Volume 5, No. 9, September 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
Pakistan is no stranger to military domination. The country has seen four military coups since independence in 1958, 1969, 1977 and 1999. Almost half of the country’s existence since independence in 1947 has been spent under martial laws and military dictatorships. Even when civilian governments have been in power, the hand of the military, overt and covert, has been visible behind the scenes.
Unfortunately, a culture of political collaboration with the military has deeply entrenched itself. A considerable section of the political class has unabashedly embraced doing the bidding of the military in return for political patronage and their rise to power. In fact, this tribe, whose ranks appear to be swelling, has turned collaboration with the military into a fine art and benefited greatly from it. Of course the picture is not complete without mentioning the resistance to military domination in our past. Thousands of brave souls from the democratically minded, progressive sections of the political class and masses have struggled for civilian supremacy and the rights of the people, with some paying a very high price for such defiance.
Imran Khan, the erstwhile cricket hero, later social philanthropist, currently anointed Prime Minister (PM) of Pakistan, started his political career by forming his party, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice, or PTI), in 1996. Not much was heard of the party, nor did it make much headway until former Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General (retd) Pervez Musharraf overthrew the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government of PM Nawaz Sharif in 1999. Having incarcerated Nawaz Sharif and charged him with hijacking the plane on which he was travelling when Nawaz Sharif sacked him as COAS and refused permission to his plane to land inside Pakistan, apart from treason, eventually Nawaz Sharif was allowed to go into exile through the mediation of Saudi Arabia.
With the two leaders of the largest political parties of the country, Nawaz Sharif of the PML-N and the late Benazir Bhutto of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), ensconced abroad in a negotiated and self-imposed exile respectively, Musharraf made political moves to consolidate his hold on power in anticipation of the end of the generous Supreme Court (SC) of Pakistan’s mandate to the military regime that was to end in 2002. First and foremost, a new King’s Party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q), was ‘carved’ out of the overthrown and relegated to the margins PML-N and it formed an ‘elected’ government after the general elections in 2002 held on Musharraf’s watch. Imran Khan offered his support to the Musharraf military dictatorship in return for a solitary seat in Mianwali, a stronghold of Imran Khan’s Niazi clan but otherwise an unknown quantity for him. In return for this support, Imran Khan seriously expected Musharraf to make him PM! Musharraf on the other hand obviously had his own political calculations and disappointed the cricketer-turned-philanthropist-turned-politician, who then turned against Musharraf. The PTI made little headway on the political scene until it suddenly burst upon the firmament in 2011 at a rally in Lahore at the Minar-i-Pakistan (an independence monument). The composition of the rally provided a glimpse of what the new phenomenon presaged. The PTI, on the strength of the participants of that rally, revealed itself as essentially a party of the rising urban middle class. Its emergence and incremental gain in strength pointed to the fact that Pakistan’s political scene would no longer remain the monopoly of a two-party system (the PPP and PML-N) but would now increasingly resemble more and more a three-party race. The PTI took part in greater strength than ever before in the 2013 elections after the PPP government elected in 2008 in the wake of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination and Musharraf’s departure from power (and the country) completed its five-year tenure in a rare occurrence in Pakistan’s history. PTI won the provincial elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and some seats at the national and Punjab provincial level. Imran Khan initially challenged the results in four National Assembly (NA) seats on alleged rigging charges. When the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) did not uphold the charges, Imran Khan expanded the scope of his allegations to the election entire, ironically while accepting the results in KP and forming the government in that province!
Not content with licking his wounds and preparing for a future electoral challenge to the PML-N, the stubbornly persistent Imran Khan got a boost from the military. Lieutenant-General Anwar Shuja Pasha, head of Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), although retired in 2012, emerged now as the ‘brains’ behind projecting Imran Khan as a contender for power.
Presumably on Pasha’s advice (see below), Imran Khan announced a long march from Lahore to the federal capital Islamabad in mid-2014 and an indefinite dharna (sit-in) there until the Nawaz Sharif government resigned. As in his previous two tenures (1990-93 and 1997-99), Nawaz Sharif in office had fallen out with the military on his assertion of civilian authority and peace overtures towards India. The deep state now seemed to see Imran Khan as the tool to put pressure on the Nawaz Sharif government to put it in its place (i.e. subservient to the military’s will).
However, Imran Khan’s plans went awry when on the long march, he had a secret meeting with Pasha at Tarnol, just short of Islamabad, in which Pasha is reported to have said to him to call off the long march and dharna since ‘they’ had already obtained what they wanted from Nawaz Sharif (presumably recognition of the military’s dominance, especially in policy towards India). Imran Khan refused to back down however, arguing that would ruin his political credibility.
The dharna did go ahead for 126 days from August-December 2014. From atop the container positioned at the heart of the sit-in, Imran Khan kept referring to the ‘third umpire’ raising his finger to signal ‘out’, a cricketing analogy to disputed decisions on-field being referred to a third, off-field TV umpire to adjudicate. Imran Khan’s frequent references to his desired goal of ousting Nawaz Sharif through the ‘third umpire’ (the military), and even a meeting with then COAS General (retd) Raheel Sharif failed to bring about his stated goal. The dharna continued with dwindling numbers and spirit until the Army Public School (APS) Peshawar massacre of schoolchildren and their teachers by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan signalled the need for suspension of ‘politics as usual’ to address the serious terrorist threat. An All Parties Conference, in which Imran Khan felt compelled to participate after calling off the dharna in the climate of shock and mourning after the APS tragedy (not without some relief at being rescued from a cul de sac according to insiders), mandated the military to go after the terrorists in their safe havens in KP’s tribal areas and throughout the country. As a quid pro quo for his cooperation, the Nawaz Sharif government agreed to set up a judicial commission to examine the election rigging allegations.
The judicial commission headed by then Chief Justice of Pakistan Nasirul Mulk reported in April 2015 that though the elections were procedurally flawed in some instances, there was no evidence of rigging. Once again, Imran Khan had faced a setback. It was back to the drawing board again.
Fortuitously for Imran Khan, the Panama Papers leaks linked Nawaz Sharif and his family with offshore companies and wealth that they were unable to explain satisfactorily. Imran Khan filed a petition on this basis before the SC in 2016, in which the court controversially disqualified Nawaz Sharif for life from holding public office for not being honest. Subsequently, an accountability court sentenced Nawaz Sharif to 10 years imprisonment on corruption charges (his daughter Maryam Nawaz was sentenced to seven years imprisonment).
With his main rival out of the running, Imran Khan still required help from ‘invisible hands’ to win the 2018 elections at the Centre and in Punjab and KP. According to Nawaz Sharif, there was evidence of rigging during vote counting (by military personnel according to some videos circulating on social media) on at least 53 seats. Despite that allegation, the results left Imran Khan just short of a majority in the NA. That gap was filled with the remains of the largely decimated PML-Q (after Musharraf’s departure) and permanent toadies of whichever government was in power from south Punjab. These latter worthies were carrying on the tradition of toadyism set by their ancestors during British colonial times, for which they were rewarded with lands and titles. Analysts saw this unwieldy, weak coalition as the guarantee the military could topple Imran Khan’s government by withdrawing the support of the PML-Q and toadies if he veered from the military’s diktat. Pakistan therefore finds it has come full circle, but with a vengeance. Not only is the government of Imran Khan a military-imposed one, its affairs are reportedly being micro-managed by the military from behind a very thin, almost transparent curtain. It is another matter that the military’s chosen party and leadership have proved in just six months of incumbency to be one of the most incompetent governments in our history, with policy drift, lack of direction or plan, and governance and legislative failure writ large.
This latest ‘experiment’ in controlled democracy is accompanied by throttling of freedom of expression, media and peaceful protest for rights. What will be the outcome is uncertain, the economy and its travails being the main worry. Non-partisan Pakistanis, whose numbers are growing because the three main political parties offer little hope, are more worried about the country’s future than ever before. Since these three parties, the PTI, PPP and PML-N, represent the core class interests of the urban middle class, large landowners and capitalists respectively, there is little purchase or hope for the working masses and other marginalised groups. The polity awaits the emergence of a credible progressive alternative to what is presently on offer.