South Asia

Pakistan: Can Nawaz Sharif Stare Down the Hybrid Regime?

While the political sands are shifting, the ultimate face-off remains between Nawaz Sharif and the army – with Imran Khan and other minor players being a sideshow.

Listen to this article:

The drama which started almost two months ago with Prime Minister Imran Khan’s obstinate insistence on retaining his favourite, General Faiz Hameed Chaudhry, as director general of Inter-Services Intelligence (DG ISI) ended this past week with the military brass led by army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa ultimately prevailing.

General Faiz has been posted as Commander of the XI Corps at Peshawar and the new DG ISI, Lt. General Nadeem Ahmed Anjum, has replaced him. Though the junta showed tremendous patience with its puppet PM – swallowing his tantrums and even allowing him even to interview a slate of candidates – it eventually ensured that he signed off on the candidate the army had chosen.

Lt. General Nadeem Ahmed Anjum. Photo: Twitter/@Ufaqmujahid.

This is the first major, and very public, rupture between Imran Khan and General Bajwa. Both the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government and the army have been known to publicly declare that they are “on the same page”. However, that page seems to be in tatters now. And the end result is political uncertainty, if not full-blown chaos, with the two constituents of Pakistan’s hybrid regime, as well as the opposition to it, all fending for themselves.

The army imposed Imran Khan on Pakistan in 2018 by literally stealing the elections. Before engineering Imran Khan’s electoral victory, the army got the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP) to oust and disqualify the three-time former prime minister Nawaz Sharif from office on the flimsy charge of failing to disclose potential wages from a ceremonial position he had once held in his son’s UAE-based company.

The army had been infuriated with Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) for trying to assert a modicum of civilian supremacy and pursuing a high treason case against former dictator General Pervez Musharraf. But unable to mount an overt coup d’état due to domestic and international constraints, the brass had opted to rule indirectly in this South Asian variety of a Potemkin Democracy. The idea simply was to maintain a veneer of democracy while the army really called the shots. In the process, the army also canned Nawaz Sharif’s agenda for regional peace and trade with the neighbouring countries, especially India. An economy on upward trajectory between 2013-18, with GDP growth as high as 5.8 and the CPI inflation not exceeding 5.4%, came to a grinding halt under the new management. The junta and Imran Khan both seemed to have convinced each other that the latter had assembled a financial dream team, which would steer the country to an economic Valhalla that the army gods would get to rule over in perpetuity without ever having to deal with irksome democratic mortals.

Fast forward to the end of 2021 and Pakistan’s economy is on the brink of disaster, with inflation skyrocketing into double digits. In a play on the literal meaning of Pakistan – the land of the pure – the Economist has called the country the land of the poor, with its per capita GDP not even at two-thirds of India’s and life expectancy slightly better than Afghanistan’s. While GDP showed a slow uptick, rising imports, surging global commodity prices and the ever-weaking rupee have pushed the hybrid regime to desperately seek a lifeline from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In the interim, food and fuel prices have virtually broken the back of the middle and lower-middle classes, and crushed the poor.

But what got the army eventually worried was not the hideous reality of its warped hybrid project, but that its image as the manipulator that could no longer be hidden. The common man is pointing the finger of blame for his economic misery not just at Imran Khan but at those who have installed him. A slogan now heard at protests in the Punjab province, which is home to most of the brass and troops, goes:

“Bhukkay reh gaye main te tu,
Lut ke lay gaya GHQ”

(Who is hungry? Me and You,
Who has plundered? GHQ)

The junta seems willing to sacrifice its protégé so long as the alternative does not try to name, shame, and hold it to account for the disaster. It appears amenable to even letting the judiciary take the heat for its role in bringing down Nawaz Sharif, so long as the generals do not get blamed for leaning on the judges to do their hatchet job.

In essence, the army wants to scale back the intensely in-your-face control of politics that General Bajwa has unabashedly conducted, to one that is more restrained publicly but complete, nonetheless. It effectively wants a face-saving leeway with mere cosmetic changes, without letting the lopsided power equation change vis-à-vis the civilians. To that end, the army might prefer an in-house change where a so-called national government is cobbled together with the help of opposition members from the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), a PTI block and allied parties pried away from Imran Khan, with the tacit approval – if not support – of the PMLN. This type of dispensation would supposedly run for the rest of the National Assembly’s term through 2023. The proposition may be acceptable or even desirable for the PPP, which potentially eyes the PM slot for its young chairman, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari that otherwise is a pipe-dream given the party’s dismal standing outside the leadership’s home province of Sindh. The PPP would also get to retain its provincial government in Sindh.

Also read: Pakistan: Trouble in Hybrid Regime’s ‘Paradise’ Over Appointment of ISI Chief

Imran Khan as the incumbent would obviously flail and swing against such machinations. In fact, his clinging to General Faiz was an act of self-preservation where he sensed that the army, which as an outfit brought him in, is collectively willing to send him to the chopping block. In the ex-DG ISI, Khan saw an ambitious ally who seemed willing to help him tide over the current crisis, secure a second prime ministerial term and, in a quid pro quo, himself become the COAS next November. But just like in Vegas, in the Pakistan army too the house always wins. The army does not tolerate solo flights from within its ranks. Its decision-making is collective and individual ambition is only acceptable if it matches the institutional needs.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan with appointed DG ISI General Faiz Hameed. Photo: Twitter/@alisalmanalvi.

The Khan-Faiz gamble thus backfired, as it does not converge with the army’s current need to repair its incredibly tarnished image. Should the army show him the door, Imran Khan, for his part would not be able put up any significant resistance for multiple reasons. Every bit of Imran Khan’s post-2011 ascent has been meticulously engineered by the army, complete with building his media image, organising his rallies and protests, shepherding the pro-army politicians into his PTI, as well as ruthlessly undermining his political opponents.

Bereft of all that support, it seems highly improbable that Imran Khan would be able to challenge his army masters. The reason that the army has not drummed Imran Khan out after this spat is that there really aren’t any takers for the job, without a change in terms and conditions. In fact, the brass even helped Khan’s government ram dozens of bills, including the approval of controversial Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) and voting rights for overseas Pakistanis, through a recent joint session of the parliament. While Khan may see this as success in retaining the army’s patronage, the EVMs – with an inherent potential for electronic rigging – seem to be the proverbial sword of Damocles that the army is hanging over the opposition’s head, especially Nawaz Sharif’s, for he remains defiant and unyielding.

While the political sands are shifting, the ultimate face-off remains between Nawaz Sharif and the army – with Imran Khan and other minor players being a sideshow. Sharif was wronged and doesn’t flinch from saying that it is the army which has wronged him. He, his daughter, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, and a sizeable number of the PMLN stalwarts want this rectified. They want their sham judicial disqualifications rescinded and fabricated cases quashed. The father-daughter duo wants not just a level playing field, leading up to free and fair elections, but a guarantee that the army won’t resort to its usual shenanigans and start undermining yet another democratic setup within six months. However, the army seems willing to allow the PMLN back into the game only if – and that’s a huge if – it doesn’t insist on revising and resetting the rules.

Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother and the PMLN’s president Shehbaz Sharif, who has been a consistent proponent of a near-unconditional rapprochement with the army, would be acceptable to the latter. The younger Sharif, however, can’t and won’t go against his brother, not just because of the familial hierarchy but simply because the vote bank belongs to Nawaz Sharif, and then his daughter.  The army remains wary of Nawaz given both his past record of trying to assert civilian control over the military and attempts to bring General Musharraf to book for subverting the constitution, as well as the more recent tactic of publicly indicting Generals Bajwa and Faiz for engineering his fall and ouster. For his part, Nawaz Sharif, even when he does not name names, makes it a point to draw attention to the army’s decades-long violations of the constitution. For example, speaking remotely to the recently-held Asma Jahangir Conference, Sharif described those who “scale the walls of the constitution” as traitors, in a thinly-veiled reference to the putschist generals, once again implying high treason charges.

Also read: Pakistan Military, ISI Installed ‘Puppet Govt’ of Imran Khan, Says Ex-PM Sharif

The army, under General Bajwa, therefore, appears to be looking for alternatives to Imran Khan that would also keep Nawaz Sharif at bay for now. It seems to be dragging its feet even on the PMLN’s tacit demand that if an in-house change is to be brought about, it should be for the sole purpose of ousting Imran Khan’s disastrous dispensation and holding fresh elections. The PMLN remains part of an opposition alliance called the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), which, after showing tremendous initial promise at its inception a year ago, has been marred by divisions and inaction. The PDM has been promising a multi-pronged strategy to oust Imran Khan and force his army backers to lay off meddling into politics. To that end, it had pledged a pincer strategy of protests in the streets and inside parliament, culminating in the opposition’s resignations from the assemblies. None of that materialised. The junta successfully coaxed components of the PDM, like the PPP, to avert any coherent agitation and action. But that was before the tiff between the army and Imran Khan.

Another factor that has come into play lately are accusations by members of judiciary and an alleged on-tape admission by a former Chief Justice of Pakistan, Saqib Nisar, that the army had coerced the judges into convicting and disqualifying Nawaz Sharif and his daughter on framed charges. While the PMLN has been able to build a fairly strong anti-hybrid regime narrative, it has not been able to get the PDM to put forth a tangible plan for the endgame or come up with one on its own.

To successfully prosecute political change, a sound strategy and robust struggle must match a strong narrative. In the PMLN’s case, the narrative has been enunciated fairly clearly by both Nawaz and Maryam Sharif, but there seems to be vacillation about choosing the means to that end.

I had a chance to meet Nawaz Sharif in London earlier this month. It was eminently clear that in the final lap of his long political marathon, he wants to leave a legacy not just for his party but also a mark on the country’s history. It was refreshing to hear a right-of-centre politician speak clearly about civilian supremacy guaranteed by the constitution, the rights of the federating units, civil liberties, and regional peace. He seemed clear that he would not accept a government without the authority to run it.

The former PM is clearly not interested in political scraps. He does not want to merely replace Imran Khan without a substantive change in the army’s behaviour. He realises that there is a historical opportunity to correct the course of Pakistan’s polity, that no other politician – except perhaps Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the post-1971 scenario – has had. On the strategic front, he seemed inclined to lead a broader front to change, without compromising on the civilian supremacy or his party’s preeminence. On tactics, he appeared patient but not incognisant that time is of the essence and that the window of opportunity can close before one knows it. The constellation of an unpopular and incompetent government and its army benefactors getting squarely blamed for its failings – especially the sagging economy – and public unrest and protest are the essential ingredients for a popular political movement. Pakistan’s current political milieu has them all.

In addition, the only way to push back against the army’s behind-the-scenes political machinations is a strong people’s campaign to counter those. Can Nawaz Sharif pull the rabbit of civilian supremacy out of the current political chaos and stare down the hybrid regime? One wouldn’t know unless he gives it his best shot. But this much is certain: there is no time to vacillate and dither. As Goethe once said, “Each indecision brings its own delays and days are lost lamenting over lost days. Whatever you can do or think you can do, begin it. For boldness has magic, power, and genius in it.”

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