The military-backed establishment in Pakistan is in a quandary because the more they try to remove Imran Khan from politics, the higher the chance that he will gain support.
In a separate order, a court ordered Khan to appear before it next week as it considers possible contempt of court charges for remarks deemed to threaten judicial officials. On 25 August, Khan obtained preemptive bail in order to avoid an impending arrest in connection with a police complaint regarding the speech made under the nation’s anti-terrorism law. The bail order shields them from arresting him until 1 September 2022. The government is also considering measures to prevent his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, from participating in the elections, which must be held by the end of the year.
Imran Khan, Pakistan’s 18th Prime Minister, was dismissed from office on 10 April 2022, as a result of a vote of no-confidence. Khan wasn’t the first Pakistani prime minister to leave the office early, but he was the first to lose a no-confidence vote in the house. In actuality, no Prime Minister has ever served a full five years in office in Pakistan.
Khan’s danger of seizing control once more appears to be eliminated by a portion of the powerful army. Shahbaz Gill, one of his aides, was charged with sedition and accused of attempting to stir up unrest among the troops. Khan has accused the government of temporarily limiting access to his talks on YouTube, and his allies in the media and civil service claim they have recently experienced an uptick in harassment.
Democracy and Pakistan have a troubled history together. The nation has gone through four military takeovers since gaining its independence in August 1947, passed three constitutions, tried both presidential and parliamentary systems of administration, and held ten general elections. The military has engaged in a variety of “soft coup” tactics, such as assisting new political players, in addition to overthrowing elected governments, to weaken the support of current parties, especially those who have lost favour.
The political turbulence that followed Khan’s ouster is being seized upon by anti-democratic entities in Pakistan to bolster their anti-democracy rhetoric. These forces portray democracy as an inadequate form of government for Pakistan, where petty politicians exploit the country’s illiterate populace. They contend that because no elected official has yet served a full term, democracy is frail and fragile. Contrarily, military dictators have succeeded in holding onto power for as long as ten years.
The topsy-turvy military-civilian ties
The military and civilian governments in Pakistan have never had cordial relations. Repeated military coups have eroded political institutions. Contrarily, corrupt civilian governments have frequently served as the justification for military coups, in which generals brought order to an otherwise chaotic situation.
Military intelligence agencies like the ISI have also engaged in extremely controversial activities and are frequently accused of interfering with the nation’s civilian politics. The intelligence agencies have been utilized for political objectives by every military regime in Pakistan as well as several civilian governments, including Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s in the 1970s. Governments run by ordinary citizens have also fallen prey to the agencies’ deception in the past.
Military dictator Ayub Khan took under his wing Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto fifty years ago. He was a rising political star back then. By the beginning of the 1970s, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the Bengali nationalist movement needed to be counterbalanced, and Bhutto was the establishment’s pick to do it.
However, the union did not fare well: Bhutto was overthrown in a coup by General Zia-ul-Haq in 1977, and during his rule, he was given the death penalty.
Then, in the 1980s, it was Zia’s turn, who helped young industrialist Nawaz Sharif rise to prominence. By the decade’s close, Sharif had become the establishment’s preferred alternative to the “dangerous” Benazir Bhutto.
Indeed, their separation was also contentious. General Pervez Musharraf staged a coup against Sharif in 1999, and he was driven from office for a third time under military pressure in 2017. In the years between, Sharif was Pakistan’s most vocal opponent of the military’s involvement in politics.
Beginning in the early 2010s, the military developed a close relationship with Khan, first using him and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), to exert pressure on the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of the Bhuttos and Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League (PML-N) governments on the street, and then, in 2018, installing him as president in an election that was widely believed to have been rigged. PTI’s divorce from power followed the same cycle.
The PTI government strained relations with the establishment during its final few months in power. The PTI recently made certain foreign policy choices that were detrimental to the military. The Pakistani military was particularly upset by Imran Khan’s anti-Western statements after Russia’s military incursion in Ukraine because it wanted Pakistan to retain a neutral stance. The opposition merely became a benefactor of the outcome.
It has become a vicious cycle in Pakistan’s political arena: the generals continue to support someone they believe they can do business with because they feel threatened by a more widely accepted alternative. Ten years later, a different general learns that his predecessors made an error of judgement: it turns out that the junior partner is not as malleable as first thought. The military prevails in the conflict, and the civilian is ousted from power. If the civilian is just imprisoned or deported rather than executed, they will eventually learn their democratic credentials and start the campaign against the military, which will call for the next recruit. And it goes on.
Like others, Pakistani Establishment also manipulates public opinion
Since 1965, there has been a significant decrease in poverty and a continuous rise in the middle class. The political parties in power in developing nations like Pakistan implemented programs to significantly reduce the number of people living in poverty.
Votes or broad acceptance are typically the outcomes of these programs. A large number of the poor were also able to join the middle class, which increased the degree of expectation from the government. However, the government is unable to live up to these expectations and is under constant pressure from those with increasing purchasing power, expertise, and information.
In Pakistan, the middle class rose more quickly than the response of governments that were still engaged in constituency politics. And the majority of the electorate was still trying to either get out of poverty or improve their financial situation. However, middle-class communities started to emerge as well. They created their own set of requirements, which the governments could not fulfil.
These constituents consequently started to rely on “superior” utility, educational, and job services offered by the private sectors. Additionally, they grew to dislike traditional party politics and saw it as corrupt and out-of-date.
Middle-class populations in emerging nations believe that these parties are merely acting in the interests of the lower classes for their own electoral and financial gain.
As a result, the middle classes in Pakistan endorsed authoritarian ideologies that were expressed by the military elites. However, when direct military control became more difficult to maintain in a shifting international environment, the military and its machinery started forging relationships with political parties that serve the interests of the military elite. If political parties fail to deliver, Pakistan’s judiciary emerges to join the tug of war.
The military elite, for maintaining Status-quo, has forced all the political parties to look through a prism of “regime uncertainty”, where the judiciary is often dragged into policymaking decisions. The unconsolidated and unstable nature of Pakistan’s political system has forced the major political parties to look through short-term horizons. This hybrid political setup of Pakistan has kept the political institutions fragile.
What lies ahead for Pakistan under the powerful establishment?
Shehbaz Sharif was chosen in Pakistan’s political soap opera because he has served as chief minister of Punjab three times, the country’s largest and most significant province which is renowned for his political savvy and lack of public confrontation with the Army. But saving Pakistan from the economic disaster would be his hardest challenge. The IMF forecast that Pakistan’s GDP would increase by 4% during the current fiscal year and that by the end of the following fiscal year, total foreign debt would increase to USD 103 billion.
Add to that the continuing global economic downturn caused by the sanctions-countersanctions due to the war in Ukraine. The “establishment” of Pakistan has been bribing its allies in the US and the Gulf states for decades, of course, to finance Pakistan, so their current foreign exchange reserves mainly were accumulated through borrowing. China only made inroads recently, but has bankrolled infrastructure projects under the auspice of CPEC (China–Pakistan Economic Corridor) and its presence has added a new dimension to the global power competition in the region.
The existing administration and its establishment backers will undoubtedly expend sufficient time and effort to maintain the IMF, Saudi Arabia, China and other contributors on board. The state is also expected to face fallouts from the ongoing tensions in many of Pakistan’s ethnic peripheries. The Baloch insurgency and the rise of radical elements in Afghanistan since the US pullout will be major security concerns for Pakistan in the days to come.
Tribe, caste, and ethnicity-related concerns are more important to Pakistanis than global issues. Due to the army’s tutelary authority over diplomacy in Pakistan, discussions over foreign policy are dangerous. Only hawks who support the stated national policy are accepted by the military. The stated policies in the 2013 party manifestos provide a useful indication of the parties’ respective views on foreign affairs. The important query, though, is whether these opinions have any significant influence on policymaking. Foreign policy can have unequal levels of acceptance across the country due to the predominance of military interests. For instance, the Shias and Pashtuns have been shown to have a cross-border ethnic affinity for Iran and the Taliban, respectively, while the Sunnis tend to show affinity to Gulf Monarchies and Turkey.
Despite having a security and economic crisis, Pakistan is sitting on a node of multiple important energy supply routes from Russia, the Middle East and Iran towards India and China. But Pakistan has a long-contested conflict in Kashmir with India, and New Delhi in turn is accused of fueling the Baloch insurgency along with Iran. Islamabad is today paying price for being an ally of the USA in hybrid wars, the best it should do is to focus on internal turmoil and create itself as a hub of energy supply through cooperation with multipolar behemoths. Only then it can expect to alleviate the stress of domestic unrest by working towards economic sustainability.
But before that, it needs peace in its domestic theatre. A fragile political system will be the last thing that can benefit Pakistan to this end.
Is Imran Khan leading a political revolution?
In his speeches, Khan advocates for unrestricted democracy and actual parliamentary rule, which is revolutionary enough in Pakistan, a nation with a stratified society and a strong military presence. While his allies contend that his opponents were given substantial bribes to depose him, he asserts that a nation that tortures its political personnel cannot be a democracy and calls for new, fair elections.
But his method of communication, which challenges the centralized order of things, maybe just as spectacular. Khan, who makes extensive use of social media and live streaming, is determined to spread his message despite being rejected by major broadcasters and receiving little coverage in print media.
His campaign could portend a major shift in Pakistani politics if he is successful in flouting these restrictions and avoids being detained for terrorism-related offences. Parties of all shades make up the government. If Khan is able to exceed them all, the traditional political methods might never return.
Along with attacking the military and the corruption that drives Pakistan’s Army-led economy, Khan does so in a 21st-century manner and with tools that the generals might not fully comprehend. With more than 64% of the population under 30, Pakistan is a young nation. Khan appeals to them through this generation’s media. His popularity with young people and female voters is a political rarity and advantage.
Khan contends that the military-driven corruption of Pakistan’s economy, judiciary, and political system led to his overthrow, which he likens to a coup.
The generals, however, can clearly be seen to be concerned as Khan’s language in opposition becomes loftier, taking aim at the essence of military authority as well as the corruption of elections, parliamentary politics, the economy, and state institutions.