It has been a miserable year in Pakistani politics. In April, an unpopular and increasingly authoritarian government led by Prime Minister Imran Khan was toppled in a vote of no confidence brokered by the same army that had brought it into power. A 13-party coalition, headed by the Pakistan Muslim League (N), which had spent three years campaigning against the army’s interference in politics, performed a stunning volte-face and became the institution’s biggest defender. Imran Khan, meanwhile, in a seemingly never-ending agitation campaign against the country’s leading generals, succeeded former prime minister Nawaz Sharif as the symbol of civilian supremacy. On November 3, Khan was shot in an apparent assassination attempt by a gunman who dubiously claimed to be motivated by religion.
This, in microcosm, is the story of Pakistan, where everything changes yet remains exactly the same. When it isn’t running the country’s affairs directly, the Pakistan army nurtures its puppets and manipulates the system to bring them into power. This provokes the opposition to start campaigning against the army in the hope that it will apply enough pressure to bring the generals to the negotiating table. The terms of these negotiations between military and civilian actors invariably include some version of the following exchange: We will bring you into power if you drop your criticisms of the army and agree to defend us both in public and in private. It is an offer that no political party has been able to refuse, and partly explains why the public remains so disillusioned with politics.
Indeed, the Pakistani people have demonstrated time and again that they are essentially democratic. Whoever has challenged the army’s hegemonic influence on public life has typically won a palpable boost in public support, while defenders of the status quo have lost credibility. When Sharif was ousted in the summer of 2017—by a supreme court taking guidance directly from the military—the public flocked to his rallies to denounce the decision. Khan, who benefited most from Sharif’s ouster, only gained in popularity once he started attacking the generals and has won the majority of by-elections conducted after his removal.
At the same time, however, because it is understood that the political class will always strike a deal with the military, the people of Pakistan are disinclined to apply revolutionary pressure on the streets. For the past two months, Khan has tried to cajole his supporters to march on the capital and compel the sitting government to call early elections but has failed to produce numbers capable of building any momentum. The attempt on his life only pushed the situation to the point of crisis.
Khan responded to the assassination attempt by casting blame on Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan, and Maj. Gen. Faisal Naseer of the shadowy Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)—the country’s premier spy agency. The most drastic claim of his post-ouster speaking tour, it has succeeded in imposing further damage on an already fractured polity. The ruling coalition, which spent its years in opposition blaming the Khan government for destroying the economy, appears hapless in its attempt to control the spiraling levels of inflation that have plunged the country into a cost-of-living crisis without near precedent. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine pushing up fuel prices and the excessive damage to crops and infrastructure caused by the floods, the economy is unlikely to recover any time soon.
The National Assembly is also broken. In retaliation for his ouster last spring, Khan instructed his parliamentarians to resign their seats, with the result that the largest party in the country is no longer attending parliament. After calling off his march on the capital last Saturday, Khan also announced that he would dissolve the provincial assemblies under his party’s control, meaning that two of the country’s four provinces could be without representation.
Khan believes that his surge in popularity after the vote of no confidence will return him to power when the country goes to the polls, and he is determined to force the government to dissolve the national assembly altogether. He also seems to think that the easiest way for him to achieve this end is to create so much chaos in the system that the only way out is through a general election. To date, though, it is a strategy that has only served to make every institution controversial. The mysterious killing in Kenya of a Khan-allied journalist, Arshad Sharif, was described by Khan as a “targeted attack”—an allegation that, coupled with Khan’s constant criticism of army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa and the fact that army-led intelligence agencies in Pakistan have been accused of targeting journalists in the past, created an impression that he was holding the army responsible for the murder.
It was an insinuation so flammable that it compelled Director General Nadeem Ahmed Anjum of the ISI to take the unprecedented measure of calling a press conference to rebut the accusations. Khan’s campaign against the military has been so relentless that it has forced outgoing army chief Bajwa to concede that the army has made itself controversial by meddling in politics. “I have been wondering for many years why the Indian army, which commits so many human rights abuses, receives less criticism from their people than ours, which is busy day and night in the service of the nation,” Bajwa said in his farewell address. “I think the main reason for this is the involvement of the army in politics for the last 70 years, which is unconstitutional.”
Bajwa, who retired last Tuesday, made a point of promising that the army would henceforth refrain from political interference. The question of whether his successor, Gen. Asim Munir, will be able to keep his institution neutral while simultaneously operating in such a polarized environment has already become the subject of much debate. With the government refusing to dissolve parliament until it is constitutionally obliged to in August, it appears that the crisis is destined to rumble on.