Weeks after Nawaz Sharif launched his no-holds-barred attack on the Pakistan army leadership holding the chief responsible for the current political crisis, his daughter signalled her party’s willingness to open a dialogue with the security establishment. But for that she first wants the ouster of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government. She has also said that some members of her party had already been in contact with the security establishment.

Maryam Nawaz’s remarks in a recent interview to the BBC may be seen as taking a step back from her father’s hard-line position of not talking to the military leadership, but it is much more than that. The demand for the removal of the Khan government prior to any dialogue is shocking.

Unanswered questions

So what happened to the struggle for ending the establishment’s role in the country’s politics? How democratic is it to seek the establishment’s support to remove a civilian dispensation however bad it may be? Will it make the military’s role kosher? How does that demand fit in with the opposition’s narrative of civilian supremacy?

Maryam’s remarks have raised several questions about her party’s as well as the Sharif family’s political strategy. The willingness to talk to the security establishment indicates a marked shift from no talks to conditional negotiations. But can that strategy work?

However hard a position the former prime minister may have taken, the party’s backchannel contacts with the establishment have never ceased. Some meetings have already been made public, but apparently not all of them. While naming the names of the top security leadership no explanation has ever been offered for the party’s support for the bill whose passage extended the tenure of the current army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa. Nor has there been any clarity on the prolonged silence of the family after Nawaz Sharif’s departure to London followed by the bursting of the dam.

The former prime minister’s direct attack on the country’s army chief may have set a new and aggressive narrative for the party but it was not fully accepted by other parties in the newly formed opposition alliance under the banner of the Pakistan Democratic Movement. The Pakistan Peoples Party has distanced itself from the hard-line stance as manifested by Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari’s remarks expressing his reservations with regard to Nawaz Sharif’s speeches at the Pakistan Democratic Movement rallies.

Deepening political instability

There has also been a marked difference of view over the army’s investigation report on the “Karachi incident” that was hailed by the Pakistan Peoples Party but rejected by the Pakistan Muslim League (N). Some reports suggest a sense of unease within the Pakistan Muslim League (N) ranks over the new party narrative. All that may have forced the party leadership to take a step back and open a window for talks.

But the objective of such negotiations remains unclear. It will be extremely dangerous if the purpose is to overthrow the Khan government through whatever means. Any extra-constitutional action to change the government may deepen political instability and further entrench the security establishment. This is a lesson from our political history if one is prepared to learn from it.

Such talks could give the opposition some temporary relief but would not help resolve the existing crisis of our democracy. One wonders how this demand for removal of a civilian dispensation fits in with the Pakistan Muslim League (N)’s lament that no civilian government is allowed to complete its term. How is this demand different from Imran Khan calling the “umpire” to act against the elected government of the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif?

There is certainly a need for a grand national dialogue between the warring political forces and not negotiations with the establishment in order to resolve the current political crisis caused by the absence of institutional democracy in the country. The worsening confrontation between the government and opposition has made parliament and other elected institutions redundant.

Indeed, the continuing hybrid rule is largely responsible for this collapse. This situation cannot be corrected by getting the establishment more deeply involved in politics. Dialogue with other institutions of the state can only be productive when all major political forces inside and outside the power circles first agree on a new charter of democracy.

Any dialogue with the security leadership in the absence of a political accord will further weaken the democratic process and could strengthen the role of the security establishment as an arbiter of political power. Undoubtedly, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government is largely responsible for the existing politics of confrontation and further erosion of the democratic process in the country. But the problem goes much deeper.

Almost all civilian institutions have been weakened, impacting the democratic process. Surely the decline started long ago, but the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government in the past two years has accelerated the slide. Imran Khan’s refusal to engage with the opposition at any level and his politics of victimisation have largely been responsible for the stalemate that needs to be broken.

Indeed, the formation of the Pakistan Democratic Movement is a very positive development for building pressure on the government to come to the negotiating table and to prevent the freefall of democracy. The basic problem with Pakistani democracy is lack of credibility of the electoral process in the country. There has been practically no instance when election results have not been disputed.

That has been one of the major reasons for democracy not fully taking root in the country. Interestingly, in some cases even the winning party has not been fully satisfied with the outcome, which makes a mockery of the entire electoral process. There has certainly been some element of truth to the allegations of systematic electoral manipulation by the establishment.

However, it is true that political parties too become involved in the game for power. It is not just about the 2018 elections but also past elections. Manipulated systems cannot be expected to deliver democracy. That is quite apparent in the case of the present dispensation. The situation cannot be changed with the removal of a civilian government and that too with the help of an institution that has been blamed for installing it.

This article first appeared in Dawn.