The ongoing conflict in Pakistan between Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s coalition government has escalated to new heights, widened the political chasm even more, and multiplied social fragmentation in the face of public hostility to state institutions. It has also increased the likelihood of anarchy and civil war. While the government is considering all legal options to declare the PTI a terrorist organization, Khan has decided to launch a historically massive popular rally against the government and their suspected handlers from the military establishment. This situation came to light just as Sharif and Khan signaled, on March 16, a willingness to resolve their differences through peaceful negotiation. Unfortunately, as each waited for the other to initiate the process, groups on both sides opposed to reconciliation interrupted the stalemate by taking desperate actions, erasing any optimism that a political breakthrough might be possible.
A rapprochement between Sharif and Khan is much needed for the stability of Pakistan, but some individuals in both leaders’ inner circles do not wish them to meet. Instead, these detractors are willing to make a deadly gamble that may result in the self-destruction of Sharif as well as Khan. In case something happens to the latter, a successor to head his party has already been chosen. While such news is unfavorable for Khan’s loyal supporters, it has given certain opportunists within the PTI hope that they might remove him from politics in order to seize the fruits of his charisma and popularity for themselves. On the other hand, the overly ambitious attempts to rein in Khan and his purported supporters in the judicial and military establishment by Maryam Nawaz, the vice president of the ruling party Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), have backfired and placed Prime Minister Sharif in a precarious position.
Against this political backdrop, why would Khan and Sharif want to reconcile? To answer this, one needs to look at how these tensions are creating unprecedented consequences for both.
When it comes to Khan, the recent clashes have only added to his plight: As he continues to rile up popular anger in a bid to pressure the government, judiciary, and military to ensure early elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, his confrontational approach may produce unfavorable results and exhaust him sooner or later. Khan likely understands that if his party’s supporters resort to serious violence, not only will he lose the chance to compete in elections at the height of his faction’s political popularity, but he will also be declared an outlaw. In such a scenario, Khan will be the ultimate loser. Though he has time and again proved able to exert political control over the state by winning some sort of moral legitimacy from the angered and politically charged public, he presumably yearns for legal legitimacy, which can only be granted by state institutions through elections. Without securing such legal legitimacy, Khan will find himself expelled from the regular democratic process. Whether willing or unwilling, Khan cannot afford to run a parallel state or rule a mob as a non-state actor. He must therefore remain within the system if he wants to continue leading Pakistan, which requires an agreement that is contingent on compromises. Understanding this, Khan’s inner circle of smart advisors has disapproved of his choice to rally people in a direct confrontation with the security forces, branding it political suicide. Yet it appears that Khan is not listening to their counsel.
Like Khan, Sharif is also dealing with significant political obstacles and has a great deal on the line. His PML-N party has already lost a significant amount of its political clout in Punjab, the province it formerly ruled. And despite its efforts, the party lacks a coherent political plan to retake this area. Meanwhile, the prime minister is under pressure from the top party leadership, including Maryam Nawaz, to ensure the safe return of his older brother and former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, from London. To ensure Nawaz Sharif’s political revival, Shehbaz needs to arrange a détente with Khan as much as he needs the military establishment on his side. However, the growing tensions within the PML-N have disturbed Pakistan’s head of government. For him, it is a mammoth challenge to control and lead a party whose political narrative and fundamental position have been seriously undermined by internal conflicts and the widening split between those who want to stay on good terms with the powerful military establishment and those who demand an outright break with it. Another challenge for Sharif is to avoid losing support from his Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) allies and face isolation if he were to make any concessions to Khan. The PDM has already distanced itself from Sharif’s proposal for a reconciliation with the populist PTI party leader.
Negotiations might result in Khan receiving amnesty, but he would then have to give up his campaign of political othering of his rivals that he has been publicly sensationalizing so far. Khan, who has advanced identity politics by successfully creating and promoting a victim-based persona for himself and demonizing the ruling coalition as a group of crooks, lacks a clear political manifesto to attract voters in any other way. The chance to amass power would be lost if this victim’s identity were to disappear. It is certain that Khan has conveyed and inculcated popular beliefs into public thought, but it is equally important to carefully consider whether his approach genuinely empowers or disempowers people. In a similar vein, any attempt by the government to use the state as a tool to advance its own personal interests and to abuse its power by employing a monopoly on violence to settle personal scores undermines the state’s legitimacy and sovereignty.
Though dissent, civil disobedience, self-defense, freedom of expression, political participation, and appropriate exercise of authority are essential ingredients of a democratic system, their misuse leads to the democratic dilemma, which serves the undemocratic forces well. The current course of engagement between Khan and the ruling coalition government is a prime example of a democratic dilemma in which neither the political elites nor their followers can make reasoned choices. Pakistan’s democratic system is in jeopardy, but for now it persists, at least in theory, which ensures some form of space to resolve political disputes. All political actors who hope to one day lead the state will, however, suffer as a result of the acute radicalization of the country’s political space. History demonstrates that lawlessness and anarchy become the new norm when people who lose faith in the state defy its authority, while the state adopts violence in its normal interactions with the people. Pakistan has already seen incidents of vigilante mob justice. Yet the thought of politicians falling into the hands of lawless mobs is a huge crisis on its own.
The trend set by Khan, of using massive rallies to pressure and defy the state’s order, is likely to be emulated by his contemporaries. If he is fortunate enough to be elected prime minister for the upcoming term, he will have to deal with similar actions on the part of his rivals. The current coalition government, on the other hand, needs to realize that revengeful politics engender a vicious cycle that would allow its politicians to fall into their own trap. In other words, it will only be a matter of time before they experience the same fate once they lose power. Pakistan is dealing with a political domino effect: if one high-profile figure falls, all the others will follow. Under such circumstances, it is impossible to underestimate the terrible effects that civil war would have on each political actor’s ability to survive. Though negotiations are seen as the only treatment for Pakistan’s growing political disorder, it is true that sometimes the treatment causes more harm than the cure. In this race against time, it does not matter what Shehbaz Sharif and Imran Khan hope to accomplish if the negotiations ever take place; what counts is the result they will obtain, which is currently too early to foresee.
Naad-e-Ali Sulehria has over five years of involvement working with international organizations and think tanks in different capacities as a political researcher, policy advisor, peace strategist, and human rights practitioner. He currently serves as a Research Assistant to Dr. Marvin G. Weinbaum, Director for Pakistan and Afghanistan Studies at the Middle East Institute.
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