South Asia

Pakistan Election: No Matter Who Wins, the Army Will Rule the Roost

As Pakistan votes today (February 8), the fight is expected to be between Nawaz Sharif's PMLN and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari's PPP. Imran Khan's party (PTI), stripped of its election symbol, is forced to field its candidates as independents.

On Tuesday, January 30, 1962, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, a former prime minister of Pakistan, was arrested from his Karachi residence on ambiguous charges of anti-state activities, under the Security of Pakistan Act. His real crime, however, was opposing General Ayub Khan’s martial law regime. Sixty-two years later, on the same day and date last week, another ex-PM, Imran Khan was sentenced to a 10-year jail term, on a flimsy charge of leaking state secrets by making a diplomatic cable or cipher public. The French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr’s famous phrase, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” or “the more things change, the more they stay the same”, has perhaps never rung truer.

Like Suhrawardy, who at the time of that arrest had already been disqualified from electoral politics through the martial law regime’s Elective Bodies Disqualification Order (EBDO), Imran Khan too was barred from elections last year and remains imprisoned after a conviction on corruption charges. That’s where the similarities between Suhrawardy and Imran Khan end though. Suhrawardy was an intellectual and political giant who stood firmly for parliamentary democracy, a pluralist nation state, and refused to endorse military rule. Imran Khan, on the other hand, is an authoritarian demagogue who was handpicked, groomed, installed into the high office, and sustained there by the army till they fell out.

In addition to imposing martial law four times, the Pakistan army has ruled indirectly for most of the country’s existence. To that end, the junta has manipulated the political process by creating or co-opting what it deemed ‘patriotic’ and pliant individuals and parties. The army’s chosen politicians, however, have invariably spun out of its orbit like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and some even locked horns with the brass, like Nawaz Sharif.

They all ultimately paid the price for standing up to the army. And Imran Khan’s fate was not going to be any different. Chairman Mao Zedong had famously said that “the Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the Party”. The gist of Pakistan’s perennial civil-military imbalance is that those wielding the guns clearly believe that no political party – including the assorted king’s parties that they sired themselves – should ever be allowed to command the gun.

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So when in late 2021, then PM Imran Khan tried to assert himself and insisted on retaining his closest ally Lt. General Faiz Hameed in place as the director general of the ISI, the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa stonewalled him. Never mind that General Bajwa had himself presided over Imran Khan’s installation into high office in an arrangement called the hybrid regime. By that time Imran Khan had already been losing the confidence and support of the military establishment, largely due to a horrifying mismanagement of the economy and shoddy governance.

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan with Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Photo: Twitter/PTIofficial

The generals who were rightly getting blamed for imposing and sustaining the disastrous Imran Khan project, decided to change horses. The opposition political parties saw the army’s proclamation that it would stay politically neutral, as a nod to lunge at Imran Khan. In April 2022, a rainbow coalition called the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), which included parties like the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) and Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Islam, supported by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), ousted Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) party’s government through a no-confidence vote in the National Assembly. PMLN’s Shehbaz Sharif became the PDM government’s PM.

Imran Khan, however, trained his guns on General Bajwa, holding him responsible for his downfall. He also tried unsuccessfully to forestall General Asim Munir – whom he had removed as the DG ISI –becoming the new COAS. While this escalated tensions between Imran Khan and the brass, the latter remained rather restrained. But all hell broke loose when on May 9, 2023, the PTI leaders and workers rioted against military installations after Imran Khan’s arrest. Imran Khan seemed to have calculated that with pockets of support within the army, judiciary, and general public, he could bring down the army chief through a coterie of generals allied with him and also upstage the PDM government. It was a monumental miscalculation and misreading of the army’s discipline and unity of command.

The army cracked its whip and thousands of PTI cadres and leaders were arrested. Imran Khan himself was rearrested and has remained incarcerated since. Scores of PTI leaders were forced to repent and pledge allegiance to the army publicly and quit the party. Independent political groupings and even a new party were carved out of the PTI. Imran Khan went from being the army’s darling to its detested demon. But he remained popular with his cult-like followers, something which worried the brass deeply. The PDM government’s own dismal economic performance, lacklustre leadership like Shehbaz Sharif and total subservience to the junta, didn’t exactly capture the public imagination. The generals and the PDM, which virtually served as the hybrid regime on steroids, tried every trick in the book to buy more time to manage Imran Khan.

A vitiated political environment

The outgoing PM Shehbaz Sharif had the National Assembly dissolved a couple of days before its term ended, which pushed the due date for fresh elections to 90 instead of 60 days. The PDM appointed the army’s chosen minions to run the caretaker government, stacking the executive and administrative deck against Imran Khan. A scheduled change of guard in the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP) deprived Imran Khan of his patrons in the judiciary as well. The army, which through its allied judges had shielded Imran Khan in the past in assorted legal cases, now deployed the administrative and lower courts machinery to expedite proceedings against him.

On the other hand, the former three-time PM Nawaz Sharif, whom the army had gotten convicted and disqualified from politics, and was living in self-exile in London, returned and got those verdicts reversed. While the charges against Sharif were trumped-up and politically-motivated, the relief coming their way was also seen as a political rapprochement between the PML-N and the army to pave the way for his ascent to the high office for a fourth time. Nawaz Sharif, now bereft of his anti-establishment plank and shouldering the blame for the PDM’s abysmal performance, however, needed more time to reconnect with and re-energise his base. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) delayed the polls citing a requirement to redraw the voting districts following an updated census.

While the PMLN, the PPP, and other parties finally got their election campaigns off the ground, the army was simply not ready to leave anything to chance. The brass wanted even the remotest possibility of Imran Khan’s electoral victory or even a respectable loss to vanish. And the ECP obliged and stripped the PTI of its iconic election symbol – a cricket bat – on the technical grounds that it had not held intra-party elections. In a country with an abysmal literacy rate and preponderance of rural constituencies, an election symbol carries both brand value and polling-day utility. The ECP’s decision was clearly a ploy to undermine both.

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The Peshawar high court overruled the ECP decision and restored the PTI’s election symbol, only to be overruled by the SCP. The otherwise well-respected Chief Justice of Pakistan Qazi Faez Isa was widely criticised for a verdict that stood on very thin techno-legal ice. Without its leader who had been forced out of the chairmanship due to his legal predicament and an election symbol, the PTI, though not legally banned, was pushed out of the contest as an organised party. A bruised and battered PTI still managed to field a large number of candidates, who were now forced to run as independents and were whimsically given a confusing assortment of election symbols by the ECP. The army, however, was not satisfied still.

A day after the verdict in the cipher case, Imran Khan and his wife were given a 14-year prison term on charges of misappropriating from the Tosha Khana state repository, several gifts he had received while in the office. But two major strikes against Imran Khan in two days were still not enough for the army. Imran Khan and his wife were fined and condemned to seven years in prison, on one of the most ludicrous and sleazy charges in Pakistan’s checkered judicial history. The couple was charged with contracting their marriage in violation of an Islamic requirement of a post-divorce waiting period called Iddah before which a woman is not supposed to remarry. The army and its henchmen in the judiciary were plumbing new depths. Whatever the veracity of the allegations might be, the unholy haste with which the kangaroo courts delivered these rapid-fire verdicts points to the army’s desire to seal Imran Khan’s electoral fate totally and irrevocably.

A demonstrator participating in a protest in Hyde Park, London, against what activists claimed was a US-backed coup against Imran Khan, former prime minister of Pakistan. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Alisdare Hickson/CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED.

Through these three verdicts, the army sought to paint Imran Khan as a national security risk, as well as a financially and morally corrupt leader, who not only stands a zero chance in this election but in the foreseeable future as well. There are other legal cases pending against Imran Khan, including those pertaining to the rioting against military installations, which could be expedited, especially, in the unlikely event of the PTI-backed candidates somehow mustering a victory on February 8. In that case, an eventual government reference to the SCP seeking to ban the PTI remains well within the realm of possibility. At the time of this writing, the election campaign has ended in Pakistan, but the crackdown against the PTI workers and hounding of its rump leadership and potential voters continues unabated.

Calls such as from the spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, urging the Pakistani authorities to ensure a free and fair election, are too little and too late. While the pre-polls rigging by keeping the PTI from running as party and crippling its electoral machinery should be enough to deliver the army’s desired verdict, election-day tinkering cannot be ruled out.

Army to have the final say

Assuming that the army has successfully vanquished Imran Khan come February 9, Pakistan will be looking at yet another civilian dispensation beholden to the junta. Nawaz Sharif, seen by many as the frontrunner, had started off by challenging the junta over its misadventures like the Imran Khan project. But along this campaign trail, he chose to hold his silence over the army’s disastrous role in political engineering, while castigating the judges responsible for his 2017 ouster. The PMLN, and for that matter, the PPP or any other political party’s calculus seems to be that by confronting the army over its political machinations, they risk falling out of favour with the brass. The army, for its part, has always had a penchant for introducing or picking multiple players and factions in the political arena. The tactic is conducive to the army’s strategic objective of retaining the ultimate power by coopting the politicians who, in turn, compete for its benefaction.

Samuel Finer has noted in The Man on Horseback: The Role of the Military in Politics that “politically the armed forces suffer from two crippling weaknesses, which preclude them, save in exceptional cases and for brief periods of time, from running without civilian collaboration and openly in their own name … one weakness is the armed forces’ technical inability to administer any but the most primitive community. The second is their lack of legitimacy: that is to say their lack of moral title to rule”.

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Pakistan’s foremost human rights defender, the late and much-lamented Asma Jehangir had put it much more simply when she stated that the army’s generals are dangerous duffers out to ruin Pakistan. And by accounts of General Asim Munir’s interactions with the students at home and the Pakistani diaspora in Washington, D.C., Asma Apa was on the dot. One participant of the D.C. meeting described General Munir as an intellectual flyweight who underwhelmed the audience by his half-baked geopolitical views anchored in religious certitude and cliché verses that he misattributed to Pakistan’s national poet Allama Iqbal. Be that as it may, General Asim Munir, however, serves the army’s institutional imperatives and his sophomoric intellect would matter very little.

What remains of profound concern is that the Pakistan army, which considers itself the final arbiter of patriotism, national interest and the ultimate framer and executer of foreign and national security policies, has used the Imran Khan and PDM hybrid regimes to make a power and governance grab not seen since 1958 when General Ayub Khan imposed the country’s first martial law. The army got the PDM government to give constitutional and legal cover to its business enterprises and sweeping powers to its intelligence agencies. The army is much more deeply entrenched today than it was on the eve of the 2018 elections.

While the PMLN and the PPP made no mention of the civil-military relations, foreign policy, the simmering conflict in Balochistan and the disastrous security situation in several Pashtun regions, during the elections campaign, these are realities that would have to be grappled with. The army with its burgeoning business empire, a voracious appetite for budgetary allocations, and now a constitutionally-sanctioned seat at the economic policy table, is more deeply involved than ever in the fiscal affairs as well. Manifestos and rhetoric of the political parties, including the PTI’s, however, sounded more like a wish list rather than policy prescriptions for the deep economic crisis that Pakistan is in. No matter who forms the government will be dictated to by the army sitting atop the tutelary commanding heights.

History, however, informs us that even the weakest PMs like Muhammad Khan Junejo and Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali ended up having differences with the strongest army dictators, General Ziaul Haq and General Pervez Musharraf, respectively. Nawaz Sharif himself was ousted thrice by the army when he tried to assert his constitutional authority. The power dynamics of the de jure authority and de facto rulers is such that once in the office, the former invariably seeks agency that’s due to their moral title. None of this is lost on Imran Khan’s political opponents and the army with which they have made a common cause. But they still chose to destroy democracy in order to save it from Imran Khan.

That Imran Khan is a vindictive demagogue who had hounded not just his foes but friends as well and sought to perpetuate himself in the office through undemocratic means, is not moot. But even he should have had a fair judicial trial as well as a fair chance in the court of public opinion. The way the army has manipulated the executive, parliamentary, judicial and electoral machinery to keep Imran Khan out hasn’t just undermined those very institutions for here and now; it has set the stage for instability and political chaos for years to come. Pakistan’s already dysfunctional democracy has been dealt a near-fatal blow. No matter who wins the elections, it is the ‘dangerous duffers’ who will rule the roost.

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