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Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
– William Shakespeare, in Henry IV
After 10 days that shook Pakistan, the country got its 23rd prime minister.
Mian Shehbaz Sharif was sworn in as the new PM on Monday, April 11, a day after receiving the vote of confidence from the National Assembly (NA). He is the president of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN), eponymous with his older brother and three-time former PM, Mian Nawaz Sharif, under whose shadow he has previously served three terms as chief minister of the country’s largest province and the party’s power base, the Punjab.
Shehbaz Sharif will be sitting atop a broad coalition consisting of former opposition parties and groups that had joined hands to oust the ex-PM Imran Khan. Sharif has assumed the high office not only at a crucial time and in a highly charged political atmosphere, also but in an unprecedented manner.
Imran Khan is the first PM in Pakistan’s history to have been ousted through a vote of no-confidence, ending his stint in the office a year-and-a-half before the current NA completes its term. The outgoing PM tried unconstitutionally to stop that vote through the NA’s speaker and got the country’s President, Arif Alvi, to dissolve the assembly.
These illegal actions by Imran Khan and his quislings were reversed by the Supreme Court of Pakistan in a landmark judgment, paving the way for his ouster in disgrace.
The country’s all-powerful army, which had installed Imran Khan in 2018 as the civilian façade of a hybrid regime, had become exasperated with its puppet due to his monumentally poor governance and policies that drove the country’s economy into the ground. But the last straw that broke this double-humped camel’s back was Imran Khan hobnobbing with the former Director General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (DG ISI), General Faiz Hameed Chaudhry who currently commands the Corps XI, to create his own lobby within the army.
The brass led by the incumbent Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa opted to ostensibly remain above the political fray, effectively ensuring that the army’s asset-turned-liability was finally shown the door. Each one of these factors leading to the rise of Shehbaz Sharif and a premature demise of the hybrid regime could and would have a bearing on how things evolve in Pakistan.
Shehbaz Sharif has been the opposition leader in the current NA but had not really been seen as a national leader, largely due to the elder Sharif’s larger-than-life persona within their party and the polity. His claim to fame mainly has been as a tireless, strict administrator. An early-rising teetotaller, Shehbaz Sharif had run a tight ship in Punjab, keeping bureaucracy and other public servants on their toes, often showing up for work and field visits at the crack of dawn.
But as the opposition to Imran Khan evolved, Sharif, a polyglot proficient in over half a dozen languages, including German and Turkish, showed that he is reasonably deft at the art of political deal-making. While the elder Sharif went after the army brass all guns blazing over its disastrous hybrid regime project, the younger brother advocated for rapprochement. He worked his brother and other leaders in the opposition alliance called the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) such as the wily cleric-politician Maulana Fazlur Rehman of the Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Islam (JUI), to let him have a go at it.
To build a consensus against Imran Khan, he also worked closely with Asif Zardari and his son, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), who had previously parted ways with the PDM. But now comes the challenge to keep all these partners within the coalition, and happy, to keep the government afloat.
The initial thought among these parties was to reform the election laws and other aberrations introduced by the outgoing PM, and then dissolve the assemblies to let a caretaker setup conduct fresh elections that would provide them with an opportunity to get a fresh mandate. But now it seems that they may wish to hang around a bit longer, and definitely past November this year, when General Bajwa completes his extended tenure, and a new COAS is appointed.
This means that the coalition government would have to handle the gargantuan task of stabilising the floundering economy.
The new dispensation would not be able to pass on the hot potato of tough fiscal decisions to a caretaker setup. With the country’s foreign exchange reserves dwindling down precariously to a few weeks’ worth, the unenviable task of renegotiating with the IMF – which had put its funding on hold, citing political turmoil – would have to be a priority for Shehbaz Sharif and his financial team. For the fiscal year ending in June, the State Bank of Pakistan has already revised the average inflation forecast to above 11% and raised the policy interest rate to 12.25% citing that, and international and domestic factors. With the international commodity prices still soaring, first due to lingering COVID-19 effects and then the Russia-Ukraine crisis, the supply chain disruptions, and foreign investment in Pakistan at a virtual standstill, the economic outlook is dreary.
The outgoing regime had given an ostensible relief package to the public seething with rage, by slashing domestic fuel costs and power tariffs, in contravention of what they themselves had negotiated with the IMF. This virtually is a political hornet’s nest that the new administration has to tackle. Maintaining the subsidised fuel and power rates would continue to cost the government not just hundreds of billions but also the IMF’s direct ire, while rolling the relief back could have dire political costs that both the current allies and adversaries would inflict upon Shehbaz Sharif.
The coalition partners are a disparate bunch that came together to oust Imran Khan but otherwise have competing political agenda and diverse constituencies. Some of them like the PMLN, the JUI and some smaller parties could potentially forge electoral alliances in the future polls. But the PPP and the PMLN are historical adversaries that are unlikely to ever have an electoral adjustment with each other. While the PPP would work with the PMLN to reform the election laws and perhaps to bring to book those who violated the constitution and hounded the opposition in the garb of accountability, it would not want to take blame for any further economic hardship that might come the common man’s way.
It is not a question of if the PPP and some others would jump ship, but when. This effectively makes the coalition setup a closed-ended transaction unless the outside political compulsions force them to stick together. And Imran Khan is making abundantly clear that he could become that compulsion.
Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) party parliamentarians stayed out of the NA during the no-confidence proceedings and when Shehbaz Sharif was elected leader of the house. Imran Khan called for protests that same evening, and his emotionally-charged loyalists turned up in moderate numbers, mainly in the urban areas. Adding further to rancour, President Arif Alvi suddenly called in sick the next evening, clearly to avoid swearing in the new PM.
The PTI then resigned en masse from the NA, and apparently the resignations were accepted by the Deputy Speaker. Imran Khan subsequently addressed a sizeable rally in Peshawar of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa where his party still holds the provincial government. It is not necessarily the size of the crowds Imran Khan has drawn but his rhetoric and his ardent supporters buying into and echoing it both on the street and social medial, that is a double-edged sword. While it brings some pressure on the army, it could also trigger a retaliation from Imran Khan’s former patrons.
Imran Khan’s strategy is fairly straightforward: discredit and boycott the parliament, mobilise the street by painting himself as a political martyr who succumbed to a foreign intrigue carried out by domestic collaborators. In the weeks leading up to his fall, Imran Khan had been peddling a fantastic conspiracy story that a US official had threatened regime change in Pakistan and coopted the entire opposition to carry it out!
He has been insinuating that the army brass, especially General Bajwa, was part of the plot. While Imran Khan stopped short of naming the army leadership directly, his hordes went to town chanting anti-Bajwa slogans and running social media trends calling for his removal. Unlike the long history of champions of civilian supremacy criticising the army’s overall political role, the PTI cadres’ only gripe is General Bajwa not pulling Imran Khan’s chestnuts out of the fires he himself had set.
While several ex-servicemen have also supported Imran Khan’s posturing, his partisans ran fake audio messages from retired generals, including an ageing former COAS, General Mirza Aslam Beg, castigating the incumbent army chief. Imran Khan’s desire to retain General Faiz Hameed as DG ISI and then promote him to the COAS, and the latter’s last-ditch efforts to save the PTI government, are now rather well-known.
But this kind of campaign to create a divide in the army’s rank and file, is rather unprecedented.
I have maintained that Pakistan army is many things, but it certainly is not ill-disciplined. It has, historically, dealt with the handful of coup attempts against the brass swiftly and decisively. In 1951 a group of disgruntled military officers led by the mercurial Major General Akbar Khan had approached the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) with a coup plot that proposed overthrowing both civil and military leaderships of the time.
While the CPP had spurned the offer, its leadership was jailed nonetheless for years on end in what became known as the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case. The CPP leadership was honourably exonerated and released eventually but the party had been banned.
General Akbar Khan In another instance in 1983, a group of mid-level officers were arrested, court-martialed, and imprisoned, on the charge that they were plotting a coup against the military dictator General Muhammad Ziaul Haq, at the behest of the PPP leadership. More recently, a group of army officers were tried and sentenced in 2012, for links to Hizb-ut-Tahrir. The only successful coups d’état in Pakistan were launched by the army, not against it.
The army leadership’s kid-glove treatment of General Faiz Hameed, therefore, was quite a curiosity. The brass, on the other hand, had clearly decided to abandon Imran Khan last fall. While the explanations are myriad, it is within the realm of plausibility that the plan was to send the high-profile general out to pasture quietly once his cohort had been canned. The duo, however, may be down but not out. And Imran Khan is certainly not quite.
A day before Imran Khan’s Peshawar rally, the army convened its 79th Formation Commanders’ Conference, with General Bajwa presiding it. According to army’s official communique, ‘the forum took note of the recent propaganda campaign by some quarters to malign Pakistan Army and create division between the institution and society.” That, however, did not deter Imran Khan from upping the ante at his maiden post-ouster rally, and spinning his conspiracy narrative further. After the rally, the Director General Inter-Services Relations (DG ISPR) addressed a press conference denying and debunking most of Imran Khan’s assertions, without naming him. It was quite a spectacle to see the DG ISPR acting like an embarrassed parent disowning their wayward youth’s words and actions.
But have they learnt a lesson? After all, Imran Khan is not the army’s only project that has backfired. Decades of siring and nurturing jihadists culminated in the so-called bad Taliban turning on Pakistan, and even attacking the General Headquarters.
Damage control years after unleashing destructive forces has its limitations. It seems that the army is now letting information about Imran Khan and his family/friends’ alleged misappropriations surface in the media. He also faces charges for receiving illegal foreign funding, which, if proven, could disqualify him for good. The DG ISPR did, however, made pronouncements about the army’s commitment to its constitutional and professional role only, even though the presser itself was political to hilt.
He announced that General Bajwa would neither seek not accept another extension, which isn’t breaking news exactly. The Pakistan army’s pledge to stay out of politics is welcome, but even those inclined to trust it, must verify.
Merely standing at a podium and making an announcement is not enough; confidence-building measure would have to be undertaken. There are decades of wrongs that have to be set right. Without the army’s support, Imran Khan’s campaign to upend the new order will likely wilt on the vine. But the vitriol he has injected into the body politic will take years to purge. What the brass needs to comprehend is that the army cannot systematically decimate the diverse political opinions and ostracise every dissenting voice, while deploying all its resources to prop up and impose a cult like Imran Khan and expect different results.
It was great to hear PM Shehbaz Sharif declare in his maiden address to the NA that no one is a traitor, and no one was traitor. He has also reached out to politicians across the political spectrum and from all ethno-national entities of the federation. It would be good to see these diverse voices represented not only in the new cabinet but also becoming part of the national discourse to heal and repair the damage inflicted by the downright malevolence of the last several years.
As the new PM plans to pick up pieces of the tattered economy, he must remember that development without rights is a colonial construct. Rebuilding economy would help Shehbaz Sharif remain afloat but building bridges across the complex political and ethno-national landscape of the federation could help him soar.
Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist. He tweets @mazdaki.