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Political Turmoil in Pakistan Raises More Questions Than Answers

Ashok K. Behuria is Senior Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • May 22, 2023

    Pakistan continues to surprise everybody with its politics. Over the years, in the name of hybrid democracy, it has grown highly competitive institutions, each trying to overtake the other in the race for power, mostly stretching the limits set on them by the Constitution and operating according to the letter and not the spirit of the constitutional provisions. The spirit of accommodation, which is central to democratic politics, is almost absent in the country. All losers are bad losers and winners want to take it all!

    As Pakistan moves from one crisis to another, it is surprising that rather than putting pressure on their leaders to behave, the people are participating in the ongoing inter-institutional war with aplomb, as if it is a festival of some sort. Interestingly, this time around, the principal architect of Pakistani politics, the powerful military, is finding it difficult to wade through the sludge it has created itself. In the military’s decline, however, there is no reason to cheer, because the country is faced with an acute economic crisis buffeted by years of imprudent fiscal policies and worsened by four years of misrule by Imran Khan.

    Imran at the Centre of the Turmoil

    At the centre of the poly-crises is the septuagenarian Imran Khan. Ever since his party was backed by the army as a third pole in Pakistani politics, he was thrown up as a non-corrupt and non-corruptible philanthrope who would work towards a Naya Pakistan, based on a throw-back to Riasat-e-Medina, the system that Prophet Muhammad had developed during his stay in exile (622–629 AD), a system that was marked by compassion, forgiveness and pragmatism.

    However, Imran had none of these principles guiding him during his prime ministership. He would continue to be his petulant, restless, mercurial self, always given to petty bickering with his political opponents, levelling high decibel accusations against them, calling them ‘Thieves’ and ‘Robbers’ (Chors and Dakoos), rather than enabling a culture of reconciliation that Riasat-e-Medina stood for. He chose to forget that the ‘electables’ who filled the ranks of his party, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) were picked from the very parties he was labelling as corrupt. He mis-spent his tenure using his power to tame the media and put his opponents behind bars, misusing National Accountability Bureau (NAB). In the process, he devoted less time bringing about the change (tabdeeli) that he had claimed and promised he would bring in, after coming to power. He appeared high-handed and susceptible to sycophancy.

    Backed by the military and the judiciary of Pakistan—both of which had together curated Pakistani politics during 2011–2018, disqualifying Nawaz Sharif, launching Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) to destabilise his government and enabling Imran Khan’s mega-marches on Islamabad—Imran thought he was invincible. It is also a lesson in Pakistani politics that popularity that Imran acquired could be engineered by the military in tandem with the judiciary, as they went on undermining the then government of Nawaz Sharif.

    With rising popularity, which he has sustained till now, Imran has emerged as a cult-figure. But this has come after careful manipulation of Pakistani politics by the deep state of Pakistan. As a cricketer, he was popular, but he was a big failure in politics. For about 15 years (1996–2011) Imran was in a political wilderness, unable to make his mark. With the army on his side, the media nudged to favour him, and his rallies allowed to disrupt the peace in the capital city, Imran quietly earned a political gravitas unparalleled in recent history of Pakistan. The last time one had seen such crowds was in the late 1960s when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had left Ayub’s cabinet and floated his political party, unassisted by the military, of course.

    The popularity he commands has spoilt Imran, and he has developed a ‘God complex’ many Pakistani observers would say. Neither he nor his supporters consider it indecent and improper, leave alone illegitimate, for Imran to have engaged in financial bungling/corruption in the twin cases of Toshakhana and Al Qadir Trust. For him and his constituency, he cannot do any wrong.

    A Culture of Insolence Prevails

    The culture of insolence that Imran Khan has unleashed and normalised in Pakistan has taken civility away from Pakistani politics. Unfortunately, he seems to be dictating the terms of political discourse today, and his opponents, including the army top-brass, have unwittingly been sucked into a high-voltage political spectacle, centred around him.

    In the meantime, the former army chief General Bajwa has reportedly confessed that when he discovered Imran was becoming a headache for Pakistan and decided to withdraw army’s support from him, he committed a mistake by not informing and explaining the army’s position to the media. Perhaps, it was too late for him to do so. Frankenstein might have sensed that the monster of support behind Imran Khan had acquired an independent life of its own.

    The events in Pakistan over the last few weeks show that a spectre of vandalism and licence haunts the country today. The way the unruly crowd broke into the official residences of two corps commanders in Lahore and Karachi on 9 May 2023, and attacked the air force base in Mianwali clearly demonstrated that the Djin had gone out of the bottle. The support Imran received from the judiciary, which nullified his arrest on Al-Qadir Trust case initiated by NAB, might have emboldened Imran’s supporters further.

    This is perfect recipe for disaster. Pakistan appears more fragile than ever before. The army looks much weakened, perhaps as weak as it was in 1971. The judiciary looks wobbly. The political culture of Pakistan has turned for the worse and certainly not conducive for democratic politics. All this is happening at a time when Pakistan is faced with the possibility of economic default and increasing attacks from insurgent groups from within. One of these, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claims it has an alternate Islamic Sharia-based blue-print for Pakistan and wages an open war against the army.

    More Questions than Answers

    Will Pakistan be able to muddle through? It seems the army has decided to act, after 9 May. A tentative political consensus seems to be emerging now that the acts of vandalism by Imran’s supporters were uncalled for. Imran’s close aide Fawad has already condemned it and Imran has obliquely criticised it too. Some of the PTI workers have left the party over this issue. Whether the army has read the riot act or not, to some extent, the attack on armed forces has at least induced some sympathy among the power elite now, which includes the judiciary.

    The Chief Justice, after extending unrestrained welcome to Imran during his hearing after his arrest, seems to be sobering up and not pursuing cases against the Shehbaz Sharif government over the issue of elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with the vehemence he was showing weeks ago. Imran is demonstrating a fear psychosis about his possible rearrest which is unbecoming of a rabble-rousing mass leader that he is. So are his henchmen.

    Does it mean, things shall soon fall back into place? Will the army be able to enforce its authority all over again in Pakistani politics? Will Imran now agree to elections in October, even though the next Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) who would assume office on 16 September, will be somebody (read Qazi Faez Isa) who may not be as brazenly pro-Imran as the current one (Atta Bandial)? Will Imran agree to it if he is assured that there would be free and fair elections? What will happen if Imran were to be disqualified like Nawaz after the new CJP takes over? Will the army take over if it leads to chaos again?

    In all likelihood, if Imran decides to wait it out till October without antagonising the establishment further, he is likely to reap a good electoral harvest. The most pertinent question to ask here is, if he returns to power, will he de-notify the current army chief’s appointment and pick a new one? Will this (in case he does it) result in civilian supremacy in Pakistan?

    The last of these questions may not be difficult to answer. Imran has not ever trained his guns on the ‘army’ as an institution. He was the most timid and cooperative as a prime minister vis-à-vis the army, when he was in office, until he sensed that the top leadership would not engineer majority support behind him in the assembly any more. He was apprehensive that the new Chief would not be favourable towards him.

    Imran’s anxiety is likely to go down once he is assured of a chief who would not unsettle him. He may not, however, be interested in bringing in civilian supremacy that would antagonise the army, as an institution. His sympathisers within the army, who are rumoured to be propelling his rant against the present chief and his men, would possibly ensure that.

    Pakistan is condemned to pass through a whole array of uncertainties in the days to come. A strong government with the will and capacity for transforming the nature of politics in Pakistan can only ensure a way out of the crisis it is in.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.