Is Pakistan on the cusp of unbuilding from inside?

Every chance for Pakistan to swiftly achieve stability and peace is lost due to excessive external dependency on foreign aid, vulnerability to domestic political crisis and shortage of good governance in both vision and practice. It would be unrealistic to expect Pakistan to make the best out of its foreign relations at the geopolitical and international stage in the absence of internal stability.

Naad-e-Ali Sulehria Feb 01, 2023
Peshwar mosque bombing

Pakistan is reaping the consequences of what appears to be spillover effects of the country’s simmering political tensions. A close examination of the current deadlock between Pakistan's political elites suggests that in addition to the significant shifts and breakdowns their patron-client networks are experiencing, their struggle for power is also causing irreparable harm in the form of politicized agnosticism, social alienation, and deprivation. 

To begin with, Imran Khan-led PTI is making every effort to demonstrate that even in the face of defeat, it is still capable of bringing about a paradigm shift. Imran has taken a risky chance by recently dissolving the legislative bodies of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, two of Pakistan's most important provinces. He anticipated that it would compel the country to hold earlier elections, which he believes to win with a landslide majority. 

His return to power does not appear to be that simple, though, as the situation on the ground seems to be much different. In a preemptive political move, the ruling Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) alliance has installed their preferred candidate in the position of interim Chief Minister of Punjab, the pivotal electoral battleground of Pakistan. This is not the only reason for Imran’s disappointment. 

The dramatic tale of Pakistan's internal political deadlock has another twist. With surprising haste, the Pakistan People's Party-nominated speaker of the national assembly has approved the pending resignations of almost 70 federal lawmakers from the PTI. The widespread de-notification of PTI lawmakers lessens their chances of forging a powerful opposition in the national legislature. There are now limited options for Imran, who wants to correct this political mistake by rescinding resignations and entering parliament again in a tit-for-tat plan. Imran's strategy was to propose a motion of no confidence against Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, just as he did to remove him from office in April 2022. This hypothetical situation is impossible to produce given PTI's low parliamentary representation. 

Imran Khan's dilemma

Imran has two options: either he deviates from his objectives, or he takes his demands to the streets. The second scenario has the best chance of happening. Through a succession of large-scale protests, Imran has already established and maintained a strong populist presence while openly confronting his political rivals and state institutions for removing him from political authority.
However, Imran and the rest of his group are up against numerous legal obstacles that could prevent them from regaining political power. Recent warnings of arrest warrants for Imran and his top advisers on sedition-related charges were issued by the Election Commission of Pakistan, which was supported by the nation's higher courts. As history demonstrates, going up against strong state institutions looks to be a losing proposition. Many observers believe that Imran may be barred from leading his party in addition to being disqualified from running in future elections by the courts, following the precedent set in the disqualification case of Pakistan's former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. A minus-Imran Tehreek-e-Insaaf may spell the end for the party, unlike the minus-Nawaz formula that miraculously worked for his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz.

As these events unfold, the country is sliding headfirst into a state of turmoil, further instability and polarization. The persistent use of vigorous political victimization discourses has become the most common practice in Pakistan for mobilizing masses around one’s political agenda. With general elections being just a matter of time, electoral campaigns are increasingly becoming breeding grounds for hate, discrimination and political othering. 

In Pakistan, the patterns of political engagement have been negatively impacted by the political elites' desperation to maintain power for the next five years, which has created an environment of mistrust, anxiety, and panic. Yet, the grave economic situation and unnecessary delay in the revival of the IMF bailout package indicate reasonable doubts that Pakistan lacks enough resources to hold general elections on time. Since none of the major parties want to compromise their prospects of winning, especially in Punjab, the ruling PDM alliance may use the present circumstances to postpone elections, giving it more time to prepare.

As much as Pakistan's existential problem is due to political leadership, the volatile politics of the country is inextricably linked to the purported involvement of the military establishment. Similarly, the increasing politicization of crucial state institutions like the judiciary, the National Accountability Bureau, and the Election Commission cannot be understated. Though political contestation and conciliation are both integral parts of the process of democratization, misusing democratic means for gaining personal power leads to political upheavals. These domestic political upheavals have an impact on Pakistan's foreign relations as well as its strategic clarity in defining, let alone protecting, its own national interests.

Lack of internal stability

Every chance for Pakistan to swiftly achieve stability and peace is lost due to excessive external dependency on foreign aid, vulnerability to domestic political crisis and shortage of good governance in both vision and practice. It would be unrealistic to expect Pakistan to make the best out of its foreign relations at the geopolitical and international stage in the absence of internal stability. 

Due to Pakistan's inability to discover ways to reimagine its current situation and reflect on previous errors, ties between Pakistan and its neighbors in the region, the European Union, and the United States may deteriorate. Given how political opportunists have exploited the escalating anti-American and anti-Western sentiment in Pakistan, one can only speculate as to where the Pakistan-West relations will go from here.

At the micro-level, the Pakistani nation faces numerous obstacles in building a stable and functional polity that promotes inclusive political participation and bottom-up civic representation.  Adding further fuel to the fire is the decision-making crisis and lack of consensus on several critical issues. A case in point is the ongoing standoff between the ruling PDM alliance and the populist PTI over dealing with the growing threat of terrorism.  While the former has come to an agreement of taking a stick approach to terrorist outfits, the latter continues to advocate a carrot approach. These ideologically unbalanced top-down political conflicts have proliferated at the grassroots level, slowly eroding the social fabric of the nation. In this context, it is perhaps worthwhile to inquire if Pakistan is on the cusp of state unbuilding from the inside.

(The author is a Research Assistant at Afghanistan and Pakistan Studies Center of the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank. He holds a degree in International
Relations and Global Governance from University of Bremen, Germany. Views are personal. He can be reached at

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