The transition of power in Pakistan has always been an enthralling power play not only for the internal political actors electioneering in a politically-charged environment, hurling accusations at each other; and political pundits with their endless speculations on conduct of the electoral process, political parties and the electorates, but also for the international political actors who are witnessing the elections with strong interests. The 200-million strong country with a Muslim majority, powered by a formidable and battle-hardened military with a technologically advanced nuclear program, Pakistan is situated at a critical strategic geography which grants it a special privilege in the eyes of the international community. Therefore, the power transition in the country is an event of not only national attention but also of global observation. However, these international powers are not satiated by witnessing the power transition merely as a spectator. Rather, they take an active, sometimes assertive, and many times principal role in Pakistani politics. The elections of 2018 are in congruity with this tradition.
Whilst highly-polarized internal political environment and fiery political campaigns are provoking political instability and uncertainty regarding the acceptance of elections’ outcome, ultimately it will be the geopolitics which will decide the fate of this second democratic transition of power in a long, checkered political history of Pakistan. It is in this larger international context that this whole electoral exercise of 2018 should be viewed from. As the second phase in Afghan conflict comes to closure and a third opening is in the offing with a potential intifada in Indian-occupied Kashmir accompanied by geopolitical realignment in international politics, the role of Pakistan and its civil-military leadership becomes critically important.
However, since his disqualification and subsequent imprisonment, the former premier has been actively trying to undermine state institutions like the military and judiciary by crafting a political narrative which accuses both of forming an informal alliance against him and his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), ousting him through a ‘soft coup’ and attempting to keep him and his party away from winning the elections.
Owning to its geography curse, Pakistan has been at the center of major geopolitical storms over the past century. Since its inception, Pakistan has traditionally followed the Washington consensus in defense and economics for much of its history. Particularly after the fall of Soviet Union, pro-market economics gained traction in the economic framework of the state. However, after decades of being faithful to Washington consensus and following the global realignment of great power politics with the ascendancy of Beijing consensus, the establishment in Pakistan now favors a more eastward approach in great power politics by aligning itself with the great powers of China and Russia.
It is in this global context that Pakistan treads on the path of stringent and apolitical anti-corruption campaign today in order to expropriate the plundered national wealth and invest in essential socio-economic development of the state. Furthermore, it is in this same context that the national security of the state has now been interlinked with the health of economy, a pre-requisite to a more controlled economy, patterned on Chinese model of economics.
The contemporary dichotomy in the political discourse preceding the elections reflects this global struggle for power and influence in the country. Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification and subsequent incarceration on corruption charges was a major factor in this global struggle.
The state of Pakistan signaled to all actors within the country from bankers to bureaucrats, from journalists to politicians, and from military to judges that the state can no longer sustain the unabated corruption which is evaporating the foundation of the nation and posing an existential threat to the country. However, since his disqualification and subsequent imprisonment, the former premier has been actively trying to undermine state institutions like the military and judiciary by crafting a political narrative which accuses both of forming an informal alliance against him and his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), ousting him through a ‘soft coup’ and attempting to keep him and his party away from winning the elections.
Subsequently, many state actors ranging from the media and bureaucracy to political players have grabbed the narrative of military-judicial complex as they also harbor the fear of relentless and apolitical accountability drive. Within a minimal timeframe, Nawaz Sharif became a symbol for the supposed ‘democratic resistance’ and ‘sanctity of vote’ against ‘creeping authoritarianism’. The same Nawaz Sharif who himself was a product of dictatorship and practiced dictatorial political norms in his most recent premiership.
Besides the narrative of containment of certain parties while giving other parties favorable playing fields, media is also promoting secondary narrative in accordance with primary anti-establishment narrative. This narrative is concerned with press freedoms. Coincidently, not only are the certain quarters in Pakistan polity and media picking up these narratives, but they are also being rigorously perpetuated by western media, all following the same pattern. One can assume that the Pakistani establishment is afraid of the popularity of Sharif, thus constraining his party and other like-minded parties from openly campaigning whilst cowing down the media to gain a desired outcome in the election which is putting big question marks on the integrity of the elections.
The fundamental flaw with this narrative is that some publications completely, whilst others partially, absolve Nawaz Sharif and his cohorts of money laundering. Moreover, the concern regarding state crackdown on media contrasts the ground realities which became evident in a recent interview of Hameed Haroon – the owner of the Dawn Media Group who claims that it is being coerced into subjugation.
One can assume that the Pakistani establishment is afraid of the popularity of Sharif, thus constraining his party and other like-minded parties from openly campaigning whilst cowing down the media to gain a desired outcome in the election which is putting big question marks on the integrity of the elections.
This weaving of narratives being perpetuated by national and international actors represents a critical threat to not only the democratic process of the country but also to its national security. This game plan has three primary objectives: economically saturating Pakistan so as to weaken the state to eventually decapitate the nation from its nuclear power status; stifling its opposition and make the status quo on Kashmir and Indian hegemony on the subcontinent acceptable to it; compromising significantly on its enduring relationship with China so that the latter does not get an unfettered access to the Indian Ocean.
In order to achieve this outcome, political uncertainty and instability is required to make the national establishment capitulate on the demands of the western establishments. Creative chaos, with the ability to control and manage it so that it does not reach the Pakistani threshold, is thus a preferred policy option by the international power players. However, factoring in the nuclear status of the targeted country, the instigators are seeking to sow political instability inside and outside the parliament without sparking limited armed violence. The end game is not to send the targeted country in perpetual violent instability but to reinsert their political operatives and economic hitmen in the country to keep it under their tabs and do their bidding in the evolving great power politics in Indian Ocean. The economics behind the current crisis reflects the policy of ‘Shock Therapy’ so vividly described by Naomi Klein in her book.
Pakistan stands at a crossroad in its history of political evolution. The preceding decade of a crony oligarchy masquerading as democracy has put the country on the verge of social and economic implosion. The severity of the crisis prerequisites a strongman-like government which is not only authoritarian in rhetoric and political behavior, but also has a considerable mandate to form a government on its own or with relative support from other parties. Therefore, the aftermath of the 2018 elections and internal socio-polity environment will be determined more by these international political contexts than the domestic ones.
Hassan Zaheer is a postgraduate in Sociology from the University of Karachi with specialization in Sociology of Religion and Politics. He is currently working as a research associate with the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research (CSCR), Islamabad, where he works on the intersection of ideas, strategy, religion, and politics, and their influence on state and society. His areas of interests are: social contract, history of ideas, authoritarianism, political economy, international relations and strategic studies with a focus on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Eastern and Western Europe and Asia.