On October, 16, Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif set his country’s politics ablaze by offering a withering critique of the military establishment. Calling in from London via video conference, Sharif addressed a crowd of over 20,000 protestors at a rally in the Punjabi city of Gujranwalla organized by the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PMD), a recently formed coalition that brings together all major opposition parties. Under the PMD's banner, erstwhile rivals like the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam–Fazlur (JUI-F) have joined forces to achieve two goals that they see as intertwined: unseating Prime Minister Imran Khan and regaining power from the military.

Sharif, who is the de facto leader of the PMD, had previously generated controversy when he denounced the military’s role in civilian governance as creating a “state above a state.” But this time, the former PM went a step further. He accused the Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Qamar Bajwa, and the Director of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, of stealing the PML-N’s popular mandate by installing Khan’s government and of causing directly the rise in unemployment and in prices for basic goods and services.

The military’s interference in domestic politics is nothing new for Pakistan. What is new, however, in this country where the military has traditionally been treated as sacrosanct, is the denunciation of such interference by a mass movement and by figures as prominent as Sharif. Certainly, in the past, the opposition would not have thought to criticize the military in such direct terms in order to gain popularity and power, but anger and frustration have risen to a point where attacks on the shadow government that is the armed forces resonate with the feelings of many Pakistanis.

From episodes like Sharif’s speech, it is clear that battle lines are emerging in Pakistan. On one side stand Imran Khan, his government, and the armed forces that helped bring him to power. On the other, stands the opposition crystallized by the PMD and increasingly vocal in its condemnation of both Khan and military brass. Pakistan, it seems, is moving toward political deadlock.

The PDM has used or is planning to use all means at its disposal to achieve its aims: protest gatherings, political rallies, no-confidence motions and mass resignations from assemblies. The movement has already made its presence felt with impressive gatherings in three important cities  — Gujranwala, Karachi and Quetta – and seeks to hold more rallies in  Peshawar, Multan, and Lahore. With every opposition rally, the criticism against both the PTI government and the military leadership has escalated.

But the military establishment is not taking this threat to its institutional credibility and political influence lying down. With the collusion of the civilian government, the military has been using crass manipulation, the jailing of opponents and a clampdown on the media to attain a commanding position without a military coup.

Through its arbitrary actions against critics of the government, the military will embroil itself in the political crisis, appearing increasingly partisan in the unequal fight between the government and the opposition. As these events unfold, the biggest question is this: Will the PDM be able to arrest the democratic backsliding under the current government that came to power in 2018 through elections widely considered to have been rigged by the military establishment?

Uncertain transition to civilian rule   

As a noted Pakistani analyst has rightly argued, “The shelf life of Pakistani elected civilian leaders in office is usually not very long, but the decline of the Khan government is indeed phenomenal.” It is a well known fact that no elected government in Pakistan has ever been fully autonomous in making decisions on key issues. Despite two relatively peaceful transfers of power from one democratically elected government to the next during the last decade, Pakistan is yet to recover from Pervez Musharraf’s military rule. The process of transition to a democratic dispensation is ongoing.

Even the apparently democratic regimes of the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (2008-2013) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (2013-2018) were vulnerable  to the military’s pressures. This was particularly reflected in the dismissal of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani on the flimsy charge of contempt of court and the disqualification of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on even flimsier charges.  Gilani fell out of favor with the military following scandalous allegations that civilian leadership had requested American intervention to thwart a coup in the aftermath of the 2011 US raid in Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden (and embarrassed the Pakistani military). The generals publicly warned Gilani  of “grievous consequences” for his criticism of them…and consequences there were.

In 2012, Pakistan’s Supreme Court, which has often given legitimacy to military coups, disqualified Gilani. In general, the court avoids ruling against the intelligence services on corruption allegations, while zealously pursuing cases against politicians believed to be inconvenient to the military. Short of staging a military coup, the Army Chiefs during this period did all they could to ensure that nobody challenged their institutional supremacy and their say in national affairs.

In the 2018 general elections, the army once again made its presence felt. The generals knew that Khan was yearning to become prime minister, even if it meant subordinating himself to their commands. So they paved his path to victory. At the same time, the generals believed that they would be completely free of civilian politicians pursuing policies contrary to their own preferences if independent-minded Nawaz was elbowed out of politics and the other mainstream party, PPP, was confined to its traditional base in Sindh. But the military seems to have made a serious miscalculation, as its actions have only emboldened and united Nawaz and the PPP.

The 2018 elections have produced a “hybrid rule,” with the military establishment propping up an electorally weak government that lacks a comfortable majority in the Assembly. The most profound outcome of this hybridity is the pragmatic cooperation, shaped by interest-driven calculations, between the PTI government and the military. This has made it practically impossible to tell where the military’s rule ends and where the civilian authority begins.

The arrangement seemed to be working in the military’s favor – an ostensibly civilian government was getting the blame for Pakistan’s myriad problems, while the generals ran the government.  But then the PMD formed and Sharif decided to attack directly the military leadership. The uncompromising Imran Khan has been unable to shield himself or his military back in this face-off with a reinvigorated opposition. 

Confrontation is in the PTI’s political DNA

The core strength of the ruling Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, both when it was part of the opposition and in power now, has been its single-minded obsession with the PPP and the PML-N. Imran Khan has based his political identity on being an implacable fighter against the corruption, vested interests, and dynastic politics of other mainstream political parties. When he was in the opposition, Khan claimed that he would never compromise on his core principles. So, it is not surprising that his domestic agenda has entailed the complete political elimination of the top leadership of PPP and PML-N. This kind of politics is not just a convenient strategy, it is the very DNA of the PTI. But this ingrained fixation with what are now the opposition parties has also proved to be the biggest trap for the PTI. Long vilified by Khan, these parties feel much more inclined to undercut him than to cooperate.

Despite two years in power, the PTI has not yet been able to make the transition from a purely oppositional style of politics to the coalition building required by governance. And it still has not developed any institutional capability to make rational decisions on both domestic and foreign policy issues. The toxic relationship between the opposition and government in parliament has led to the frequent use of decrees for key legislative issues, a new low that is very unhealthy for Pakistani democracy. As the space for discussions and debates in the parliament shrinks, the PTI government has been trying to push the opposition from the political landscape, and this has made the current regime look “more and more as an extension of the Zia-ul Haq regime with all the attendant consequences.”

Criminalization of dissent

In any democratic set-up, the government should not denounce its critics as anti-state. But the logic and practice of politics in Pakistan are unique. Administrative and legislative steps have been taken to strengthen the coercive capacity of the state, stunting democratization. Dissenters have faced draconian measures.

Against the backdrop of deepening distrust between the hybrid regime and the opposition, the PTI government has recently opened several questionable cases against many opposition leaders, including retired generals and two former prime ministers, for their “anti-state” activities. The revelation by a former chief of Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) that he was pressured by the Prime Minister to file cases under anti-terrorism and treason laws against several senior PML-N leaders has been quite disturbing and only reinforces the opposition’s assertion that the government is undermining all civilian institutions beyond repair.

Most shocking is the manner in which Sharif has been accused of acting as an “Indian agent.” PM Khan has frequently said that Sharif’s agenda is to weaken the military with India’s support. It must be noted that the military believes that being cozy to India or even doing anything that remotely helps India is not only illegal but also an unforgivable insult to the foundational principles of Pakistan. Branding opponents as foreign agents is commonplace in Pakistan; opposition politicians and independent-minded individuals who raise their voice for civilian supremacy or against human rights abuses have often been labeled as anti-state. Rather than focusing on ways to improve his government’s performance, Imran Khan is busy policing the patriotism of his political rivals, an example of the government’s criminal ineptitude on all fronts. His strategy of branding rallies organized by the PDM as anti-Pakistan is self-defeating because these events have brought together all mainstream political parties and regional groups.

The arrest of Capt. Muhammad Safdar, Sharif’s son-in-law and a PML-N leader, at a hotel in Karachi exemplifies the brazen attempts by Imran Khan to intimidate the opposition, overriding the separation of powers in the process. It was made public that the Sindh province’s police chief was forced by the paramilitary force, which functions directly under the central federal ministry, to sign the arrest order of Safdar. Khan and the military hoped to create a rift in the opposition, believing that blame for the operation would be cast on PPP, which is the ruling party in the Sindh province and a key constituent of the PDM. But the ill-conceived and poorly executed maneuver instead has lent credence to the narrative that there is "a state within the state."

The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s main intelligence agency, has a long history of meddling in Pakistan's civilian domestic politics. As argued by Ayesha Siddiqa, the ISI’s arrest of Safdar in his hotel room in Karachi as his wife and Nawaz’s daughter watched, “was meant to send a crude message to the PML-N leadership. An intelligence agency used to picking up ordinary people with impunity from around the country and making them disappear didn’t realise the cost of its action in this case.” In order to avoid more controversy, Gen. Bajwa had to order an inquiry into the incident. Now, any impulsive action against opposition leaders can potentially create a reaction that the military may find difficult to manage. In all probability, the military leadership will find a scapegoat for this incident to restore its fast eroding credibility.

At the same time, the sordid game of portraying Sharif as a traitor pushes him to the wall, which makes it harder for him and his supporters to accept the supremacy of the “deep state.” It was disclosed that Bajwa and Hameed had met with some opposition politicians days before the multiparty conference and asked them not to drag the military into political issues. Instead of engaging with military leaders, Sharif barred all members of his party from meeting with armed forces personnel without his prior permission, even when such meetings are urgent “in the interest of national security.” And during his recent virtual address at the PDM demonstration, Sharif dared: “Call me a traitor. Call me a rebel. Make me a convict. Label me a hijacker. Seize my properties. File false cases against me, but Nawaz Sharif will continue to speak for his people,” further saying that “the army has accused most of those who fight for the constitution as traitors.”

The PDM's composition, leadership, and agenda

The PDM is the product of a fragile consensus between various political parties whose agendas remain at odds. The PDM’s collective leadership claims that its goal is to restore the rule of law as enshrined in the Constitution. Imran Khan and his supporters in the government counter this claim by arguing that the PDM is only seeking amnesty from corruption charges for opposition politicians. Whatever the truth may be, it is quite reasonable to assume that the opposition leaders are “not ready to work under the current rules of engagements.” Instead, through the politics of protest, they are trying to redefine the rules to curb those who hold the real power in the country. In light of opposition members' threats of mass resignation, one analyst predicted “if the current rules of the game are not renegotiated, they [opposition leaders] may stay out of the political game for a longer period.”  

Sharif understands the rules of Pakistani politics whose reformation he is now demanding. He was introduced into politics by Gen. Zia-ul Haq during the 1980s, serving as Punjab’s chief minister from 1985-1990, but his relations with the military have always been complicated. He became prime minister in 1990, but was dismissed in 1993. He returned to that post in 1997 and started to dominate the political landscape. His attempts to exert influence over many state institutions became controversial, but it was his efforts to curtail the military’s power that brought about his unceremonious downfall after Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s bloodless coup in 1999. He was jailed and sentenced to life imprisonment, but ultimately released and allowed to go into exilein Saudi Arabia in 2000. He has lived in London since 2019.

Although Sharif is “a product of the same political system that [Imran] Khan is, making him an imperfect vessel for a pro-democracy message,” he has managed over the years to cultivate a dependable following among the civil and military bureaucracies as well as the business community.

Sharif has shown great survival skills within the rough and tumble world of Pakistani politics. He continues to enjoy a broad base of support (particularly in Punjab) despite having been declared a “proclaimed offender” by an accountability court. Shahbaz Sharif, the former chief minister of Punjab, has come out in support of his elder brother Nawaz, but it is unclear if he will go along with the hardline stance against the military establishment when push comes to shove.

As for the PPP, its strength remains confined to Sindh, where it runs the provincial government. Since the PPP has considerable stakes in the continuation of its government in Sindh, one can only speculate whether it will go wholeheartedly with the controversial Nawaz Sharif. PPP is also vulnerable because its leader, former President Asif Ali Zardari (husband of the late Benazir Bhutto), is facing corruption charges.

 The Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazlur (JUI-F) has it base of support in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. The JUI-F may have suffered electoral defeat at the hands of the PTI in 2018, but it is the party with the most loyal cadre of members, who obey the leader’s instructions unflinchingly out of a strong sense of commitment. However, this leader, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, remains as unpredictable as ever. With this complex cast of characters, a major challenge for the PDM is to maintain its unity.

Conclusion

In this moment of democratic deficit and economic hardship, most Pakistanis are angry. They yearn for a form of politics more democratic and inclusive than the current system. But many of those who now rail against the status quo helped to shape it when they themselves were in power; and their record is hardly better than the current government’s.

There is certainly an opening for a more vigorous opposition at the current juncture. The country teeters on the brink of economic collapse as Pakistan has borrowed money from all possible sources – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, China, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Asian Development Bank (ADB).

However, the best that the PDM can hope to achieve through political mobilization alone is to put more pressure on the PTI government on issues directly affecting the people. Without the military’s backing, the capacity of opposition leaders to overthrow the government remains highly doubtful. And if the opposition campaign gains momentum, the military would likely save its own skin by replacing Imran Khan with an equally pliable but more popular politician.

Bajwa and his fellow generals are probably more worried about insubordination in the barracks than mobilization in the streets, so they will cut Khan loose if they start to hear grumblings about him from mid-level officers. If the PDM’s anti-Khan ideas spread among the officer corps, the opposition could get its wish for a new PM, but not necessarily from within its own ranks.  Given the volatility of the situation, nobody is sure for how long Gen. Bajwa will be able to keep his officer corps aligned behind him.   

By neither propping up an unpopular PM nor letting its critics come to power, the military will keep its legitimacy and power. In sum, the military establishment must convince the country that it stands above partisan politics, while also intervening in civilian governance when threatened in its power and privileges.

 

Vinay Kaura, PhD, is a Non-Resident Scholar with MEI's Afghanistan & Pakistan Program, an Assistant Professor in the Department of International Affairs and Security Studies at the Sardar Patel University of Police, Security, and Criminal Justice in Rajasthan, and the Coordinator at the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies in Jaipur. The views expressed in this piece are his own.

Photo by Farooq Naeem/AFP via Getty Images