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Cover Story: Pakistan

Pakistan’s political chessboard

Print edition : May 06, 2022 T+T-
Prime Minister Imran Khan arrives to attend a military parade to mark Pakistan National Day in Islamabad on March 23. It was evident by the middle of March that his government was on its way out.

Prime Minister Imran Khan arrives to attend a military parade to mark Pakistan National Day in Islamabad on March 23. It was evident by the middle of March that his government was on its way out.

Prime Minister-elect  Shehbaz Sharif speaks after winning a parliamentary vote to elect a new Prime Minister, at the National Assembly in Islamabad on April 11.

Prime Minister-elect Shehbaz Sharif speaks after winning a parliamentary vote to elect a new Prime Minister, at the National Assembly in Islamabad on April 11.

Imran Khan’s  supporters waving the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf flag, throng a public rally in Peshawar  on April 13.

Imran Khan’s supporters waving the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf flag, throng a public rally in Peshawar on April 13.

Pakistan’s economy, like that of Sri Lanka and Nepal, the other two South Asian nations, is teetering. Before the premature end of Imran Khan’s government in March, there were mass protests in Pakistan as prices of essential commodities skyrocketed. The new Prime Minister, Shehbaz Sharif, hopes his efforts to repair relations with the U.S. will help ease the IMF’s restructuring terms for a bailout.

IMRAN KHAN WAS FORCED TO LEAVE THE Prime Minister’s office, literally kicking and screaming. In his efforts to cling to office, he had trampled on established parliamentary and constitutional norms. He prevailed on the Deputy Speaker to disallow the no-confidence motion by a united opposition when it was first moved in the Pakistan National Assembly on April 3. The Deputy Speaker followed orders and disallowed the vote. Then the Prime Minister persuaded the President to dissolve the National Assembly and order fresh elections.

The Pakistan Supreme Court, which had on previous occasions legitimised military coups and the overthrow of elected civilian governments, unanimously ruled after due deliberations that the Imran Khan government should face a no-confidence motion in Parliament. Imran Khan tried to pull off a constitutional coup but the court’s timely ruling helped avert a political crisis.

Immediately after his government lost its majority on the floor of the House, Imran Khan vowed not to recognise the new government headed by the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which was sworn in in the second week of April. About 100 legislators belonging to Imran Khan’s Tehreek-i-Pakistan (PTI) resigned from the National Assembly following his diktat. Imran Khan has taken to the streets and is ominously drawing large crowds. His claim that his government’s independent foreign policy was the reason for the so-called conspiracy to remove him found resonance with the people. He is blaming the United States. Unlike India, Pakistan has been vehemently anti-American since the George Bush administration launched its “war on terror” in 2001 and arm-twisted the Pakistan government into supporting its invasion of Afghanistan.

By the middle of March, it was quite evident that Imran Khan’s government was on its way out. From the very beginning, its survival was dependent on support from small parties such as the Karachi-based Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM-P) and the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP). Many MPs and office bearers started leaving the PTI in droves. It was, however, the lack of support from the influential military establishment that proved critical for the PTI government. Once that support evaporated, it was evident that the government’s days were numbered.

Also read: Shehbaz Sharif sworn in as new Pakistan prime minister

As is well known, no civilian government in Pakistan has been able to complete its full term in office. But this is the first time that a civilian government has been voted out of office. On previous occasions, it was either through direct military intervention or through military-influenced judicial decisions that governments were unceremoniously turfed out of office. Many Pakistani political commentators are of the view that this time too it was the military establishment’s behind-the-scenes role that cooked Imran Khan’s political goose. During Imran Khan’s four years in office, the opposition had lampooned him often as a “selected” Prime Minister, not an elected one.

Military’s role

Pakistan’s security establishment had played an important role in ensuring that the PTI emerged as the single largest party in the last general election. The Army top brass and the Pakistan Muslim League led by Nawaz Sharif were daggers drawn at the time. Nawaz Sharif had openly questioned the extraconstitutional role the Army was playing in the running of the country. In 2017, the Pakistan Supreme Court ruled that Nawaz Sharif was guilty of corruption after his name figured in the “Panama Papers” expose. The Supreme Court barred Nawaz Sharif from holding any elective post for a period of 10 years. It was the third time that Nawaz Sharif had to leave the office of Prime Minister without completing his full term.

Although the military used its influence to ensure that the PTI emerged on top in the 2018 election, a Prime Minister being in power for three and a half years is a long time in Pakistan politics. Imran Khan, the military establishment’s erstwhile blue-eyed boy, started questioning the military’s role in the politics of the country. Nawaz Sharif had entered politics as a protege of the military dictator, General Zia ul Haq. Imran Khan, during his early days in politics, was a staunch critic of the military government led by Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

During the first two years of his premiership, Imran Khan appeared to be playing ball with the military establishment. But fissures between them started appearing in the public domain last year. When the military establishment signalled that it was reverting to its position of neutrality, support for the PTI inside Parliament and the State legislatures started eroding. The tensions between the civilian government and the military became visible in October last year when Imran Khan tried to extend the tenure of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief, Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, who was credited with playing a key role in the electoral victory of Imran Khan in 2018. The Army chief, Gen. Qamar Bajwa, nominated Lt. Gen. Nadeem Anjum to succeed Hameed.

Standoff between Imran and Army

The standoff between Imran Khan and the military establishment over the issue lasted several weeks with Bajwa finally having his way. Bajwa’s term is coming to an end in November. Hameed is among the senior-most generals eligible for the post of Army chief. On paper, it is the Prime Minister’s prerogative to appoint the Army chief. If Imran Khan had continued in office, it is believed, Hameed would have been the front-runner for the job. Reports in the Pakistani media state that some sections of the military, especially younger officers, support the religion-tinged populist political posturing adopted by Imran Khan.

According to political commentators, the final break between Imran Khan and the Army top brass took place after the Prime Minister alleged that the U.S. had a role in the plot to oust him. The Army spokesman dismissed Imran Khan’s accusations. Speaking to the media a week after the removal of the PTI government, the spokesman rejected Imran Khan’s claim that the National Security Council had endorsed his conspiracy theories.

Also read: Why Pakistan's political crisis goes beyond early elections

The spokesman also denied that Bajwa had offered to mediate between the government and the opposition to break the political impasse in the National Assembly. Instead, he said that it was Imran Khan who had requested Bajwa to convey to the opposition that if it withdrew the no-confidence motion, he would immediately call for fresh elections. The military official said that Bajwa had conveyed the proposal to the opposition but it rejected the offer. The Army spokesman claimed that the U.S. had not asked for any military bases in the country after the Taliban took over Afghanistan. Although there may not have been any formal requests, it was reported in the Western media that the Joe Biden administration had requested access to Pakistani bases near the Afghan border, after the fall of Kabul.

Recipient of U.S.’ military largesse

The Pakistan Army wants to continue the cordial relations with the U.S. Much of the military’s weaponry is of American origin. Until a decade and a half ago, Pakistan was one of the largest recipients of military largesse from the U.S. The Donald Trump administration had suspended $2 billion in military aid to Pakistan over accusations that the Army continued to nurture anti-India militants. Pakistan’s military help was crucial for the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001. The Pakistani security services had a big role in the creation of the Taliban and its initial rise to power in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s. The military establishment claimed that the country had gained more “strategic depth” with the Taliban in power in Afghanistan,

After the Pakistan Army resumed its covert support for the Taliban resistance in the last decade, relations between Islamabad and Washington started to sour again. Pakistan was used as a base to launch drone and missile attacks on Taliban targets inside Afghanistan during the Bush and Barack Obama administrations. American strategic priorities in the region have also changed since the turn of the century. India is now the U.S.’ preferred ally in the region. The U.S. political establishment feels that a major factor that contributed to its defeat in Afghanistan was the double dealing by the Pakistan security establishment. Pakistan, on the other hand, feels that the rise of the Pakistan Taliban, which today poses a grave threat to its security, was a result of its support for the U.S. misadventure in Afghanistan.

Avowed opponent of U.S. policies

Imran Khan, throughout his career in politics, was an avowed opponent of U.S. policies in the region. He was particularly outspoken about the use of U.S. drones from Pakistani territory to target militants in Afghanistan and the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. Imran Khan and Donald Trump, however, were on speaking terms. But after Biden took over the presidency, relations between the two countries, much to the alarm of the Pakistan military, have worsened. Among the first leaders Biden telephoned after becoming President was the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Biden has talked to most of the leaders in the region, but not to Imran Khan.

The Imran Khan government refused to give permission to the U.S. military to use Pakistani military bases in Balochistan after its troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021. China would have been upset if the U.S. was allowed to use a base in the province, located as it is in the area where the ambitious China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is under construction and where the strategic port of Gwadar is located. U.S.-Pakistan relations further nosedived, when Imran Khan, at the eleventh hour, declined to attend the much ballyhooed “summit for democracy” hosted by Biden in December last year.

Also read: Why Imran Khan is blaming the West for his downfall

Reports in the Pakistan media have suggested that Imran Khan took the decision without keeping the Army leadership in the loop. The security establishment, through its columnists and reporters in the media, highlighted its apparent unhappiness at the decision. Some journalists claimed that Imran Khan had boycotted the summit at the request of Pakistan’s “all-weather friend” China. Both Beijing and Moscow were critical of the “summit of democracies”, saying that it was an attempt to revive the Cold War mentality of the past by forming blocs.

Imran Khan further alienated the U.S. by deciding to pay an official visit to Russia just before the conflict in Ukraine broke out. At the time, the U.S. was working overtime to diplomatically isolate Russia, although there was no indication that Russia was on the verge of starting its “special military operations” in Ukraine. In the past decade, Pakistan has strengthened ties with Russia. After the Taliban took over control of Afghanistan, Pakistan has been working closely with Russia and China to ease the dire humanitarian situation plaguing that country. The three countries want the international community to lift at least some of the stringent sanctions imposed on Afghanistan. The Biden administration, on the other hand, seems to be in no mood to alleviate the sufferings of the Afghan people in a meaningful and lasting way.

The Army leadership did not raise any objection to the timing of Imran Khan’s visit to Moscow. However, according to reports in the Pakistani media, the security establishment was upset after Imran Khan started openly connecting his visit to Moscow as the reason for the U.S. taking umbrage and then deciding that there should be regime change in Islamabad. When it became clear that he had lost his parliamentary majority, Imran Khan claimed at a public rally in Islamabad in late March that he had clinching evidence that the Biden administration was demanding regime change in Pakistan for his visit to Moscow and his government’s insistence on implementing a neutral foreign policy.

Most observers of the Pakistani scene are of the view that Imran Khan’s mishandling of the economy was his political undoing. Like his counterpart in India, Narendra Modi, he was swept to power on an anti-corruption platform. But once in office, his inexperience and inability to listen to sound advice led to a socio-economic crisis in the country. Like Modi, he prioritised the targeting of his political enemies and the media. The opposition was portrayed as anti-national and traitors betraying the country. Heavy-handed methods were used against sections of the media inimical to his brand of politics. Newspaper distribution were interrupted, television anchors silenced and channels critical of the government were jammed. Government advertising was withdrawn to media outlets supportive of the opposition.

Imran Khan tried to cast himself as a guardian of Islamic values. The education policy of his government introduced in 2021 known as the “single national curriculum” with a heavy emphasis on religion was described as a “leap backwards”. Echoing views which are popular across the border, Imran Khan criticised the use of English in higher education saying that it led to “mental slavery” among Pakistanis. More emphasis was given to religion. All textbooks, including those on science, had to be approved by the country’s ulema board.

Also read: Will Imran Khan's ouster bring stability or another crisis?

Before the premature demise of the PTI government, mass protests had erupted all over Pakistan as prices of essential commodities skyrocketed. Economic conditions had become unbearable for the average Pakistani. The disparity between the rich and the poor has widened further. According to 2021 World Inequality Report , the top 1 per cent of the Pakistani population monopolised more than 25 per cent of the country’s wealth while the share of the 50 per cent bottom half was one-fifth of that. In March, the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics reported that the unemployment rate among the youth of the country was 30 per cent.

Business-friendly Sharif

The new Prime Minister, Shehbaz Sharif, has a herculean task ahead of him. He has inherited a teetering economy and has the unenviable task of heading a coalition government consisting of parties that were bitter rivals until the other day. Shehbaz Sharif has a reputation of being a business-friendly leader and who, at the same time, is said to have good relations with the military headquarters, unlike his elder brother Nawaz Sharif. He has served three terms as the Chief Minister of the Punjab province, Pakistan’s richest and most populous state.

After Nawaz Sharif, who had taken on the “deep state”, was forced out of Pakistani politics, Shehbaz Sharif was put in charge of the PML-N with Maryam, Nawaz Sharif’s daughter, playing an important role. Shehbaz Sharif was briefly sent to jail by the PTI government on corruption charges that are yet to be proved. However, there is no denying the fact that the Sharifs are an immensely rich family today.

The immediate priority of the new government is to find a way out of the economic mess the country is in today. Soon after taking over, Shehbaz Sharif, in a nationally televised speech, promised to make Pakistan “a paradise” for investments. And to pacify the mood of the sullen majority of the population, he announced a 20 per cent rise in the minimum wage along with a short-term subsidy on wheat flour. The inflation rate in Pakistan is above 15 per cent. The Pakistani rupee has depreciated against the American dollar by 20 per cent in the past nine months of Imran Khan’s administration. The country’s foreign exchange reserves are projected to last for only two more months. Pakistan could end up like the other South Asian states, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Both these countries have run out of foreign exchange to import essentials.

The government has resumed negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The previous government had negotiated a $6 billion bailout plan with the IMF in 2019. The “structural adjustments”, which the IMF insisted on, included wholesale privatisation of public sector companies and cutting down on social spending and subsidies on essential goods for the poor. However, as the popularity of his government was steadily eroding, Imran Khan restored the subsidies on gas and electricity tariffs earlier in the year. The IMF is insisting that the new government stick to the tough restructuring terms that the previous government was committed to.

Also read: Why Pakistan's politicians play the anti-America card

Shehbaz Sharif hopes that his efforts to repair relations with the U.S. will help in easing some of the onerous terms of the IMF deal. Antony Blinken, the U.S. Secretary of State, has welcomed the appointment of Shehbaz Sharif as the new Prime Minister, reaffirming the value of the 75-year-old relationship between the two countries. Islamabad is optimistic about a phone call from Biden to the Pakistan Prime Minster.

The IMF is yet to disburse $3 billion from the bailout deal. It was suspended after Imran Khan restored the subsidies on fuel and electricity prices. In an off-the-cuff remark in March, Shehbaz Sharif, while stressing on the importance of establishing good relations with the U.S., said that “beggars cannot be choosers”.

The Chinese government has also welcomed the appointment of Shehbaz Sharif. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said that no matter which party was in power in Pakistan, China would remain an “ironclad partner”. Nawaz Sharif, in his last term as Prime Minster, had signed the historic CPEC deal with China. Congratulating Shehbaz Sharif, Modi in his message said that India desired “peace and stability in a region free of terror, so that we can focus on our development challenges and ensure the well-being of our people”.

Shehbaz Sharif that “good relations” with India were conditional on a “just resolution” of the Kashmir dispute. In his first speech after assuming the office of the Prime Minster, he raised the issue of the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir. He said that the people of the Kashmir valley “were bleeding” and that Pakistan would continue to provide them with “moral and diplomatic support”. He blamed Imran Khan for letting down the Kashmiri people during his tenure. Shehbaz Sharif said that his government wanted “good ties” with India but warned that “a durable peace is not possible until the Kashmir issue is resolved”. After Article 370 was abrogated, Pakistan chose to downgrade diplomatic ties with India, withdrawing its High Commissioner.

The younger Sharif would not have forgotten the actions of the Modi government during his elder brother’s last stint in office. Nawaz Sharif, braving domestic criticism, was present for Modi’s first swearing-in ceremony in 2014. His stated ambition at the time was to expand trade and economic ties with India. But the Modi government adopted a hostile attitude towards Islamabad from the beginning. Pakistan-bashing gave the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) electoral dividends. Soon after Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Delhi, the Indian government called off the Foreign Secretary-level talks between the two countries. No meaningful official talks have been held between the two countries since then. Although the guns have remained silent along the LoC since last year, there is little hope of relations between the two sides improving in the near future.