South Asia

In Pakistan, the Junta Hangs on to Its 'Imran Khan Project'

Pakistan has recently promulgated a controversial ordinance mandating an open voting mechanism for the senate elections. The opposition has sensed an opportunity to mount a challenge.

Pakistan army’s Imran Khan project has been a disaster for the country’s economy and governance, but the junta is clinging on to its fig leaf tightly. In fact, the top brass has become more brazen in its support for their ‘puppet’.

A week ago, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) released its Democracy Index report for 2020, in which Pakistan ranked at 105 out of the 167 countries and was rightly categorised as a hybrid regime.

As if on cue to prove the EIU right, just days later, the president of Pakistan promulgated an ordinance mandating an open voting mechanism for the senate elections coming up in March.

Also read: Cash-Strapped Pakistan Secures $ 800 Million in Debt Relief From G20 Nations: Report

The Pakistani constitution, like India’s, has provisions for the president of the republic – largely a figurehead – to issue an ordinance to help the ruling party govern, in exigencies when the parliament is not in session, or cannot be summoned. But the timing, text, intent and context of this ordinance cannot be more abhorrent to the constitution and democracy.

Game plan

The government first tried to amend the constitution, which was thwarted by the opposition. It then filed a presidential reference in the Supreme Court of Pakistan under its advisory jurisdiction seeking opinion on open voting for the senate polls. The phrasing of the ordinance seems to egg on the SCP.

But, while the SCP is still hearing the reference, the regime sensed the game slipping through its hands, as once the elections schedule is announced the voting rules cannot be changed. But the ostensible reason given for the ordinance is that the constitutionally-mandated secret balloting in the senate polls has historically been prone to the members of the provincial assemblies (MPAs), who form the electoral college for their respective provinces, selling off their votes to the highest bidder.

A couple of video clips were then released, which show individuals including MPAs from Imran Khan’s own party, the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), accepting wads of cash apparently for their votes in the 2018 senate polls. Curiously, a few of those PTI men have alleged that they were receiving money from their own party for joining it. That the senate elections in Pakistan have historically been marred by horse-trading, is not moot.

In fact, Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN), which now are part of the opposition alliance Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), had signed a landmark agreement called the Charter of Democracy (COD) in 2006 that also called for open balloting in the senate polls.

But the COD was a comprehensive document that called for the supremacy of parliamentary democracy and sought to end the army’s interventions in the political process, through wide-ranging reforms in the constitution, laws and governance, for which the PTI has absolutely no appetite.

In fact, the PTI and its army patrons not only got the current chairman of the senate elected and then helped him defeat a no-confidence move a year later, despite they and their allies being clearly outnumbered in the upper chamber of the parliament. Why are the beneficiaries of that system looking to change it now? The shoe may be on the other foot, now.

Pakistan opposition mounts a challenge

The Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), which launched its campaign to topple Imran Khan a few months ago and has openly called out the chief of army staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa, is posing a pretty serious challenge to the junta and its minions in the senate polls.

The opposition, led by the shrewd cleric-politician Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman of the Jamiat-ul-Ulama-e-Islam (JUI), had initially toyed with the idea of boycotting the senate elections. But the Maulana and others in the alliance were convinced by the equally wily Asif Ali Zardari, a former president who is the co-chairperson of the PPP, not to leave the field open for the Imran-Bajwa regime.

Supporters of Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), an alliance of political opposition parties, wave flags as they listen to their leaders during an anti-government protest rally in Karachi, Pakistan.

Zardari rightly pointed out that the senate is a permanent body and if the elections were to go through in the absence of a challenger, the hybrid regime will pack the house with its henchmen, and it could potentially take decades to undo that kind of majority.

The PDM’s original plan was to build its protest movement to a crescendo before the senate elections, resign from the assemblies, and create a political logjam to force Imran Khan to relinquish power. But no battle plan survives the first encounter with the enemy.

Despite a series of successful rallies, the PDM has not mustered the desired momentum to overthrow a government, backed firmly by the army. The reasons for a lacklustre second-phase performance after a very promising start are myriad, including disagreement, among the component parties on goals as well as the strategy and tactics.

But one external factor at play has been an indication from General Bajwa to various opposition quarters that he is taking a neutral position in the fray, contrary to the opposition’s assertion, doesn’t have total control over Imran Khan, and in fact, is trying to fix things. It was also being insinuated that the COAS is at odds with the director general of the Inter-services Intelligence (DG ISI), Lt. General Faiz Hameed Chaudhry who supports Imran Khan to the hilt.

Pakistan army is many things but one thing it is not – ill-disciplined! There is no way on earth that a DG ISI can go against the COAS and still retain his rank and station. Far lesser insubordination would have resulted in far grave consequences. It is inconceivable that the presidential reference and ordinance could have been initiated and the videos leaked without the approval of the brass.

So, when the director general Inter-services Public Relations (DG ISPR) Maj. General Babar Iftikhar proclaimed the army is neither involved in politics nor is in touch with the opposition, he was swiftly chastised by Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman and taken to cleaners by the former PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi. Following his party chief Nawaz Sharif’s lead, Abbasi minced no words in pointing out the army’s active role in sabotaging his party’s democratically elected government through all manner of machinations.

Pakistan’s version of Potemkin democracy

Imran Khan was foisted upon Pakistan in 2018, in an election largely seen as rigged by the army in his favour. The idea simply was to maintain a pretence of democracy while the army under General really called the shots.

Exasperated with the three-time former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his PMLN, for trying to wrestle back some semblance of civilian supremacy, but unable to mount an overt coup d’état due to domestic and international constraints, the army had opted to rule indirectly in this South Asian version of a Potemkin Democracy.

Leaders of Pakistan Democratic Movement gathered at a rally in Karachi against PM Imran Khan. Photo: Twitter.

An 18th century Russian, Count Grigory Potyomkin is said to have constructed carboard villages in Crimea, to impress his love interest Catherine the Great and foreign dignitaries in her entourage. The Count allegedly dressed up soldiers and serfs as affluent shoppers to create an air of prosperity under the Czarina rule.

Also read: Tens of Thousands Rally in Pakistan Demanding Ouster of Imran Khan

The story is probably false but some of the former Soviet republics, especially Georgia, were dubbed as the Potemkin Democracies for creating an illusion of a democratic dispensation despite remaining authoritarian regimes at the core.

With the international cost of overt authoritarianism becoming prohibitive, assorted dictatorships chose to put up elaborate façades to appear like democracies. Pakistan’s current hybrid regime is no different. Unlike China or Saudi Arabia, Pakistan can ill afford to be seen as an overt authoritarian country. It remains way too dependent on the Western world and its financial institutions to have yet another army dictator at the helm.

The pretense of democracy also makes it easy for the western world to exert little or no democratising pressure let alone go the route of punitive actions. Elections, however flawed or rigged, are accepted as a proxy for democracy. One hardly sees the United States or European Union calling out, in a meaningful manner, the junta over the human right abuses, hounding of activists and their families, civilians being abducted and tried under court martial, a dirty war in Balochistan, the media gagged, and press in chains.

But what remains promising for democracy in Pakistan is its people subscribing – despite remaining directly under army’s boot for three decades – to a parliamentary democratic system of governance. No army dictatorship ever went unchallenged in Pakistan and three generals left power in disgrace, and a fourth one perished before meeting the same fate.

The current hybrid regime won’t have a different outcome no matter how tightly they cling to each other. For all their weaknesses, the opposition parties in the PDM have managed to remain united for now and not fall for any ruse or temptation. If it sails through the senate elections largely unscathed, it would be able to regroup and get back on the road.

For the regime to crumble, a pincer of street power and parliamentary tactics will be needed. Can the PDM regain enough steam to mobilise the masses and muster the courage to quit the assemblies creating a gridlock, coinciding with its planned protest march on Islamabad on March 26, remains to be seen.

Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist. He tweets @mazdaki