South Asia

Pakistan: Is Political Change in the Air?

The opposition, particularly Nawaz Sharif, is going after the Imran Khan government and Pakistani army all guns blazing.

Over the past two weeks, Pakistan’s political opposition has gone after Prime Minister Imran Khan and his benefactor, the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa, with all guns blazing.

The three-time former premier, Nawaz Sharif, has unequivocally indicted General Bajwa and the incumbent and former Director General Inter-Services Intelligence (DG ISI) – Generals Faiz Hamid Chaudhry and Zaheer-ul-Islam, respectively – for blatantly meddling in political affairs. The former prime minister named the two generals for first, attempts to topple his government through orchestrated street protests, and failing that, by influencing the judiciary and the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to disqualify him from holding the high office. He called them out for subsequently installing Imran Khan as their puppet prime minister, after rigging the 2018 election in his favour.

Sharif fired the first salvo at an All Parties Conference (APC) hosted by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) of Asif Ali Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari. They were joined by nationalist Pashtun and Baloch parties, the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), and above all, the Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Islam (JUI) of the cleric-politician Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman, who had led a march onto Islamabad, a year ago with the intent to topple the Imran-Bajwa hybrid martial law regime. The maulana failed at the time, simply because both the PPP and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) opted to play it safe in the end and had jumped off the wagon. The APC formed an alliance dubbed Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), issued a 26-point charter of demands, and resolved to start street protests shortly.

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What has changed since the maulana’s fizzled out march? I had noted here that to topple the Imran-Bajwa regime, the maulana would need help from the PMLN and to a lesser extent, the PPP. But the two had left him hanging simply because their priorities, at the time, were different. The PPP has the provincial government in its power base, Sindh, and did not wish to lose that, lest it may not be able to return to power. It is still lukewarm to the idea of mobilising on the street for the same reason. The PMLN had abandoned the maulana because there is a sizeable faction within its leadership, headed by the party president and current opposition leader in the National Assembly, Shehbaz Sharif, which pushed for a rapprochement with the army brass in the aftermath of the 2018 elections.

Nawaz Sharif, the Quaid or supreme leader of his party, had ostensibly allowed his brother Shehbaz to pursue that track. Whether it was a good cop/bad cop routine, or the younger Sharif’s chance to appease, he gave it his best shot – for two years, no less – but had little to show in return. In fact, instead of the army backing off from using the courts and the NAB to hound and arrest the Sharifs and other PMLN leaders, remained relentless. Shehbaz Sharif was arrested days after the recent APC.

The army through its civilian fig leaf, Imran Khan had recently pushed a set of laws through the parliament, which, prima facie, are supposed to bring Pakistan into compliance with the requirements of the anti-terror financing watchdog, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). But Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) rammed these bills through the parliament, despite the opposition’s protests, with verbiage that not only immixes terror financing with white-collar crime, but gives the notorious NAB and the intelligence agencies sweeping powers to go after the suspects.

The opposition had initially defeated these bills in the parliament’s upper house, the Senate, where it has a majority. The Imran-Bajwa regime circumvented that roadblock by steamrolling the legislation in a joint session of the National Assembly and the Senate. But not leaving anything to chance, the junta hounded dozens of the opposition parliamentarians and forced them to stay away from the joint session, eking out a slim majority. The opposition rightly fears that in the garb of fulfilling the FATF requirements, these laws have been passed to further persecute the political opponents. The army has overplayed its hand. This legislation might have the last straw that broke the camel’s back. The opposition has sensed that more of the same will follow if something is not done urgently.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan. Photo: Reuters

Another major milestone less than six months away is the Senate elections in March 2021, when half the senators are up for a reelection. The senators are elected indirectly by the provincial assemblies, in a process that is historically infamous for manipulation. Control over the Senate would complete the hybrid martial law’s vice-like grip over the country’s political system. The constitution could then be tinkered with or even defaced beyond recognition, by changing its character from parliamentary to presidential.

Pakistan’s army dictators have trampled upon the existing constitution(s), introduced virulent mutations and anomalies into it, or replaced with warped ones of their own. The army brass’s sole aim has been to have a controlled democracy either under it, when it ruled directly or in front of it, when it has ruled from behind the scenes. The latter arrangement is the idea behind the army’s Imran Khan project. The project ostensibly was conceived to last at least ten years, and the army appears inclined to perpetuate at any cost. Khan is a perfect marionette who is doing exactly what his puppeteer wants him to do. The army, therefore, has no plans to change its horse midstream, despite Khan driving the country’s economy into the ground. In fact, both a JUI leader and Nawaz Sharif have charge-sheeted General Bajwa for first actively conniving to oust the PMLN government and then to keep Khan in power by keeping Sharif, his family and party, on the ropes.

While Nawaz Sharif had always wanted to take the army head on, his brother and some lieutenants were able to restrain him for the past two years. His daughter and political heir-apparent, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, on the other hand, worked hand-in-glove with him to buttress his narrative summed up in their slogan ‘vote ko izzat do’ i.e. the army must respect the people’s mandate. The father-daughter duo faced disqualification and prison in their quest for civilian supremacy but did not back off.

After the APC volley, Nawaz Sharif has been on fire. He has barraged the army almost every other day in speeches to his party, short media talks and Twitter postings. He has raised questions about family of the former military spokesperson Lieutenant General Asim Salim Bajwa, going from rags to riches in tandem with his rise to power in the army. The army then leaked information about various parliamentarians from many opposition parties and (separately) another party leader from the PMLN meeting the army chief with a clearly malicious intent to undermine the narrative evolving since the APC. It backfired, big time.

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Nawaz Sharif upped the ante by barring his party leaders and cadres from meeting with members of the armed forces. If naming and shaming Generals Bajwa, Faiz and Zaheer-ul-Islam, was unprecedented, proscribing even the social interaction with the servicemen – read army brass – is virtually unheard of, in Pakistan, let alone doing so in writing via a directive from his party’s secretariat. It simply means that there’s no turning back for the PMLN supremo. What Nawaz Sharif has done by naming the generals is to pry away the civilian fig leaf this hybrid martial law had. The strength of the hybrid regimes is in wily use of a civilian façade to prevent people from directly challenging the army brass’ hegemony. A declared martial law draws a clear line between pro-democracy and anti-democracy forces, whereas an indirect martial befuddles even the well-meaning democrats at times. The army, especially General Bajwa, has been flayed proverbially naked by Nawaz Sharif and the maulana.

So, what’s next? The PMLN and the maulana can count on each other and assorted Pashtun and Baloch nationalist parties, and sections of the PTM. The PPP while casting its lot with them, on paper, would probably play it safe still. And that usually is name of the game in loosely allied movements. If the agitation gains steam, the fence-sitters would jump into the fray, on the winning side. The JUI had demonstrated last year that it can mobilise its dedicated cadres and religious seminary students in droves, across Pakistan. The PMLN has rather limited history of agitational politics but with Nawaz Sharif mincing no words and Maryam Nawaz holding no punches, their workers are charged and motivated.

In fact, the sentiment within the PMLN cadres has gone from palpably anti-establishment to outright sloganeering against General Bajwa in the heart of Lahore. Nawaz Sharif, who had gone to London for medical treatment, has given no indication of returning anytime soon. And he certainly shouldn’t till the proverbial iron is hot for the final strike. It is highly likely that Maryam Nawaz would be arrested sooner than later. That the PMLN cadres may put up resistance to her arrest is not outside the realm of possibility but having the party patriarch guide the movement from outside the country, is all the more imperative, if she indeed is incarcerated again.

Pakistan army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa at a handover ceremony in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, on November 29, 2016. Photo: Handout via Reuters/Pakistan Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR)

The way the APC and its aftermath were handled by both the army and its civilian veneer, the PTI, indicates that they have opted to fight back. While the army tried to smear the opposition for meeting the COAS, Imran Khan ludicrously blamed India for helping Nawaz Sharif. The dictum in Pakistan goes that chief is the army and army the chief. The army behemoth acts in unison. But the tenure extensions and out-of-turn promotions, invariably leave many in the general staff very sour. Additionally, the blatant intrusions by General Bajwa – beneficiary of an extension – in political affairs, does not sit well with some in the brass and soldiery. Add to the mix that the Punjab province is the power base for both the army and Nawaz Sharif, and there is a possibility that sections within the brass may tacitly approve of a shakedown if not a complete toppling of the applecart.

Civil and military bureaucracies have an uncanny ability to sense when the political sands may be shifting. Nawaz Sharif’s recent speeches getting live airtime on the otherwise tightly controlled media, suggest that there may be a few sensing that something is afoot. But that couldn’t be lost on the Imran-Bajwa regime either. What do they plan on doing, then? Chances are that they’d resort to both carrots and sticks to play off the opposition against each other. Various parties would be promised different rewards – electoral or material – to stay out of the fracas. Failing that, they would be threatened by NAB cases, leaks of personal and political nature, and eventually arrests.

If the PDM is able to hold the trifecta of its street and parliamentary power – the PMLN, JUI, nationalist groupings – together, it can give Imran-Bajwa regime hell. By resigning en masse from the assemblies, they can create a crisis of moral legitimacy, if not a constitutional one. One’s calculated hunch is that General Bajwa is extremely vulnerable on many counts. By resorting to childish leaks about meeting politicians, he may have blinked first.

To protect Imran Khan, the junta would have to expose itself further, and in the process become more vulnerable. Clamping a direct martial law is always an option but definitely not a viable one. It would unite the political forces within Pakistan and an international outcry with deep financial repercussions, which no dictatorial regime would be able to handle. General Bajwa and his coterie had opted to sink or swim together with Imran Khan. At the present time, they can barely keep their head above the political waters. Sinking together seems quite plausible. It is unlikely that one would survive without the other.

Political change is in the air, but can it be pulled off? We shall know when the rubber meets the road.

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