Breakdown of democracy

PAKISTAN is experiencing a complete breakdown of democracy with a powerless civilian setup at the centre, caretaker governments in Punjab and KP serving beyond their constitutional mandate, a divided judiciary that is being openly defied, and an increasingly censored media; all resulting in a helpless populace; especially those sections that held hopes for rule of law in the country.

To put matters in perspective, we only have to look back six years; a megaproject of political engineering took place whereby the political party in government at that time, which enjoyed popularity, was targeted through various tactics.

These included a trumped-up corruption narrative which led to the disqualification of the prime minister of the time, with a new one stepping in for the remaining tenure of the government which was around a year. For the 2018 elections, Nawaz Sharif was unable to campaign; constituency demarcations were changed; the media was barred from covering his speeches; and various leaders of the PML-N continued to be incarcerated after the elections through which the PTI government came to power.

At this point, the PTI government was pushing the dated one-dimensional targeted narrative of corruption against the PPP and PML-N leadership which meant selective cases being pushed forward essentially as a means of political engineering. Anybody criticising this selective justice was hounded and silenced, while media that was critical of the regime was silenced and censored.

The PTI flaunted being on the same page as the establishment, and social media was abuzz with joint campaigns aimed at silencing any criticism.

However, things changed with the run-up to the vote of no-confidence against the then prime minister Imran Khan in 2022, which was enabled by breaking the PTI-led coalition when smaller parties that were newly propped up prior to the 2018 election broke away from the coalition, and along with `dissidents` in the PTI voted against Imran Khan, enabling the Pakistan Democratic Movement coalition, comprising the PML-N, PPP and 11 other parties to gain power amidst a faltering economy that had caused Khan`s popularity as PM to dip. Lo and behold! There emerged an opportunity for the PTI to cry that a foreign con-spiracy with the help of local abettors had led to their government being sent packing.

Again, the prime minister was changed roughly a year before elections were due with outgoing PM Imran Khan now facing trumped-up corruption charges in various cases, with the PDM government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif leading a similar persecution drive against the PTI leadership that the PML-N and PPP leadership had endured when the PTI had gained power in 2018. Except this time, the persecution culminated in a new level of pressure as seen in the press conferences denouncing the protests that erupted on the day Imran Khan was arrested in violation of court orders from Islamabad High Court by paramilitary forces. Some leaders were arrested up to five times in 10 days like Dr ShireenMazari who was let go only after quitting the PTI and politics. `Press conference` became the new buzzword after `Vigos` and `Northern Areas`.

The state of workers of PTI is dismal where they are being arrested by the thousands for mere social media posts; they have limited legal help or access to their families. This is similar to what happened to around five bloggers who were disappeared in 2017 and investigated for their political activity on social media, except at that time it was investigation for links with the PML-N. A clear violation of Article 10 of the Constitution that guarantees right to due process and fair trial is taking place, especially as the role of civilian courts is being undermined. This was obvious when a judge of the IHC said to a PTI leader that `they will not let you go until you hold a press conference` after bails granted by the court were defied by law-enforcement personnel.

The mysterious killing of journalist ArshadSharif, and the prolonged disappearance from police custody of Imran Riaz Khan who till date remains missing adds to the violation of constitutional rights. The optics of arresting and mistreating women political workers also serves to discourage women from political participation.

Mainstream media is still censored, this time with Imran Khan`s coverage being out of bounds.

A climate of fear hovers over those in the media industry, with jobs and lives on the line as was seen during the PTI`s regime as well if anybody dared to raise critical questions. Self-censorship has become routine as the chilling effect of unwritten pressure affects press freedom and the right to information.

The Charter of Democracy signed by Nawaz Sharif and the late Benazir Bhutto seems to have been longforgotten. In order to beat the fascist tendencies of former PM Imran Khan when he was in power, more fascist tactics are being employed while the PPP and PML-N share power in the current dispensation. After all, what explains them giving up on civilian supremacy? Is it revenge for how they were treated when the PTI was in government? Is it fear of a repeat of what they endured when not in power if they speak up again now? Do they expect their silence to buy them power in the next term of government, whenever that may be? Will politicians ever speak the truth again if power is snatched away from them after being given to them? And does anybody remember the role of parliament where people send their representatives through votes? Or are resignations in protest of losing power, and enjoying the lack of opposition the new status quo? Will leaders from all provinces unite after realising that what has been happening in Balochistan and KP has finally become `mainstream`? And with the current process of further engineering, do elections even matter anymore when decisions of who gets to be in what political party, contest elections, and get media coverage do not rest with the stakeholders involved in these processes? Will Pakistan ever be truly democratic? • The wúter is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital ághts.

Twitter: @UsamaKhilji

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