First, let’s put one fact straight on the table. Whatever little space political parties had regained from the military has been recaptured by the latter in the past three months or so. This is a net loss, in the near term at least, for democracy and the political process regardless of the many flaws of the system or the differing political ideologies of the parties.
The literature on democratic transitions is unanimous in one finding: the onus for consolidating democracy lies squarely on the political actors. Another finding is equally sobering: if the political actors remain divisive and cannot work out the rules of the game in a context with a history of interruptions of the democratic system, their squabbling will threaten and, as has happened at many places, even reverse the transition.
What does this mean for us?
Simply, that agitation politics indicates the fragility of the system and the near-breakdown of the recognized mechanism for reaching political compromise and accommodation. That’s the catch-22 in transitions. While transitions require of the political actors to close ranks as quickly as possible, they are precisely the period when rules of the game are being contested and the chances of fractures are the greatest, even when, in a normative sense, all political actors agree on the need for a democratic process.
It is this fact that seems to elude Imran Khan and his band of followers. Their insistence that politics must be grounded in a moral-ethical framework – an ill-informed reference to institutional rules – ignores the principal contradiction – i.e., does the principal contradiction in a democratic transition lie between the political actors and the military, or does it lie among the political actors themselves?
What is more important, ratcheting the contest to a point where political actors begin to signal to the very actor – the army – which they want to push out of the system or staying within the accepted framework and finding a solution to their problems?
Put another way, should the secondary contradiction – internal political squabbling – be turned into the principal contradiction and the principal contradiction (political actors versus the military) be relegated to the position of secondary contradiction? [NB: this observation is not meant to detail civil-military relations and its intricacies because that is outside the scope of this piece.]
In theory, this should be clear – political actors should make every effort to keep the military out of their business. In reality, as case studies on democratic transitions tell us, it doesn’t always work like this. Political actors continue to vie for space, each desiring to determine the rules of the game and lock the system in its favour. Weaker, or new entrants, seek to break through the existing rules of the game which are supposed to work to the advantage of the stronger political players.
Tehreek-e-Insaf’s case is classical in that sense. Khan is prepared to take the immense risk of pulling an external actor into the system because he feels he has nothing to lose. He seems to think that the system, as configured, will remain loaded against him and its survival is not in his favour anyway. He also seems to think that the longer the Sharifs stay in power, the more they’ll manipulate the system, making it more skewed in their favour.
So, even if destroying the philistines means bringing the temple down on himself, so be it. His rhetoric that he is sweating hard to strengthen democracy is therefore just that – rhetoric. If he hasn’t thought through the consequences of his actions, he is a poor strategist. If he has, he is acting as a suicide bomber. Either way, he is playing a high-risk game.
But what is the game?
Let’s assume it’s a Beer-Quiche game between Khan and Sharif with the two contesting for political space. Khan can either play “Wimpy” or “Surly”. Sharif could win the fight if Khan is “Wimpy”, but lose if he is “Surly”. If Khan chooses to act aggressively, it increases the pay-off if he is the “Surly” type. Or he could choose to act passive, which increases the pay-off if he is the “Wimpy” type. Sharif can observe the actions of Khan and then decide whether to concede or fight.
In the Beer-Quiche game, the choice of what meal to serve prior to negotiation with Sharif would depend on Khan. Beer would be the aggressive choice preferred by him (Surly type) and Quiche, if he acts Wimpy. If Khan thinks that Sharif would choose the same action regardless of the menu (beer or quiche), then a Surly Khan would serve Beer and a Wimpy Khan would serve Quiche. Sharif can infer the type from what has been served and react accordingly – i.e., decide whether to fight or concede.
Game theorists give us eight possibilities, four each for Surly and Wimpy types of players choosing either beer or quiche for the menu. Similarly, Player 2 can act in eight different ways and the payoffs are different for each choice.
But here’s the thing. What happens if Sharif decides to leave the game regardless of the menu served by Khan? Or, if Sharif damns the menu altogether?
This is exactly what Sharif is signaling. He went to Lahore and essentially signaled that PTI can go on with its ‘jashan’. And he has done this while Khan has warned that he would cross the red line, that is, enter the red zone. We have to remember that there is no ambiguity regarding the red line. It has been drawn very clearly. This, then, is not about managing risk through ambiguity but putting Khan on notice through clarity.
How does Khan force Sharif to reenter the game?
His only compellence strategy, burning the grass, so to speak, is to act upon his threat. But if he is aware of the risks involved in doing so, he will use the 500 meters between his present location and the red line to escalate gradually. That means moving up the escalation ladder by slowly moving towards the red line. The first salvo was fired today by the PTI followers threatening to breach the containers that separate them from the police guarding the red zone. They have retreated for now with Khan announcing civil disobedience but keeping the possibility of storming the red zone intact. But the nuclear option in this is the numbers. If, come Monday, he retains the numbers or swells them, he could go for this option, notwithstanding his party’s clarification today that Khan won’t do so. A gradual escalation would be his signal to Sharif to get back to the table and choose from the menu.
The problem with this scenario is that Sharif is damned if he bites and damned if he doesn’t. If he bites, Khan knows Sharif has conceded and he will stop at nothing short of his maximalism. If Sharif doesn’t bite, Khan will have to escalate unless he gets a face saver between now and then. If he escalates, the game doesn’t remain a two-player game. It will then involve a third, more powerful player. That player will have to decide whether it wants to throw its weight behind Khan or Sharif. It could well decide against either option. If that happens, we fall outside of this two-player beer-quiche game because the parameters will have changed. Ironically, Khan loses even in this scenario.
It is highly unlikely that Khan is actually analyzing the situation outside of his current emotive state but if the third player decides to ask Sharif to roll up the system and gear for another round of elections, Khan might consider that to be his success.
Unfortunately, it won’t be.
Any resetting will not necessarily entrench the rules of the game in any normative sense. Moreover, if an elected government – regardless of PTI’s narrative about its legitimacy or otherwise – is forced out in this manner, it will set a precedent. Whether such a precedent will be good or bad, we can leave to the views of the readers.
Finally, even if this deadlock is worked out short of the nuclear option and a formula accepted for recounting and vote verification, there is no guarantee that the issue will die down. If some of the constituencies are shown to have been tampered with, Khan will use that excuse to embark on another march and demand, once again, that the election be declared void.
That will throw us back to square one.