September 2023

Still playing the blame game

As former premier Imran Khan languishes in jail and Pakistan remains in a political and economic strait jacket, Syed Badrul Ahsan  is pessimistic about the future

Seventy-six years into its creation through the partition of India in 1947, Pakistan remains a state in search of an identity. It has been ruled for much of this time by its army and for the remainder, its civilian governments – the period of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto being the sole exception – have operated by the consent of the military.

Now, in 2023, it has become quite evident that even if the army has not seized power in recent times, it remains the only political force in the country capable of installing and dismissing governments at will.

All of this is in line with tradition. Pakistan has had four military rulers on whose watch popular aspirations for democracy fell by the wayside. The first military coup, in October 1958, by President Iskandar Mirza, a retired major general, and General Ayub Khan, the army commander-in-chief, destroyed the country’s prospects of holding its first general election in early 1959. The second spell of military rule, under General Yahya Khan, remains remarkable for the general elections of December 1970 that were won by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League but were then torpedoed by the regime. The army’s genocide of Bengalis in 1971 led to the emergence of Bangladesh from the ashes of East Pakistan.

General Ziaul Haq’s military government deposed the civilian administration of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977, eventually hanging the prime minister on disputed murder conspiracy charges in 1979. The Zia period pushed Pakistan into state-sponsored Islamisation, a straitjacket from which the country, to this day, has not been able to break free. General Pervez Musharraf overthrew Nawaz Sharif’s government in 1999 and put fresh new brakes on Pakistan’s chances of graduating to a democracy. It was on Musharraf’s watch that Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in 2007.

FILE - Former Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks during a news conference in Islamabad on April 23, 2022. Pakistan's elections commission on Friday, Oct. 21, 2022 disqualified former Prime Minister Imran Khan on charges of concealing assets, a move likely to deepen lingering political turmoil in the impoverished country. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul, File)
FIGHTNG BACK: Imran Khan openly blamed the military for engineering his ouster

Pakistan’s military rulers apart, successive chiefs of the Pakistan army have had a powerful hand in orchestrating the rise of politicians to power before showing them the door. The newest instance of that is, of course, the fallen Imran Khan, whose assumption of office in 2018 came with the blessing and overt support of the army. And then came the old irony: it was the army which created the conditions that would lead to Khan’s departure from office when he lost a vote of confidence in the national assembly.

Imran Khan was, however, unwilling to take it lying down. In moves unprecedented in Pakistan’s fraught history, Khan openly blamed the military for engineering his ouster. No politician before him had challenged the army over its meddling in politics, and Khan’s loud denunciations of the military’s interference in affairs of state won him the support of vast numbers of Pakistanis. His rallies in the months between his fall from power and his detention by the Shehbaz Sharif government were clear hints that a fresh election would result in a massive victory for his Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) Party.

Yet for all his growing popularity, it was only a matter of time before the military would strike back. The thirteen-party coalition government led by Shehbaz Sharif, egged on by the army, decided on the formula of instituting a multitude of cases – close to 150 at the last count – against Khan. While all these acts were being committed, the military began a concerted campaign to dismantle the PTI. One after the other, in fear of prosecution if they remained loyal to Imran Khan, senior leaders of the party deserted it, though not before informing the media that they were doing it ‘voluntarily’.

General Pervez Musharraf put fresh new brakes on Pakistan’s chances of graduating to a democracy

The army was, of course, incensed when PTI supporters went on a rampage after Khan was arrested for the first time in May. They stormed the cantonment and broke into and vandalised the home of a corps commanderin Lahore. Khan was released on bail, but there were strong indications that, sooner or later, the soldiers would come after him and he would be silenced. He was indeed silenced, imprisoned at the notorious Attock Fort, as his lawyers tried to have him freed on bail. In a recent development, his conviction and three-year prison sentence on corruption charges were suspended, but he remains on remand and it is difficult to predict if he will be out soon.

One ought not to ignore the fact, either, that in his days in prime ministerial office, Imran Khan himself went out on a limb to clamp his political rivals in prison on charges they have dismissed as trumped-up. In other words, Pakistani politics has, by and large, been a blame game dating back to the earliest phase of the country’s history. The trend has continued, fuelled by an interfering army.

The Sharif coalitionhas handed over power to interim Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar

So where does Pakistan go from here? The Sharif coalition, having decided that general elections need to be organised under a caretaker government, has handed over power to interim Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar. The field is now open for the Muslim League, the People’s Party run by the Bhuttos, and other parties that have been part of the coalition which replaced Imran Khan’s government, to fight it out among themselves at the polls.

Even if it means to take part in the elections, the PTI will not have much hope of victory with its leader in prison and senior party figures remaining silent or having abandoned what they thought was a sinking ship. A free Imran Khan would have made a difference; but his and his party’s wings have been badly clipped by the soldiers and the military is in little mood to have him return to centre stage.

Additionally, a new twist has lately impacted the election issue. The coalition administration now in office was expected, under the rules, to conduct elections within a 90-day period and hand over power to an elected government. But the Election Commission has made it known that the poll will take longer than three months to be held, a position with which constitutional experts have taken issue. One cannot dismiss the role of the army in this delay in holding elections.

PTI supporters rampaging through the streets of Lahore in May
PTI supporters rampaging through the streets of Lahore in May

The future for politics in Pakistan remains blurred. The economy has taken a nosedive and thousands of Pakistanis have been making their way out of the country on rickety boats in search of a future abroad, with many of them drowning at sea in the process. The nation remains a region of instability, with its provinces, especially Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, in insurrectionary mode. Islamist terrorists almost routinely gun down people, particularly worshippers in mosques on Fridays.

More troubling still is that Pakistan’s media, print as well as electronic, are under strict instructions from the army to carry no news of Imran Khan, to not show his photograph, to not broadcast his speeches delivered earlier.

Sadly, in Pakistan, this militarisation of democracy that has been shaping up in these recent months shows no signs of abating.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a Bangladeshi journalist and political commentator based in London. He is the author of biographies of Bangladesh’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the country’s first prime minister Tajuddin Ahmad