On August 9, Pakistan’s 15th National Assembly (NA) was dissolved by the country’s president upon Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s advice. The Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) coalition federal government, which Sharif sat atop for the past 16 months, comprised the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) – eponymous with Sharif’s elder brother and ex-PM Nawaz Sharif, the religio-political Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Islam (JUI) along with assorted smaller parties, and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), also comes to an end.
The outgoing PM and the opposition leader in the NA have 72 hours to agree upon a nominee to lead the caretaker government to oversee the fresh general elections, which should be held within 60 days if the NA were dissolved after completing its full term. But in a tactical move, the outgoing coalition agreed to dissolve the NA three days before its end date of August 12, thereby extending the deadline for the new polls by an additional 30 days.
But that’s not it. Just last week, the coalition government chose to certify new census results, which it had been sitting on since May. This triggered a constitutional requirement to hold the next elections according to the new population data, which entails delimitation of constituencies that would delay the polls by several months. The new elections, therefore, are highly unlikely to be held this year. In fact, yet another move by the outgoing dispensation to give extraordinary powers to the caretaker government beyond their usual remit of conducting polls, has led to speculation about whether elections would be held at all in the foreseeable future. There already are caretaker governments in the Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) provinces which have been functioning unconstitutionally for several months. The Senate of Pakistan, which is a permanent body elected indirectly through the provincial assemblies, has half its members retiring in March 2024. In principle, this sets a hard deadline at least for the provincial legislatures to be reelected by then.
But why does the PDM not want to face the electorate? Why go through such convoluted and controversial manoeuvres? The answer is the spectre of former PM Imran Khan returning to power. And in this, the PDM is joined by the country’s all-powerful military and, especially, the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Asim Munir – against whom Imran Khan, once the junta’s favourite, has a personal vendetta. After having been installed into power, sustained, and then dumped by the army, Imran Khan was ousted in a vote of no-confidence last year. While the eventual trigger for the rancorous divorce was Khan’s insistence on retaining his crony General Faiz Hameed Chaudhry as the ISI chief, the curtains were called when the brass realised, belatedly, that he had been an unmitigated disaster for the country’s economy and governance and both his and the junta’s popularity had hit rock-bottom.
When the so-called hybrid regime ended, Imran Khan tried to coax and cajole the then COAS and his one-time benefactor General Qamar Javed Bajwa to regain power without making any headway. He then tried but failed to stonewall General Munir’s appointment as the COAS. Imran Khan weaved a fanciful theory, which still remains popular with his followers, that the US sought his ouster and had commissioned the generals to do the hatchet job.
The army proclaimed publicly that it had decided to remain apolitical but everyone saw it for the hogwash it was. Imran Khan trained his guns on the generals, not with the intent to correct the perennially lopsided civil-military balance, but to force them to intervene on his behalf. Failing that, the former cricketer-turned-demagogue shrewdly painted the PDM as the army’s lapdog. He battered the coalition government for spiralling inflation, especially food and oil prices, and a rupee plunging against the US dollar, eroding the purchasing power of the people. Imran Khan deployed a straightforward populist strategy to boycott and discredit the parliament, mobilise the street, and most importantly social and traditional media, to portray himself as a political martyr who had succumbed to a foreign intrigue carried out by domestic collaborators. His Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) scored several victories in by-elections across the country, which he turned into a referendum of sorts against the PDM and the generals.
By dithering over critical decisions – including a crucial deal with the IMF – to recover, reboot and reform the economy, which was supposed to be its central plank, the Shehbaz Sharif government squandered the PML-N’s political capital. The junior coalition partners, like the PPP in its Sindh power base, remained somewhat insulated but not entirely unscathed. The PDM government appeared to be flailing helplessly and, terrified of elections, it held the army in an even tighter embrace. The brass, on its part, was concerned about Imran Khan seeking retribution against generals, especially the COAS, were he to return to power. To stop an ascendant Khan, the PDM-Army combine went into a hybrid-plus mode. The PDM, which had set out to undo the Imran-Bajwa hybrid regime, and the army that vowed to remain apolitical, converged into the hybrid 2.0 dispensation.
Though he appeared formidable, Imran Khan, however, had made monumental blunders along the way. Strategic miscalculations and tactical missteps like dissolving his own governments in the Punjab and KP provinces, shunning the parliament in favour of street agitation which he couldn’t muster, and spurning the PDM government’s overtures for rapprochement and fresh elections, were to haunt and frustrate him. He ratcheted up his rhetoric against the top brass, including the former and incumbent COAS, drawing a public rebuke from the ISPR.
While the superior judiciary still protected Imran Khan, the army establishment, which had been mollycoddling him for years, stopped shielding him and possibly nudged the lower courts to proceed against him in a multitude of pending cases. The PDM government piled on with more charges, including murder and terrorism, sending the number of court cases against Imran Khan to almost as high as his ODI wickets tally.
In sheer desperation, Imran Khan went virtually rogue. Delusionally overconfident about his popular support and backed by elements within the armed forces and the judiciary, he decided to jostle his way back to power. When Khan was eventually arrested on graft charges on May 9, small protests erupted across the country, several of which went violent. Protestors breached the army’s General Headquarters (GHQ) perimeter in Rawalpindi, set the Corps Commander Lahore’s residence and the historic Radio Pakistan Peshawar on fire, and rampaged military symbols and installations around the country. The protests fizzled out the same day, but the choice of venues and violence stunned everyone, including the brass, which saw it as an attempt to precipitate a coup. Imran Khan had calculated that with pockets of support within the army, judiciary, and general public, he could bring down the top brass and upstage the PDM government.
Even when released upon the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP)’s orders a day after detention, Imran Khan had the temerity to indict General Munir by name for his arrest and plunging the country into crisis. Khan charged that he doubted that “there is any sense [left] in the Army Chief right now because he’s so petrified if I win the elections, I’ll denotify [sic] him… he’s dismantling the future of this country to protect himself.”
The die was cast: only one of the two would remain standing. But the riot couldn’t trigger a rebellion, let alone the populist revolution that Imran Khan sought. The gamble had backfired. The army started a ruthless crackdown against the PTI, but the PDM government served as the face of it. Thousands of PTI workers and nearly all of its key leaders were arrested, some of whom will be tried in the military courts. The government ministers openly discussed the prospects of banning the PTI and trying Imran Khan himself under the draconian Army Act and the colonial-era Official Secrets Act. But the army instead opted to put its erstwhile darling, the PTI, on the chopping block. Clearly under duress from the junta, scores of PTI leaders have defected, denounced Imran Khan, publicly apologised for the May 9 events, and pledged loyalty to the army. Most of these leaders were then herded into one new party and a new faction carved out of the PTI, while some have ostensibly quit politics.
And then last week, a lower court convicted and sentenced Imran Khan to prison for 3 years for misappropriation of state gifts and misdeclaration of assets. He was swiftly arrested and incarcerated in the notoriously shabby Attock prison. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) then disqualified and barred him from politics for 5 years, which could also result in him being prohibited from chairing his own party. Imran Khan has the right of appeal(s) to superior courts, but he is likely to be convicted and arrested in other cases, as the stage is being set to keep him from leading even his rump party in an election, if one is held at all. But the army most likely is not done with him and the coup de grâce has yet to come. What that might look like is hard to say as the junta seems to be weighing each option and the expected domestic and international response to it.
What is clear though is that the political class in Pakistan has learnt no lesson. Six years ago, Nawaz Sharif stood where Imran Khan stands today: convicted, imprisoned and debarred from politics over fabricated charges by an army-judiciary combine, with which Imran Khan had made a common cause. Whether Imran Khan is actually guilty of wrongdoing has been rendered irrelevant by the PDM-army nexus dismembering his party through yet another dreadful exercise in political engineering. True that Imran Khan has only himself to blame for ditching parliament and dissing the dialogue with political opponents, but the PDM cannot be absolved of bending and flouting the law to ostensibly give him a taste of his own medicine. The PTI and the PDM’s stints were effectively a throwback to the 1990s, when the PML-N and the PPP took turns seeking the army’s patronage to batter, bruise and bump each other out every two to three years. The only outcome of such hobnobbing – then, now, and ever – to subvert the constitution and undermine the parliament, is crippling an already measly democracy while strengthening the army behemoth. In this, the outgoing NA may rank perhaps the worst even by Pakistan’s atrocious democratic standards.
If the PTI ruled by proclaiming ordinances from the high horse of hybrid regime, the PDM’s hybrid 2.0 plunged to new lows by passing laws and amending the existing ones through stealth and subterfuge at breakneck speed. And each piece of legislation steamrolled thus is more repugnant to the spirit of democracy and the letter of the constitution than the other. And it was all done merely days and hours before the NA ended its term, as if someone was holding a gun to the government’s head. After the PTI’s departure from the NA, there is no legitimate opposition left in the house. The ostensible leader of the opposition is a PTI defector who is reportedly going to contest the elections on a PML-N ticket. But despite that, in unholy haste, the government didn’t share some proposed Bills even with the treasury benches, forcing members to protest. A PML-N loyalist and former PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi apologised to the people for this ‘shameful’ NA.
The amendments rammed through the parliament included changes to the Official Secrets Act, 1923 and the Army Act, 1952. The former law now gives sweeping powers to the military intelligence agencies, including the ISI, to raid any premises and detain any citizen, even under the mere suspicion of them breaching the law, and authorises them to use force if resisted. All they need is a nominal warrant. In an eerily Orwellian manner, the law also empowers these agencies with dystopian definitions of the word ‘document’ to include unwritten and intangible materials, and ‘enemy’ to include even unintentionally interacting with a person or entity that these outfits might consider hostile to the country. While some of the changes may be directed at the military personnel who are already being acted against for acts of omission or commission on May 9, the thrust of the amendment is to give legal cover to the ISI’s dirty tactics against dissidents of all shades. In effect, it provides – under the veneer of a nominal search warrant – the military intelligence agencies with the same powers that were once exercised by the Nazi Schutzstaffel (SS).
The amendments to the Army Act, on the other hand, formalise the army’s role in not just domestic commercial and investment enterprises but also sovereign state-to-state ventures. The insertion reads:
“Pakistan Army may, upon direction or with the concurrence of relevant authorities of the appropriate government in the prescribed manner, directly or indirectly, carry out activities related to, inter alia, national development and advancement of national or strategic interest”.
The ostensible national development, the national or strategic interest, and its advancement, however, have not been defined. The amendment also gives a retrospective legal cover to the military’s commercial activities in the past. Additionally, the parliament also hastily approved the Board of Investment (Amendment) Act, 2023, authorising the Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC), which was formed through an ordinance as the PDM government ran up the exit ramp.
While Shehbaz Sharif and his ministers described it as a “whole government” and “one window” operation to attract foreign investment, especially from the Gulf countries, it effectively is a hybrid civil-military body formalising the army’s role in yet another economic entity. The army chief will sit in the SFIC apex committee, along with the PM, while army officials will head its national coordination, implementation and executive levels. The hybrid 2.0 regime is calling the SFIC a game changer with a scale larger than the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Whether the project attracts investments such as the Saudis potentially buying out Pakistan’s shares in a copper mine in Balochistan or stagnates like the CPEC, is up for debate.
But the army’s preeminence in the project indicates more than just reassuring the jittery Arab investors of ease of doing business. It indicates that the governance paradigm has undergone a tectonic shift over the term of the outgoing NA. Failure of the first hybrid regime, Imran Khan’s botched putsch, and the meek and mediocre PDM-PPP regime have all collectively enabled the army under General Munir to make a power and governance grab not seen since 1958 when General Ayub Khan imposed the country’s first martial law. Pakistan, since then, has been a coup-prone state, which oscillates between direct army rule or an indirect one where the junta rules through controlled democracies. Eric Nordlinger noted in Soldiers in Politics: Military Coups and Governments:
“The most frequent sequel to military coups and government is more of the same… The aftermath of military intervention is military intervention.”
As the PDM-PPP regime exits the stage, it is not a question of whether Pakistan would remain under the army’s boot or not, but of what form that might be in. The Shehbaz Sharif government’s abject abdication of the political and governance space to the army and enabling the junta constitutionally and legally to sit atop the economic commanding heights has paved the way for an Indonesian-style Dwifungsi or “dual function”. The Dwifungsi expanded the role of armed forces from territorial defence to involvement in Indonesia’s political, economic and social order. Under the dictator Suharto, army officers not only held positions in government ministries and corporations but were also given 20% seats in the parliament. The 2018-2023 hybrid experiment in Pakistan has afforded all but the nominal perch in the parliament to serving officers.
It did not have to turn out this way, and certainly did not end in such ignominy for the PDM politicians. But this was a choice they made when signing the Faustian bargain with the army. They opted for political expediency over struggle, and hand-me-down diluted power over the people’s mandate. Shehbaz Sharif et al chose a military solution to a civilian problem, which inevitably brings the army out of the garrisons not push it back into the barracks. Khan indeed is a problem of the army’s making but relying on the army to dismantle him ensured the junta’s continued involvement in political engineering and, therefore, preeminence. Chasing the mirage of power instead of going for fresh elections a year-and-a-half ago, when Nawaz Sharif’s slogan ‘Vote ko izzat do (respect the people’s vote)’ carried weight and Imran Khan’s chips were down, had set the stage for the disgraceful flight from polls today.
The buck, however, stops with Mian Nawaz Sharif, as the PDM effectively ruled in his name. While he may be away and constrained by legal, family and clique issues – but ultimately it is his party, his vote bank, and above all his stance that took the ultimate hit. Imran Khan may have been knocked out but was it worth the price paid in political capital?
The way the 15th NA divested itself of its own powers and surrendered its constitutional domain to the army is surpassed only by the 1985 party-less 7th NA under General Ziaul Haq. But even that assembly took almost six months to pass the infamous 8th Amendment giving the vile and wily dictator unbridled power to dissolve the assemblies. That virulent mutation, however, could not be remedied for another 25 years. The outgoing PDM government may have prevailed against Imran Khan, but the way Pakistan has regressed to a fully-blown praetorian state, it sure looks like a Pyrrhic victory.