Pakistan’s Politics Shadow of The Military

Amidst a backdrop of economic turmoil and strained international relations, Pakistan’s political landscape has been marked by a profound power struggle. However, the recent election verdict serves as a resounding call from the people to end the military’s interference in Pakistan’s political affairs
By Pranay Sharma
  • Election outcome in Pakistan reflects widespread public resentment towards the military’s interference in politics
  • Army echelon perceived that reinstating Nawaz before elections could leverage his popularity to challenge Imran, particularly in Punjab
  • In the aftermath of the election, the military has reasserted itself by facilitating a coalition between the Sharifs and the Zardari-Bhuttos
  • Conspiracy theorists speculate Army Chief Asim Munir benefits from fragmented political parties, preventing a challenge to the army’s authority

THE February 8 election to the Pakistan National and Provincial Assemblies where voters elected independent candidates aligned to the jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan in large numbers, was widely interpreted as a reflection of Pakistani’s desire for change.

But as the dust settled down after the counting of the ballots, it once again exposed the inherent flaw that exists in Pakistan’s political structure.

Defying all odds imposed by the authorities, close aides of Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI) contested the election as independent candidates and won a plurality of parliamentary seats. Of the 266 contestable seats at the national level, they won 93, while the incumbent party Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and its alliance partner Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) won 75 and 54 seats respectively.

But Imran’s supporters, who form the largest group in parliament, are in the opposition. The PML-N leader Shahbaz Sharif has become Prime Minister for the second time and the PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari, whose party is supporting the government from outside, the President.

Unless the Pakistani military establishment can seriously convince the Indian leadership through verifiable and irreversible measures that it has dismantled its terrorist apparatus and discarded its past policies, talks between the two countries, even if they begin, will not make much progress

‘IMRAN-MINUS’ STRATEGY

The election verdict reflected the Pakistani electorate’s desire not only for a change of the Prime Minister and his coalition partners, but also for a carry-over from the previous government. But it was also a strong indictment of the army and its meddling in the country’s political affairs. In the run-up to the election, the generals had propped up PML-N and its coalition to marginalise Imran.

The military establishment, aware of Imran Khan’s growing popularity, had been working for months to put in place an arrangement that would make the former Prime Minister and his political party – PTI, redundant in Pakistan’s politics.

In what was popularly known as the “Imran-minus” formula, the military had imprisoned Imran and systematically undertook the task of dismantling the PTI. It had arrested a number of senior members of Imran’s party and forced them either to retire from politics altogether or leave the PTI and join other army-approved political outfits.

As part of this formula, the generals also cleared the path for PML-N chairman and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s return to Pakistan from his self-exile in London. Nawaz had several pending criminal cases against him and was barred from holding any public office. But the military managed to make those charges disappear for the former PML-N Prime Minister.

The army echelon felt that if Nawaz was brought back before elections, he would be able to bank on his own popularity to counter Imran, especially in Punjab, the country’s most populous and politically the most significant province.  

In addition, the military  slapped three criminal charges on Imran on the eve of the election and barred his party from using its electoral symbol—the cricket bat. But ultimately all the desperate measures proved inadequate as Imran’s supporters came out in large numbers and voted for the independent candidates aligned to his PTI.

“The results of Pakistan’s election came as a shock to analysts who expected Imran Khan’s PTI to wilt under intense pressure from the country’s military authorities” says Pakistani political commentator Ayesha Siddiqa.

Siddiqa noted that the election outcome demonstrates the depth of public resentment in Pakistan of the army’s meddling in politics and state affairs as well as disenchantment with the country’s traditional political parties.

“People voted for Khan’s party not just because the former cricket star is a better politician but because he has become a symbol of standing up against military dominance,” she adds.

The results also point to Pakistanis’ discontent with the country’s overall trajectory and the electoral process being a solution to the challenges facing the country. According to Gallup, 7 out of 10 Pakistanis said before the election that they lacked confidence in the honesty of the elections.

MILITARY DOMINANCE

Observers point out that nearly half of Pakistan’s electorate is now less than 35 years of age or that the country’s youth have become resentful of military intervention. Many feel the Pakistani army was the clear loser of this election.

But there lies the irony of Pakistan’s politics and its flawed political structure where the army remains the main arbiter of all developments and looms larger than any other institution in the country.

The army has not only run the country directly for half the period of its existence but has not allowed a single elected Prime Minister in the country to complete a full-term. Though Pakistani politicians are aware of this dubious record they have not yet been able to restrain their lust for power that has frequently led them to make deals with the army.

Pakistani politicians often talk about taking charge of running the country and limiting the military’s role. But they know that their rise, survival and existence in Pakistani politics, is dependent on the active backing of the military.

The army has not only run the country directly for half the period of its existence but has not allowed a single elected Prime Minister in the country to complete a full-term. Though Pakistani politicians are aware of this dubious record they have not yet been able to restrain their lust for power that has frequently led them to make deals with the army

Imran Khan himself was a beneficiary of the military establishment’s control over Pakistan’s politics when he was elected Prime Minister in opposition to Nawaz Sharif in the 2018 election.

Nawaz Sharif too, was an army protégé, when he was picked up in early 1990s to counter PPP leader Benazir Bhutto’s influence over the Pakistani electorate. Nawaz, a three-time Prime Minister, had repeatedly been thrown out of power by the army. Yet, this did not prevent him from accepting the military’s offer to return to the country from exile and help them in marginalising his bete noire, Imran Khan.

Imran Khan was essentially brought in by the former Pakistani army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa in its quest to look for a third option that went beyond the two established parties—the PML-N and the PPP.

FALL FROM GRACE

Imran, a cricketing icon and an Oxford-educated leader, served the generals well for some years. But he could not regain the trust of the United States’ leadership and put the bilateral relations on track as Bajwa had expected he would do. Relations between them started to sour when Imran started asserting himself on key appointments overruling the army.

The falling out also coincided with the worst economic crisis that Pakistan was facing and Washington was increasingly aware of how Pakistan was propping up the Taliban and scuttling the political regime the US had painstakingly put in place in Afghanistan. Relations between the two worsened further after the Joe Biden administration decided to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan after a 20-year failed campaign.

Meanwhile Imran, miffed at Joe Biden’s decision of not making the customary telephone call to him since taking office, stepped up his anti-American rhetoric during public speeches. His decision to visit Moscow on the day Russian tanks were rolling into Ukraine was perhaps the last straw that damaged his relations with Biden and his officials irreparably. This is when the Pakistani army thought of his removal through a trust vote in parliament.

Since his ouster from power due to the loss in parliament in April 2022, Imran Khan has launched a vicious attack on the government led by Shahbaz Sharif that replaced him, as well as on the army and the US, accusing them of conspiring to remove him.

As his attacks against the establishment grew more vitriolic and found popular acceptance among the people of Pakistan, especially the youth, and the economic crisis in the country worsened, the military decided to imprison him on the ‘Toshakhana’ case. He was accused of selling off gifts that he received while in office.

Should India-Pakistan Dialogue Revive?

A resumption of India-Pakistan dialogue would be hailed by people in the subcontinent and beyond. But whether it would yield any concrete steps to address India’s core concern—cross-border-terrorism from Pakistan remains doubtful

Tabletop miniature flags for India and Pakistan at a meeting table for diplomatic discussions and negotiations.

THE call for a resumption of dialogue between India and Pakistan is likely to return to the political centre stage after the May parliamentary elections in India.

It was widely believed that a Nawaz Sharif victory will certainly focus on re-engaging with India at the highest political level.

But Nawaz did not become the Prime Minister. Instead, his brother Shahbaz has returned to the post for the second consecutive time. If Nawaz is likely to push his brother to reach out to India and create a conducive atmosphere for talks with New Delhi.

Though Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated Sharif on assuming the prime minister’s office through a message on the social media, it is not clear if the Indian leadership will eagerly accept a suggestion for talks if it were to come from the Sharifs.

Since coming to power in May 2014, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made the normalisation of relations with Pakistan among his top foreign policy agenda. He not only invited Sharif along with other leaders from India’s neighbourhood to his inaugural ceremony but also made an impromptu visit to Lahore to engage with Nawaz Sharif. But each time such warm overtures were met with terror attacks on India from Pakistan-based terrorist groups.

After the Balakot incident when India decided to send its fighter jets to bomb terrorist camps inside Pakistan in 2019, there has been no formal contact between the two sides. The Indian decision to carry out an air strike at the terrorist camps inside Pakistan came in the wake of a terror attack on a bus carrying Indian paramilitary personnel in Pulwama in Kashmir.

A resumption of India-Pakistan dialogue would certainly be hailed by people in the subcontinent and beyond. But whether it would yield any concrete steps to address India’s core concern—cross-border-terrorism from Pakistan in J&K and elsewhere in the country, remains doubtful. 

This is because the problem can never come to an end unless the Pakistani military establishment is on the same page and looks for other meaningful and cooperative areas that are mutually beneficial for the two countries.

Therefore, unless the Pakistani military establishment can seriously convince the Indian leadership through verifiable and irreversible measures that it has dismantled its terrorist apparatus and discarded its past policies, talks between the two countries, even if they begin, will not make much progress.

THE SHARIFS’ RETURN

Asif Munir, who by then had replaced Bajwa to become the new army chief had taken the decision to put him in jail. Imran and Munir had a run-in when the former were the Prime Minister and the latter, director-general of Pakistan’s spy network, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Munir was barely six months in his job when he was removed by Imran in favour of a general close to him.

When Bajwa retired, Shahbaz Sharif as the Prime Minister appointed Munir in his place after Nawaz approved the decision from his exile in London. Though Munir initially decided to maintain a low profile, the May 9 violent protests last year by Imran’s supporters in the wake of his arrest gave the army chief the opportunity to come down heavily on the former and his PTI colleagues and supporters.

The fact that the PTI supporters’ act of vandalism not only damaged several public and private vehicles and buildings, in an unprecedented move they also entered the residence of a senior army commander and attacked installations of martyrs and other military assets.

The dismantling of the PTI, imposing several criminal charges against Imran to ensure he cannot take part in active politics for several years and barring his party from using its electoral symbol were all part of Munir’s drive to decimate the former Prime Minister and consolidate his position. In the post-poll scenario, it is the military that has once again asserted itself to bring the Sharifs and the Zardari-Bhuttos together to put in place the new political arrangement in Pakistan.

However, sceptics predict that Shahbaz Sharif will have an extremely tough time dealing with the evolving situation in the country. He not only has to deal with a difficult economic situation but more importantly, a sharply divided polity.

Though Imran’s supporters have been pushed to the opposition rank in the national Assembly, the three Provincial Assemblies are now run by different political parties. While the PML-N is in charge of Punjab, the PPP controls Sindh and the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) is dominated by Imran Khan’s supporters.

Many also wonder as to how long the country’s most popular leader can be kept in prison and whether political and economic stability can really be guaranteed by ignoring his growing support among the people.

Most of the backers of Pakistan like China and the Gulf countries, who have financially supported it in the past may not be as forthcoming in extending further loans that easily unless they see a conducive atmosphere that assures returns

Conspiracy theorists believe that the army chief Asim Munir might not be unhappy with the current situation as the polls have once again divided the political parties where no single leader is there to challenge the army’s authority. Though erstwhile PTI members have independently won most seats in the National Assembly but since they are formally not in a bloc, it will be much easier for the military to break and divide them.

For now, the top priority will be on the economy and finalising the next loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The Sharif government may also focus on strengthening its trade and investment profile.

Most of the backers of Pakistan like China and the Gulf countries, who have financially supported it in the past may not be as forthcoming in extending further loans that easily unless they see a conducive atmosphere that assures returns.

Such a situation is likely to force the new leadership in Pakistan to reach out to India.

Pranay Sharma

Pranay Sharma is a commentator on Political and Foreign Affairs. He has been a journalist for 40 years and has worked for leading Indian publications like the Telegraph and Outlook in senior positions of Foreign and Strategic Affairs Editor and Chief of Bureau. He has written regularly for international publications like the South China Morning Post and others

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