Is history repeating itself in the country? Yes, in many respects, today’s political turmoil and crisis have strong echoes of the past. Government-opposition confrontations have been frequently witnessed before. So, too, has lack of tolerance between political opponents, who view each other not as rivals but enemies to vanquish in a war.

Arrests of opposition members, cases against political leaders and repressive steps to quell protests are wearingly familiar. Clashes between the president and executive are also a throwback to past tussles. Courts have long been called on to arbitrate political disputes, with their rulings often becoming controversial. The military establishment’s role in backing one political side against another is hardly new.

Nor is its outsized role in the political arena, despite its claims to the contrary. Power plays by state institutions that pitted them against one another have been a recurring feature of the country’s tortuous history. As have efforts to curb media freedom.

Many people in the country believe that as we have been here before, there is little to be overly concerned about. This too shall pass. After all, every time a way was found out of crisis, even if it left democracy weaker. The trouble with this rather complacent view is that it overlooks the fact that Pakistan today is very different, with objective conditions having fundamentally changed.

The country faces formidable challenges in a deeply divided and politically fractured state. Several overlapping crises – political, economic and constitutional – are reinforcing each other, while a resolution of the political crisis, the key to unlocking others, is nowhere in sight. Worse, it isn’t clear what solution would work and be acceptable to various stakeholders.

The first aspect of the situation today that sets it apart from the past is the sharp polarisation in the country. This is unprecedented despite Pakistan’s record of divisive politics. Never before have people society and state institutions been so divided by their partisan preferences and resistance to countenance a view other than their own.

Polarisation and a zero-sum attitude have eliminated the middle ground, making it harder if not impossible to reach a compromise to end the political battles endangering the country’s stability.

This is happening when Pakistan faces the most serious economic crisis in its history. To be sure, the country has confronted financial crises several times before. This compelled it to repeatedly seek International Monetary Fund bailouts, making it the world record holder in the number of Fund programmes it has had – 23. But there are at least three ways in which the current economic crisis is a departure from the past. Thanks to decades of fiscal profligacy, Pakistan is so deeply mired in debt that it has to keep borrowing more to repay previous loans.

Its external financing requirements have risen so much that conventional bailout packages hardly give it any breathing space and further injections are perpetually needed. This situation will only worsen until the country secures debt relief, for which it needs a credible, reformist government.

The second aspect of the economic crisis is that friendly countries Pakistan has relied on for funds now seem fatigued and overburdened by its “requests”. This is evidenced by delay in their financing commitments coming through. That, in turn, has delayed the deal with the International Monetary Fund, with whom the trust gap has widened.

Moreover, Pakistan’s geopolitical “relevance” has diminished in the West’s perception, lowering its stake in the country’s future. The third aspect of the current economic challenge is the cost-of-living crisis, fuelled in part by external factors. Never before did Pakistan have to deal with a public finance crisis in such an adverse global financial environment. Soaring inflation and energy shortages are fuelling widespread public discontent, that can erupt into unrest any time, with consequences for its stability.

The present also differs from the past in greater youth activism in politics. The political impact of the country’s youth bulge is now palpable and evidenced by their participation in rallies and protests by political parties, especially those organised by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.

True, students played a prominent part in past political movements, usually through traditional vehicles like student organisations and unions. But youth activism today is more-broad based and expresses itself in support for the brand of populist politics represented by Imran Khan. This has obvious electoral implications. Over 44% of the electorate, around 55 million, are young voters between 18 and 35 years of age. If youth activism translates into votes at the ballot box, it could be a game changer that can determine the outcome of the next election.

Meanwhile, technology has created a more informed and connected citizenry, while social media today is another new factor shaping the political environment. This means traditional methods by which the government or establishment controlled or determined the narrative no longer work. While the electronic media is often subjected to government controls, social media cannot be restricted. It has become a mobilising vehicle that taps into and galvanises public sentiment and shapes opinion.

Finally, there are now limits to the political influence exercised by the military establishment. In the past, it found political allies with fairly strong bases of public support and some credibility to use as countervailing forces against political leaders/parties it sought to exclude from politics or government. This also enabled it to “tilt” electoral outcomes in their favour, as witnessed during the 1990s.

But today, the two traditional parties available for this purpose are in secular decline and shadows of their former selves. That is why one of them is so afraid of elections in its previous regional stronghold. Without credible, strong political partners, the establishment is unable to use its old playbook, because its political leverage is also not what it once was.

What does this all mean? It means the country is now in uncharted territory, with a high degree of unpredictability. This makes it hard to gauge where it might end up, as the past is now a poor guide. It suggests that traditional means of crisis management and ensuring political outcomes may not work. As a result of political brinkmanship, the situation can spin out of everyone’s control and drive the country to the edge of an implosion.

This article first appeared in Dawn.