Contested Regimes and Changing Politics in Pakistan

The latest change of regime in Pakistan has followed the perennial tendency of a disturbing political transition. What remains novel about it is its underscoring of institutional and political contradictions and the changing nature of national politics, especially with regard to the importance of public image and narrative building. Such narratives surrounding the latest change of regime point to political engineering on the part of certain ruling groups in the country. In the context of Pakistan, more often than not, this is an allusion to the establishment. Even though the country has not witnessed an outright military takeover since the time of Musharraf, the past government’s transition to power and its decision making have all been viewed as a hybrid martial law or hybrid democracy.

The establishment has always been ubiquitous in helping along with the politics of the country. This comes in addition to its role in securing the country outside and inside its borders. From the war on terror to the securing of Pakistan’s cities, it has always been hailed as Pakistan’s strongest and most important pillar. Perhaps the same was to be expected under the current regime change in Pakistan. However, in a turn of events, public sentiments have contrasted sharply with the usual rhetoric. Sentiments have been stoked against the intervention, which cuts across domestic and foreign lines to undermine the future of the people and their state. This has followed the failure of the hybrid government experiment in the country and the contested rise to power of the opposition, the Pakistan Democratic Movement(PDM). While these events would be seen as a success for democracy in more mature democracies, this has not been the case in Pakistan. In addition to the sharply divided public opinion, there have been other prominent changes in the country’s political landscape. It is interesting to note these several developments that have emerged alongside what has been termed a political and constitutional crisis in the country.

This constitutional crisis has largely been attributed to the recent political maneuvrings in the country. Pakistan has never before seen the removal of a Prime Minister through a successful vote of no confidence. Previously the precipitated removal of incumbent governments has been due to a variety of reasons, including charges of misgovernance and even assassination in one case. However, the method of the removal of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) government is unprecedented. The resolution for the vote of no confidence was passed by 174 members of the opposition coalition on 10 April 2022 against the government. The Members of the National Assembly (NA) who voted for the ouster of the Prime Minister claimed it to be a victory for the Constitution and democracy in the country. Ironically this has foregrounded all of the incongruities within Pakistan’s democracy.

While the recent change in regime carries the appearance of a democratic transition, it remains open to speculations about being yet another manifestation of political engineering in the country.

The well-being of democracy in the country depends on constructive opposition. Yet opposition parties in Pakistan have rarely attempted a united effort at such a large and continuing scale before. Though such a coalition did appear before –the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) – in 1983 against the rule of Zia-ul-Haq, it was disbanded before it could achieve the intended results. Since then, no opposition coalition has prevailed. The PDM is thus novel for a number of reasons, including, amongst others, its ability to seemingly generate widespread political support and momentum.

Although these developments signal extraordinary unity, several contradictions have divided the opposition since its nascent stages. Comprising of approximately eleven parties, the PDM began exhibiting disunity even before its first public address. Most of these divisions continue to drive its politics. With the rise of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN)  to power, other prominent members of the PDM, including the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazl (JUI-F), continue to hold diverging opinions about, for example, key government positions. Despite these fault lines, the PDM claims its success based on the passage of the vote of no confidence in the NA and its ability to draw support from the judiciary against the previous incumbent government.

In addition to the judiciary, several other institutions have received attention for their role in the recent regime change. In a historic decision, the  NA  was dissolved by the office of the President of Pakistan. This marked the first time a civilian government dissolved the NA before the end of its term. Earlier, the NA Deputy Speaker, Qasim Suri, also blocked the vote of no confidence. The NA speaker ruled that the motion for no confidence violated Article 5 of the Constitution of Pakistan. However, both decisions were overruled by the judiciary. In this case, the speaker’s usual immunity from judicial scrutiny was also overridden. The Supreme Court ruled the dissolution of the assembly an unconstitutional move.

The role of the judiciary has been further featured in the proceedings, which were unique in their timing, manner and content. These proceedings especially highlighted the changing dynamics between the several stakeholders and national institutions (also considering how cases pertaining to the armed forces have been raised at court). Strained relations continue to dictate national politics as both the incumbent and past governments have processed and reprocessed pronouncements about the establishment’s role in the country’s politics. Contending opinions also exist with regards to respective performances in electoral reforms, governance, and foreign and economic policies.

The country is facing an impending financial disaster. Amidst all of this, public opinion remains crucial to the country’s stability. The recent political turmoil has led the people to publicly voice their disillusions. This suggests that the intended hybrid government experiment in Pakistan has effectively failed, but not without exposing the contradictions in Pakistani politics. While the recent change in regime carries the appearance of a democratic transition, it remains open to speculations about being yet another manifestation of political engineering in the country. The tilt of public opinion remains crucial in legitimising any form of government in the country, and that for now, does not seem to be in the incumbent regime’s favour.

Natasha Khan

Natasha Khan is a graduate of Peace and Conflict Studies, NUST, Islamabad. Her research focuses include discourse analysis, defense and security, and international relations. She is currently serving as an intern at CSCR.

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