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South Asia

Does the Military of Pakistan Have Any Intention of Letting its Grip Over Politics Ease?

The fallout with Imran Khan, the attack on military sites and the subsequent military trials of civilians, all point towards the fact that no such plan is afoot.

Had not former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government been ousted by a vote of no confidence last year, the Persian word toshakhana and its treasures would have remained elusive.

“His dishonesty has been established beyond doubt,” Judge Humayun Dilawar wrote in the ruling, sentencing Khan to three years in prison for misusing his premiership from 2018 to 2022 to buy and sell gifts from the Toshakhana.

Khan (70) leader of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), was arrested on August 5, and through a notification issued on August 8, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) disqualified him from holding public office: “Mr Imran Ahmed Khan Niazi is disqualified for a period of five years and is also de-notified as a returned candidate from constituency NA-45 Kurram-I.” (Subdivision of Kurram District in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province)

Khan, faces more than 100 cases of corruption, fraud and even assassination since his ouster, was previously detained in May. His arrest had set ablaze an intense political turmoil, with violent clashes between PTI supporters and police, and attacks on the habitually revered military’s installations. This time, he has been arrested in the lead-up to general elections, which are scheduled to be held within the next three months.

The process of dissolving the National Assembly (Pakistan’s lower house) will begin from August 9, three days before Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s term ends. In the case of an early dissolution, the ECP is mandated to conduct general elections within 90 days. But the timely conduct of polls in Pakistan appears to be a dubitable undertaking.

Will constitutional norms be followed?

Pakistan has a history of non-adherence to constitutional norms. The only democratic solution to Pakistan’s protracted political and economic crises is for a freely elected civilian government with a fresh mandate. The composition of the caretaker government is yet to be finalised. Once formed, will it be able to conduct polls within the constitutionally mandated period of 90 days?

On August 1, Pakistan’s Bureau of Statistics submitted to the Council of Common Interests (CCI) for approval of the 2023 census. The ECP is required to carry out fresh delimitation of all the Assembly constituencies before the next general elections. The notification of the 2023 census makes the delimitation process mandatory. Attendant to several constitutional and legal requirements, this will be time-consuming, resulting in a situation wherein polls might not be held until early 2024. The interests of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League ― Nawaz (PML-N) remain in deferring timely polls, lest the PTI make a strong showing. Their bet is that Khan’s disqualification and the delay in the elections would erode his popularity.

Also read: US Site Publishes ‘Diplomatic Cable’ at Heart of Imran Khan’s ‘Foreign Conspiracy’ Claim

Military and political regression

When he was in power, Khan found in Qamar Javed Bajwa, then military chief, an ally for his campaign against corruption, primarily focused on punishing the Sharif (PML-N) and Bhutto (PPP) families. But the friendship soured because of bitter differences over issues such as who to appoint as the spymaster, and the extension of Bajwa’s tenure. During the May 9 ‘protests’ hundreds of Imran Khan supporters vandalised state buildings, including martyrs’ monuments and sites such as the Army General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi and the corps commander’s residence in Lahore.

Pakistan’s military vowed to tighten the “noose of law” around “planners and masterminds who mounted a hate-ripened and politically-driven rebellion against the state and state institutions.” Imran Khan himself has been booked under the stringent Anti-Terrorism Act, over the attack on the army GHQ. Since the military crackdown, leaders have been deserting the PTI in droves; 57 of Khan’s party members announced they were forming their party Tehreek-e-Insaf parliamentarians.

The court’s verdict and Khan’s imprisonment have raised suspicions that the state was in a hurry to disqualify Khan from the upcoming general election. Could Khan still pose a risk to his rivals by supporting other candidates from behind bars?  In a video recorded before his arrest and posted on social media, Khan again called on his supporters to take to the streets in protest.

The fallout with Khan, the attack on military sites and the subsequent military trials of civilians, all point towards the fact that the problematic military of Pakistan has no intention of letting its grip over politics ease. The nation is notorious for jailing former prime ministers, be it Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif and now Imran Khan, and avoiding any action against the military. Even as the five-year term of the National Assembly was coming to a close, legislation amending the Official Secrets Act bill, which amplifies the powers of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), was passed.

An interesting twist: will self-exiled, three-time former PM Nawaz Sharif, de facto head of PML-N, return to Pakistan to lead its election campaign? In late June, Pakistan’s National Assembly passed a bill to limit the lifetime disqualification of lawmakers to five years, paving the way for the return of Nawaz Sharif from London to resume active politics.

Meanwhile, the popular demand for general elections is gaining momentum in Pakistan. Further delaying of elections carries a greater risk of political uncertainty. A day ago, PM Sharif recommended the dissolution of parliament. Amidst Khan’s arrest, military institutionalisation, economic chaos, soaring inflation, an acute shortage of gas and electricity and a general state of despair, outgoing PM Sharif has announced the auction of Toshakhana gifts, the proceeds of which would be spent on welfare initiatives.

Vaishali Basu Sharma is an analyst of strategic and economic affairs.

This piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.