however, adversely affect civil-military relations that are currently showing some stability.
What worries the federal government most is the Panama Leaks case in the Supreme Court because the former has lost the initiative in this respect. It was able to deflect the PTI pressure on the Panama Leaks until the matter came before the Supreme Court. The federal government’s concern has increased since the Supreme Court, in another case, temporarily suspended the operations of three sugar mills of the Sharif family that were shifted surreptitiously to Southern Punjab and asked the High Court to take up the matter for final settlement.
The PMLN leaders are now pursuing four media strategies to cope with the Panama Leaks case. First, they are putting up a brave face that they would come out successfully from the Supreme Court and that, as Nawaz Sharif’s name does not figure in the Panama Leaks, no action can be taken against him.
Second, some of the PMLN activists are invoking Nawaz Sharif’s electoral mandate in the 2013 general elections to argue that a popularly elected leader cannot be removed except by the votes of people. This is an indirect message to the Supreme Court, which is a non-elected institution as well as to the PTI which got less votes than the PMLN in the last elections, to stop thinking about removing Nawaz Sharif.. The PMLN activists are also talking of a conspiracy to dislodge an elected prime minister. Another argument suggests that the people will not accept the removal of an elected leader. The PMLN did not make these arguments when the Supreme Court removed the PPP Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani from his office in June 2012.
Third, a major media campaign has been launched by the federal and the Punjab governments to highlight their contribution towards socio-economic development and welfare of the people. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is inaugurating some section of motorway, some electricity generation plant or a development project even if it is incomplete. The federal government is also highlighting what it describes as the major achievements in the economy which is on way to a take-off. All this is being done to demonstrate that the opposition’s political campaign and the court cases are undermining the government that is working for the welfare of the people.
Fourth, the PMLN activists have intensified their criticism of Imran Khan and his senior colleagues and have accused them of corruption, incorrect declaration of personal wealth and assets, and the use of influence by some opposition leaders to get their bank loans write-off. Several members of the federal cabinet and senior party leaders, including paraliamentarians, have made their reputation for harsh and personalized criticism of Imran Khan.
The response of the PTI stalwarts and media persons is equally harsh. The Sharif family, especially Nawaz Sharif, is the main target of their criticism. His governance and political management are also criticized. The PMLN and the PTI engage in polemics against each other in TV political talks shows. Some of these TV programs end up as shouting matches between the activists of these two political parties.
Whatever the judgement of the Supreme Court, the conflict between the PMLN and the PTI is expected to persist and they will continue to blame each other for the problems of the common people. The bitter verbal exchanges between the PMLN and the PTI make it difficult to discourage religious and cultural intolerance that has taken strong roots in Pakistan during the last three decades. Democratic values of tolerance, political accommodation through dialogue and mutual respect will remain weak in Pakistan.