On most days since this June, I have been quite thankful that Imran Khan is not Pakistan’s prime minister and that his party is not running the federal government. I have alternated between being furious or feeling incensed with him, usually on his flawed stance on national security issues — such as making the militants a stakeholder in Pakistan’s future, and naively claiming that drone strikes singlehandedly cause terrorism. With the latter, he has in effect handed the extremists and their sympathisers a narrative they can use (and indeed, are using) to rationalise their bloodthirsty reign of terror and violence. Worse, the common man buys into this narrative when it comes from someone with the credibility of Mr Khan. His national security policy positions reflect remarkable stubbornness and immaturity, and an inability to grasp the complexities of history, of multi-layered motivations for violence, and of Pakistan’s long-term and multi-faceted relationships with other countries.
But since June, I have been equally thankful that Mr Khan’s PTI broke barriers to become Pakistan’s third major party, and that he and his party are a strong voice in opposition to the government of Mr Sharif. The PPP, in contrast, seems leaderless and directionless, and to largely have retreated to Sindh. Between elections, a strong opposition serves to discipline the majority party and to hold it in check. Such opposition can sometimes be paralysing (such as it has been, at times, recently in the US, with the Republican Party blocking President Obama’s policy proposals). But by and large, it is necessary for, and the mark of, a healthy democracy. It also has hitherto been missing in Pakistan’s unstable democratic regimes, but in our newly stable democracy, Mr Khan has definitively stepped up to his responsibility as a serious opposition politician, and is thus, in many ways, defining this administration’s electoral term.
In recent days, Mr Khan has increasingly focused on domestic issues, most commendably vowing to spearhead the anti-polio drive in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, and firmly condemning attacks on polio workers. In addition, on December 22, he held a rally in Lahore denouncing the government’s inflationary policies and reiterating the importance of expanding the tax base and increasing tax recovery, which, while very difficult, will be crucial to improving Pakistan’s economy. Should this very recent shift in Mr Khan’s focus persist, his domestic policy positions may well turn out to be his and his party’s saving grace. This shift may also reflect a maturing politician, although it is obviously too early to say that at this point. True policy opposition in this form — as opposed to the usual corruption allegations or other forms of non-policy based opposition — also represents a new path for Pakistan, and is another positive step towards an effective democracy, regardless of whether or not one agrees with the opposition’s specific policy pronouncements.
But Mr Khan’s opposition methods continue to be those of a politician on the campaign trail, not one serving an election term. The PTI’s dharnas, protests and campaign style rallies need to end, as do talks of a tsunami. Mr Khan needs to take his opposition where it belongs — to the National Assembly. But the PTI’s rallies are not the only political events to have occurred away from the National Assembly — the All Parties Conference is a case in point. Both the government and the opposition can solidify Pakistan’s democracy by bringing debate on policy and legislation back to the houses of parliament, where it belongs — away from the streets and away from arbitrary conferences, which have no purpose when elected representatives are at hand.
Pakistan has historically focused on constituency politics at the expense of national policies and reform, both by design (because it is a parliamentary democracy) and also because of the instability in the political system, which led politicians to focus on short-term delivery and rewards. Given that Mr Sharif’s government can now, for the first time in Pakistan’s history, proceed with the expectation that it will indeed have a full five years in power, it would do well to engage parliamentarians and the opposition in vigorous national policy debates. There it is likely to find a robust opposition led not by the PPP but by the PTI. These interactions, will, over the long run, lead to a better democracy, and one hopes, a ‘Naya’ Pakistan.