Pakistan elections: A rebuke to the military establishment's policies?

The time has come to drastically curb the unchecked and ultra-constitutional powers of the army chief, subject the intelligence agencies to public scrutiny and accountability, and limit their influence over domestic and foreign policy. 

Ershad Mahmud Feb 21, 2024
Pakistan elections (Photo: Twitter)

The recent general elections in Pakistan, the results of which are yet to be finalised, gave birth to distinct themes echoing with clarity and significance. Among these a resounding message becomes apparent: the Pakistani populace, especially its dynamic youth, opposes the coercive methods of the state apparatus and refuses to adhere to predetermined narratives dictating the country's trajectory by the military leadership.

The defeat of the establishment-backed Pakistan Muslim League (N) (PML-N) at the hands of mostly relatively obscure and youthful candidates like the top tier of former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) lays a promising foundation for a more democratic trajectory forward.

A coalition between the PML-N and Pakistan Peoples Party is taking shape, consolidating power in Islamabad and three provinces: Punjab, Sindh, and Balochistan. The PTI has a clear victory in the fourth province, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. 

However, the coalition government being formed with the support of the country’s powerful ‘militablishment’, a term referring to the army's high command and powerful intelligence agency ISI, may lack public support and moral legitimacy. This would make it unlikely to survive for long.

Disdain for entrenched elite

Multiple court cases instituted against Khan and his family reek of political vendetta and the preservation of the military's dominant position in the political realm.  

In sharp contrast to the last elections in 2018, when Khan was the establishment favourite, the country’s electronic media channels notably sidelined Khan and his PTI in their coverage this time, with even the mention of his name restricted in broadcast reports and newspapers. Two days before the elections, major newspapers featured paid front-page content referring to Nawaz Sharif as the prime minister. In response, PTI upped its already strong social media campaign. 

Despite the increase in the absolute number of voters, with a record addition of 22.6 million registered between the two elections, the voter turnout rate dropped from 52.1 percent in 2018 to 47.6 percent in 2024. And while as many as 66 per cent of 18-25-year-olds are registered voters, their turnout is lower than the average.

Still, the younger generation exhibits a fearless disdain for Pakistan's entrenched elite, including the military, judiciary, and political allies, with PTI’s fan base in particular using social media to express themselves. Countering PTI's efforts to engage in online fundraising campaigns and virtual meetings, the authorities persistently disrupted internet services. 

Power struggle looms

The recent electoral success against all odds has emboldened the PTI leadership and workers. Many see it as an indication of the electorate’s opposition to the army's extra-constitutional powers and interference in political affairs. This realisation will likely spur further aggressive political action by PTI voters, sympathisers, and leadership in the days ahead, knowing that the upcoming coalition government in Pakistan is unlikely to be able to bring about an economic turnaround or address the people's grievances.

The Pakistan Army’s policies lack consistency and depth, often pivoting abruptly in response to changing circumstances, including shifts in military leadership. Moreover, with the impending retirement of the current military leadership within two years, new dynamics will unfold, with emerging figures forging their own paths. Over time, the army may realise that the support for Khan, or any politician for that matter, cannot be extinguished through coercive measures.

The tenuous alliance between the Pakistan Muslim League and the army is likely to teeter on the brink of disruption as has happened before with ‘selected’ candidates. Khan himself came into power with significant help from the military in 2018, but a few years later, their alliance fell apart. 

A power struggle thus looms, given the military’s historical interference in Pakistan’s politics. The establishment remains steadfast in its quest to maintain supremacy over the nation's decision-making processes. The chief of army staff is even one of the two persons listed on the leadership panel of a body set up in June 2023 under the caretaker administration to facilitate investments to Pakistan, the Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC). The other is the prime minister.

The incoming prime minister is likely to be Shehbaz Sharif, heading the upcoming coalition government. In such a scenario, a clash of interests is inevitable and expected to escalate in the coming months. 

Time to curb military's powers

The government that leads Pakistan now will have its work cut out to maintain longevity, facing both a legitimacy crisis and staunch opposition from the PTI. Eventually, Pakistan may be compelled to move towards a midterm election, where Khan stands a strong chance of emerging victorious. 

In the days ahead, despite his incarceration - and perhaps even because of it -  Imran Khan may garner even more popularity and influence. Many will overlook his political missteps, remembering him instead as an oppressed and courageous leader who endured harsh conditions and confronted the military head-on. Despite relentless efforts by the military to discredit him, Khan stands apart from his main rival, Nawaz Sharif, as he neither fled the country nor negotiated an exile deal.

Given Pakistan's security challenges, its dispute over Kashmir with India, and a fragile border with Afghanistan led by the Taliban, it is essential for a strong army and a professional intelligence agency to be subordinate to the constitution and elected government.

Similarly, the country requires an intelligence apparatus focused on security rather than one that meddles in politics or engages in surveillance of private conversations among politicians, judges, and ordinary civilians.

The time has come to drastically curb the unchecked and ultra-constitutional powers of the army chief, subject the intelligence agencies to public scrutiny and accountability, and limit their influence over domestic and foreign policy. Khan has the potential to bring about these changes if he manages to return to power and secure a majority in the next general elections.

The recent election results serve as a clear rebuke to the military leadership's policies, reflecting a rejection of army-backed politics rather than just the dismissal of Nawaz Sharif. It's time for them to voluntarily retreat, take a back seat from the policymaking sphere, and focus on their essential assignment of security.

(The author is a Canada-based researcher on Pakistan's politics, human rights, and peacebuilding.  Views are personal. By special arrangement with  Sapan News)

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