Still time to back down

Source: Published in Current Affairs on Saturday, August 9, 2014

The hectic, perhaps even frantic, shuttling back and forth of political intermediaries between the PML-N and PTI camps had suggested that perhaps some kind of middle ground could be reached and the growing atmosphere of political crisis could be calmed down.

Unhappily, neither the PML-N nor the PTI appears to be in any mood to back down first — or at least before the eleventh hour, which is nearly here. The PML-N has had the capital’s administration enforce the infamous Section 144 of the criminal code that prohibits the public display of weapons — and most importantly, curbs the public’s right of freedom to assemble.

Without a shred of doubt, no matter what the PML-N leadership or the Islamabad administration may claim, the imposition of Section 144 has everything to do with the Aug 14 PTI rally in Islamabad — and is yet another unwise, escalatory decision taken by a PML-N administration that is either panic-stricken or determinedly on the path of self-destruction.

Difficult as it may be to support the street agitation that Imran Khan and the PTI have threatened, there is a fundamental right of the public at stake to protest against a government, as long as it stays within the parameters of the law.

Yet, for every mistake or unwise decision that the PML-N has made, the PTI, and Imran Khan in particular, appear shockingly cavalier about endangering the democratic system when it comes to virtually every statement from the PTI camp.

Yesterday, the PTI supremo himself poured fuel on fire by invoking the spectre of an army intervention — but defiantly suggested that if it were to happen, then blame would lie with the PML-N for refusing to do what the PTI has demanded.

To the extent that Mr Khan is able to recognise the threat to the system — anti-democratic powers are perennially waiting in the wings in some shape or form — it suggests an awareness of the present situation and so he is clearly not the political novice or power-hungry ingénue he has been made out to be in some quarters.

But does that not then make the PTI’s position even more problematic? Either the PTI gets its way or it will force a showdown that can have the gravest of consequences — surely that is against the very spirit of democracy. Still, in the world of political intrigue and showdowns, it is not unknown for all sides to engage in brinksmanship to the very end — before backing down.

It is welcome, therefore, that other political parties and mainstream political forces are active at the moment in the defence of the democratic system, willing to play interlocutor or broker for stability. Surely, there is a middle way possible — and influence exists in political circles outside the PTI and PML-N to make the two sides back down.

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