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Pakistan’s election results a wake-up call for its power-hungry military

South China Morning Post (Hong Kong)
Syed Munir Khasru
February 14, 2024


For decades, Pakistan’s military establishment has interfered with the democratic process of the country, influencing election outcomes to maintain its grip on power. While the public votes, the military ensures that only its preferred parties or leaders emerge victorious through various mechanisms.

This managed political system has largely kept the transitions of power stable – but at the cost of establishing genuine representative governance. However, the recent ousting of former prime minister Imran Khan, once backed by the military, has disrupted this established process and created upheaval.

Since Pakistan’s independence in 1947, the army has carried out three direct coups, in 1958, 1977 and 1999, when civilian governments lost the military’s favour. These overt seizures of power laid bare the reality of who truly rules the country. Even when not formally in power, the generals have exerted control over weak civilian governments through indirect means.

“In almost pendulum-like fashion, it appears the military has gone from governorship back to guardianship,” wrote expert Aqil Shah in his book The Army and Democracy. The military has justified its interventions by claiming to be saviours against corrupt civilians.

However, the real motive has been to protect the military’s privileged position and massive business interests, estimated to be worth over US$100 billion, or more than a quarter of Pakistan’s gross domestic product.

In 2018, the military supported the rise of Khan as prime minister to displace Nawaz Sharif. Khan’s ascent to power bore all the hallmarks of behind-the-scenes string-pulling. The generals assisted Khan by weakening Sharif through court cases leading to his disqualification. Meanwhile, the military gave nods and winks to all institutions under its influence to tip the scales towards Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party.

Khan’s relationship with the generals turned adversarial after he became prime minister and disagreed with them on key domestic and foreign policies. He later claimed he was pressured by then army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa to realign policies as desired by the military brass.

Khan resisted the military’s assertive control and blamed it for conspiring with the US to orchestrate his removal. The incensed military-intelligence complex responded by cutting off his support and building bridges with political opponents instead.

It is widely believed to have coerced Khan’s coalition partners and allies to defect, enabled a no-confidence motion in parliament in April 2022 and ensured its success through back-door manipulations. These moves culminated in Khan’s dramatic midnight ousting.

Unlike past ousted leaders who acquiesced to their fate, Khan tapped into his widespread popularity to put up an agitated resistance rather than go gently into the night. He took to holding large public rallies where he demanded early elections.

When Khan threatened to escalate matters by dissolving provincial assemblies using his power, the military establishment struck back with full force. He was arrested and jailed on flimsy pretexts and trumped-up charges.

The move to force him into submission backfired badly. Outraged PTI supporters attacked security forces and government buildings after their leader’s arrest.

During the elections this month held in this charged atmosphere, the military establishment apparently resorted to vote rigging and voter suppression to boost Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party.

However, PTI-backed independent candidates still emerged as the biggest winners, with 101 seats out of 264. Khan’s bold defiance to the military establishment’s political engineering has disrupted its managed transition of power.

With no clear winner emerging, Pakistan’s major political parties have formed a coalition government to gain a majority. Despite being long-time rivals, the PML-N led by Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari have agreed to join hands.

Shehbaz Sharif of the PML-N party is expected to be the nominee for Pakistan’s next prime minister, and backchannel talks are surely under way about cabinet portfolios. This political marriage between unlikely partners is driven by the necessity of keeping Khan out of power. While both parties failed to garner enough seats on their own, together they have the minimum threshold to form a government.

An alliance out of necessity rather than common ideology remains fragile. It will require a careful balancing of competing interests and personalities. The next prime minister will have to accommodate the demands of coalition partners while confronting economic crises. With a razor-thin majority, strains could develop over unpopular decisions, leading to a collapse. Its success largely depends on keeping the military establishment placated while buying time for public support.

Installing an unreliable unity government cooked up through back-door deals would only temporarily paper over the deep schisms of Pakistan’s political landscape. Such a government is unlikely to last long or bring genuine stability. With Khan’s popularity still intact, only free and fair elections conducted under neutral oversight can bring stability in Pakistan’s chaotic environment.

The country today stands at the cusp of a democratic breakthrough – but this will require the all-powerful military taking the historic decision to yield space to civilian supremacy. Whether the military establishment accepts a scaling back of its overreach remains the pivotal question for the country’s future direction.

Allowing civilian supremacy risks diminishing the military’s corporate interests and agenda, while continuing with a controlled democracy is also unsustainable, as evidenced by the mass support that populists like Khan can marshal. The generals have a choice – either recalibrate and let representative politics flourish or risk rebelling against an idea whose time has come.

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