The 2024 election results mark the end of a political cycle that began in the early 2000s. At first glance, this may not seem apparent from the outcome, i.e. a second instalment of a PDM coalition government. Yet, the underlying forces that propelled PTI-backed independent candidates to emerge as the single-largest group in the National Assembly signify important shifts in Pakistan’s social and political landscape.

This outgoing cycle is best characterized as a failed project to achieve a sustained political settlement, under the procedural and aesthetic cloak of liberal constitutional rule. The participants of this endeavour were a range of actors, including the PDM political parties and their core constituents, sections of liberal civil society and private news media, and some segments of the judiciary.

Its primary opposition came from political entities excluded from or antagonized by the emerging system of patronage, such as the PTI, the upwardly mobile urban classes, and the military establishment and its cultivated clients among the media.

The latter coalition won out at some point in the last 10 years. In winning, they stumbled upon their own internal contradictions, and conflicts, which are currently spilling out in the form of the current crisis. But the key thing is that the political project, built in the shadow of the 1973 constitution, is now dead. Attempts at its resuscitation are likely to be futile.

What does this cycle have to show for about 2 decades worth of politics? Its high-point remains the period between 2006 and 2014. During this, we saw the rise of the lawyer’s movement, private media assertion, and the ouster of General Musharraf. Closely following on its heel was the 18th amendment and provincial-tier protections for ethnic federalism, which to date remain its most cited achievement.

Relatedly, the recalibration of federal government finances through the National Finance Commission award settled a 6 decade old conflict over resource distribution. And there has been some normalization of a language of rights and social protection. Legislative work in the provinces during this time generally sought to expand and protect rights of various groups of citizens (women, transgender, minorities), though implementation remains largely absent.

But these achievements, and the politics that made these possible, rested on unstable and compromised grounds. It is no surprise then that its undoing began as early as 2014.

The first undoing was of private media. Long handicapped by a compromised financial model that rested on government advertising assistance or inflows from large (and frequently shadowy) commercial actors, the establishment-led curtailment of its freedoms was swift and thorough. Coercion and censorship on a range of national security and political issues, along with a steady stream of ISPR-funded and cultivated content, ended up incentivizing pointless talkshows and partisan point-scoring instead of substantive reporting.

The second undoing was that of liberal civil society. Intellectually and financially sustained by Western aid largesse in the context of the War on Terror and a global military presence in Afghanistan, the noose was initially tightened on the pretext of monitoring financial flows for terrorist financing. A second round of weakening took place around 2017/18 as aid money dried up, following a change in Western security policy. A third round was the institution of a new registration regime in 2019 that made NGO interventions hostage to government approval.

The third undoing, currently in its final phase, has been of the PDM parties. Since 2022, their survival, especially of the PMLN, has rested on striking a deal with the same establishment that weakened them immeasurably in the preceding decade. There is no bigger indictment of how much ground was lost in this period.

Why did these parties fail to entrench a constitutional settlement that protected their interests? The easy, and somewhat accurate answer, is that they were up against an establishment behemoth that has seen off similar attempts at civilian rule for nearly 7 decades. A hollowing out of independent media, restrictions on civil society, colluding with a nominally independent judiciary, and the support granted to an outside challenger in the shape of the PTI were all hefty blows.

But these parties were also burdened with internal contradictions that made them sorely imperfect vehicles for democracy in the first place. Their mode of politics was based on the cultivation of narrow patronage-based relations with socially dominant segments in Punjab and Sindh. In exchange for these temporary fiefs, they outsourced the ethnic peripheries – FATA and Balochistan - to the militarized logic of establishment control.

They had no agenda or vision for the mass incorporation of working Pakistanis in an ideologically and materially productive political project. They disavowed inclusion and competence in an era in which political aesthetics on social media increasingly mattered. And they remained committed to the self-serving sustenance of family legacies rather than to an organizationally robust political project.

But most of all, they left themselves vulnerable by ignoring the emergent reality of the upwardly mobile, digitally resourceful, and increasingly assertive urban middle classes. The roots of this class lie in the nature of economic growth in the country and the partial and uneven patterns of urbanization, spread of higher education, and new information technologies of the early 2000s.

While, culturally, the middle classes were conservative and historically aligned with nationalist and statist visions of the polity through the establishment, the 2000s saw shifts take place in their mode of engagement with the political sphere. A major sign of this shift, and the political potence of their growing numbers, was through the lawyers’ movement. An incorporation into mainstream democratic politics would have been the logical next step for any sustainable civilian project.

But the immediate aftermath saw traditional parties retreat to ethnic and patronage-based provincial bases of support, rather than develop a type of agenda that could incorporate this national social reality.

This left the field wide open for PTI to develop an electoral politics channelling the moral, statist vision of the upwardly mobile, captured in the populist symbol of Imran Khan. Enabled by the establishment for its own political ends, this project has now taken an entire life of its own. The 2024 election shows the large-scale nationalization of political discourse that undercuts conventional forms of voting.

Much of this has been made possible by a crippling economic crisis that is driven by the structural weakness of Pakistan’s economy, which no mainstream party has been able to address, in turn the crisis provides fertile ground for populist interventions that speak to middle class anxieties of exclusion, civilizational decline, and moral decay.

Ultimately, a PDM 2.0 coalition will keep PTI, and the class segments that it represents, at bay for a temporary period. But the absence of a competing moral vision, and a dwindling base of support, means that these traditional parties are losing ground rapidly. Cutting deals to stay in power will produce more anger and more disruption. As Gramsci poignantly put it, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

Umair Javed teaches politics and sociology at LUMS.

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