July 2023

Turning point, or point of no return?

The Democracy Forum’s latest foray into Pakistan’s political landscape discussed the possible ramifications of the country’s ongoing crisis

Current events in Pakistan will affect the entire South Asia region, impacting the poor in particular and driving the nation to the point of political and economic implosion. These were some of the views expressed at a Democracy Forum webinar, titled ‘Repercussions of Pakistan’s descent into anarchy’, which was held in the wake of the ouster and subsequent arrest of Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Amidst a deteriorating political and economic scenario, many commentators believe Pakistan’s scheduled October election for its National Assembly is very unlikely to be free and fair, said TDF President Lord Bruce, further attenuating the already fragile nature of democracy. With the ruling PDM coalition government forced to make unpalatable fiscal reforms as a consequence of reviving a stalled IMF programme, the resulting cost-of-living crisis has given the opposition PTI party, led by Imran Khan, a chance to revive its fortunes through the forthcoming election. Khan’s May 9 detention on corruption charges by para-military troops of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) led to violent civil disturbances in Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and later in Lahore and Rawalpindi. While Pakistan’s supreme court overruled the arrest and ordered Khan’s release, the government was quick to condemn this decision and let it be known that Khan would be arrested again.

At the very heart of this political crisis, said Lord Bruce, lies the deep personal enmity between General Asim Munir, chief of the army staff, and Imran Khan. Their feud dates from June 2019 when Munir was sacked by Khan as director general of Inter-Services Intelligence. Bilal Gilani, executive director of the pollster Gallup Pakistan observes: ‘Pakistan’s future (is) likely to be decided not by elections or public opinion, but by who (wins) the power battle between the military and Khan’, with one side having ‘the ability to bring the public out; the other… the ability to bring the arms out’. Lord Bruce also cited political historian Ahmed Rashid’s suggestion that Pakistan faces ‘the worst crisis since 1971’, with three major challenges concurrently which appear to have no solution in sight: first, the principal institutions of state – the judiciary, parliament and the military – are at war with each other; second, the security of its international border with Afghanistan is threatened by rampant terrorism; third, the  economy is in dire straits with inflation now running at 37%, and likely to rise further, while the country’s external public debt and liabilities now exceed $126bn – of which 20% is owed to Chinese lenders – creating considerable repayment and debt servicing pressure.

CRUCIAL DEBATE: Panellists at YDF’s June 19 webinar, ‘Repercussions of Pakistan’s descent into anarchy’

Islamabad-based writer, physicist and activist Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy noted that Imran Khan,  who rose to power on the shoulders of the army, was a political novice whom the military believed shared their values – a supporter of the Taliban, anti-India, involved in the Punjabi establishment, hence the ideal candidate for PM. His time in power was a rough period, due to mismanagement and his links with groups such as the militant TLP, who demanded that Pakistan sever relations with France over blasphemy issues. Khan agreed and hosted TLP leaders in his office. And when Kabul fell to the Taliban, Imran Khan lauded this. Khan did not, argued Hoodbhoy, attack the army – to some degree a stabilising force in Pakistan – for making India his country’s perpetual enemy, or for putting the Afghan Taliban in power, etc – he attacked it because it withdrew its support for him.

Hoodbhoy also highlighted the difficulties in the US-Pakistan relationship, as the Americans have taken a step back and the Pakistan economy has become a ‘war economy’. Although Dr Hoodbhoy felt the seminar title was less apt now as things in Pakistan were starting to stabilise to ‘a normal state of crisis’, he said the economy is running out of steam and it will be only a matter of months before Pakistan reaches an inflection point.

Pakistan could easily become ahotspot, exceeding even the tensions over Taiwan and what is happening in Ukraine

Dr Harlan Ullman, a Senior Advisor at the Atlantic Council and a former advisor to Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto, spoke of seminal events that had tested the US’s relationship with Pakistan, leading to Washington regarding Islamabad as more of an enemy than a friend, including assassinations and various terrorist incidents. Ullman argued that the US does not see engagement with Pakistan as worthwhile, given the ongoing feudal system whereby political and economic power are concentrated in the hands of a few families, political turmoil and the Imran Khan debacle. Today, China and Ukraine are taking up all the bandwidth for the US, which is much more interested in India as part of the Quad. And while China has some remaining interest in Pakistan, it has other interests beyond that.

One area where Ullman was less concerned than others was in the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, as the country has a three-key system which would make it very difficult for them to fall into the hands of terrorists. But ultimately, he warned, this is no longer a descent – Pakistan is already in chaos and he saw no wayof working this out over time, so Pakistan could easily become one of the globalhotspots, possibly exceeding even the tensions over Taiwan and what is happening in Ukraine, if the situation boils over because of the combination of terrorism, economic chaosand political inability to roll. Pakistan is on its own, Ullman concluded, as there is no incentive for external powers to become engagedat this stage, and the nation is coming very close to the point of no return.

Khan’s politics were mainly theatrics

Offering a more optimistic view was Dr Sumrin Kalia, a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute for Global Prosperity, University College, London, who joined the debate from Karachi, where, she said, life was relatively normal due to a vibrant civil society that is capable of being democratic. Civil groups are not coming out in support of Imran Khan because he did not invest in grass-roots democratic groups, and his politics were mainly theatrics. Yet the State has not really been able to connect with the people; and when they are not heard, they can turn to populist forces such as Khan.

Kalia discussed the role civil society can play in rescuing Pakistan from the current state of poly-crisis, with her main focus on three specific areas: firstly, the need to build grass-root organisational networks which provide people with democratic skills and help build repertoires of collective action that are needed to rescue Pakistan’s democracy. Secondly, she emphasised the importance of civility as a social norm in developing linkages, managing conflict, and fostering cross-boundary collaborations, which will not only help in solving socio-economic problems but also contribute positively to the health of democracy. And thirdly, she underscored devolution of power to local governments, both economic and political, as this will enable citizens’ access to the state, orient them towards issues of public policy and dilute the appeal of populist leaders while removing the incentive for the military to take over. While Dr Kalia saw that the army might offer short-term stability to Pakistan, it was not a long-term solution for the future.

violent clashes in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, following Imran Khan’s arrest
Khan’s arrest led to civil disturbances in Punjab and KP, where several people were killed and hundreds injured in violent clashes

For senior Bangladeshi journalist and author Syed Badrul Ahsan, Pakistan has been on an unfortunate journey as far as elections are concerned. After its first election took place at provincial level in March 1954, it took nine years for a constitution to be framed, though it did not survive for more than two years before martial law took hold. While the notion of ‘basic democracy’ was introduced by former President Gen. Ayub Khan, it was actually a blow to democracy as it did not include all the people. Ahsan argued that Pakistan has never had democracy in the true sense, so the idea of the country going back to democracy is not accurate. Pakistan’s military rulers have long put pressure of civilian rulers and, although elections will be held, to what extent will the election commission prevail? You can be sure, Ahsan concluded, that the army will not release its hold on politics. In Pakistan, governments are in office but not in power – behind them will always be the army. But he too struck an cautiously optimistic note: he did not think Pakistan was descending into anarchy as we can derive some kind of hope through Imran Khan’s followers. For the first time, the civilian population has erupted in anger, and the army will have to bear this in mind.

The big difference in Pakistan today is that the army is acting against an opposition party, not the government

Military coups are usually used to remove governments, argued Tim Willasey-Wilsey, a former senior British diplomat and currently visiting professor at King’s College, London. Sothe big difference in Pakistan today is that the army is acting against an opposition party, not the government, which is still in place. The army likes being popular, he added, and sees itself as the guarantor of Pakistan’s nationhood. But it has become unpopular, acting against the crowd, which may lead to an antagonistic relationship with the people, as has happened in Myanmar and Syria.

Wilsey also looked at how the demographics have changed vis-à-vis the army – whereas once the sons of the elites would join the military and progress to the top, now those sons go abroad. The officer corps now hails from the lower middle class and may lack the ability to make certain decisions, which is concerning.  Comparingthe range of populist leaders around the world, Wilsey said they divide into twocategories, with the smart ones who know how to act, for exampleIndia’s NarendraModi and Turkey’s Erdogan, and then leaders such as Trump and Imran Khan, more populist than bright. State mechanisms, both in Asia and elsewhere, are, he concluded, failing to control populist leaders.

In his closing comments, TDF Chair Barry Gardiner MP lamented the military’s clampdown on opposition within Pakistan’s politics, as he believed that this was destroying the capacity to have important democratic dialogue, which he found deeply worrying. Pakistan, he said, is in a position whereby democratic norms are being lost, and with their absence, winds are blowing that could fell everyone. It seems, he concluded, that we have we have lost in our political thinking the abilityto understand that poverty and injustice lead toconflict and a dysfunctional polity.

Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for the foreign media including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s Deputy High Commissioner in London