As Imran Khan duels the army, political turmoil, floods, inflation paint a grim picture for Pakistan
Political instability is a perennial phenomenon in Pakistan but the present one appears to be more damaging as it has occurred at a time when the country is also experiencing one of the worst economic crises in decades
Pakistan is currently going through one of the ugliest phases of political instability in recent history. After being ousted from the position of the Prime Minister a few months back following a no-confidence vote in the National Assembly, Imran Khan refused to pull out from the political field of Pakistan without staging a valiant fight. He took to the streets to publicly brand the present government as "imported" and portrayed himself as a victim of a "foreign conspiracy". This found resonance among the common citizens of Pakistan and Imran’s party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI’s) remarkable performance in the recently held byelections of Punjab is an indication of it. The positive outcome of the bypolls had undoubtedly boosted Imran’s chances of making a comeback if general elections were to be held by October this year.
However, politics in Pakistan does not follow a predictable path and one should always be in for turnarounds. The journey to a successful comeback was never going to be smooth for Imran Khan and soon this proved to be true when the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) declared its long-awaited verdict in a case of "foreign funding" against Imran Khan on August 2. This provided the ruling coalition and its supporters in Rawalpindi a window of opportunity to tarnish the popular image of Khan as an honest politician.
Needless to say, the ECP verdict has pulled the wind out of the sails of Imran’s soaring popularity and if due process of law follows, he is poised to face a lifetime ban from contesting elections just like his predecessor Nawaz Sharif faced. But the ECP verdict is not the only issue bothering Khan at present as multiple events that occurred in quick succession since the Punjab bypolls have led Imran to walk a tightrope. This has in turn led to clouds of uncertainty looming large in the political firmament of Pakistan owing to the fight between Imran Khan and the military establishment.
Victory in Punjab
In the bypolls for 20 provincial assembly seats of Punjab that were held in the month of July, the PTI emerged victorious by winning 15 seats. The ruling coalition of PML-N and PPP were handed out a shocking defeat in the province that has long been considered a bastion of the Sharif family. The Imran Khan-led PTI managed to pull off wins all over Punjab starting from Multan in the south to Bhakkar and Jhang in the west.
Imran Khan’s anti-American rhetoric and public discontentment with a festering economic crisis under the premiership of Shehbaz Sharif seemed to have contributed to the overwhelming success of PTI in the bypolls. In the run-up to the elections, Imran continuously invoked anti-Americanism in his speeches to whip up nationalist sentiment among the masses. His narrative of a "foreign conspiracy" had seemingly gone down well with the common citizens. The youth and the middle class came out in large numbers to exercise their voting right on election day.
The election results served as a huge encouragement for Khan, who considered it to be a validation of his anti-establishment narrative. Earlier, Imran had objected to the neutral stance of the army in the ongoing political imbroglio and also accused the top brass in the military leadership of colluding with the US in the "conspiracy" to remove him from power. He indirectly held the army responsible for removing him from power due to his initiative of charting an independent foreign policy course for Pakistan that would have been free from the dictates of any foreign nation.
The army did not retaliate immediately to the constant jibes of Imran and this led to a strong conviction among many that the charismatic leader of PTI had supporters within the establishment. Even the coalition government of Shehbaz Sharif started to question the intentions of the army for not doing enough to tackle Imran Khan. There is no denying the fact that a section of the army, especially the rank and file, still supports Imran. However, PTI made the mistake of taking this support for granted and its subsequent actions paved the way for the army to strike back.
Tables turn on Imran
Apart from the dominance of the Army, the only thing that has remained constant in the politics of Pakistan is its unpredictable nature. Just when Imran thought that the present momentum was in his favour, a string of events that took place in the past month has once again pushed him on the back foot. Firstly, PTI’s trolling of the helicopter crash in Balochistan that led to the death of six Pakistani soldiers and the Quetta Corps Commander was not well received even by the supporters of Imran within the army. Secondly, in what is believed to be a political transfer, General Faiz Hameed, a staunch supporter of Imran Khan inside the army was recently transferred from Peshawar to Bahawalpur.
Thirdly, Imran’s most trusted aide Shehbaz Gill was arrested by the police for instigating dissensions within the army through his televised speech on the ARY News channel. Journalists working with ARY and a top executive of the channel have also been arrested and its office has been shut down.
Thereafter, terrorism charges were filed against Imran for issuing threats to a police officer and a female magistrate in relation to the arrest of Gill. The media regulatory authority of Pakistan has banned the live broadcast of Imran’s speeches from now on. The most significant blow to Imran’s chances of a comeback came in the form of the verdict given by ECP in the foreign funding case that can lead to his disqualification under Article 62 (1) (f) of the Constitution. All is not well for the cricketer turned politician at the moment who had hoped to up the ante after the Punjab bypolls and push for early elections.
Political instability threatens Pakistan
It goes without saying that politics in Pakistan is headed towards an uncertain future due to the constant churning that is taking place. The next flashpoint in the lingering political turmoil of Pakistan will be the appointment of the new Pakistan Army chief at the end of November this year. The road to victory will get tougher for Imran if the incumbent army chief, General Javed Bajwa, gets another extension. However, if Imran's popularity continues to remain unscathed, the establishment will find it increasingly difficult to keep him out of power for long. In that case, the only way to stop Imran will be to press for his disqualification or arrest through the law enforcement agencies and the judiciary.
The army has historically followed this path to neutralise threats from intransigent politicians but the scenario is different this time as the supporters of PTI have threatened to take the country by siege if their leader gets arrested. The possibility of an army coup looks distant at the moment but one cannot completely rule it out if the political squabble continues for long. As for Shehbaz Sharif, he will only be hoping that his government is able to complete the full constitutional tenure by August 2023.
Political instability is a perennial phenomenon in Pakistan but the present one appears to be more damaging as it has occurred at a time when the country is also experiencing one of the worst economic crises in decades. The skyrocketing inflation coupled with a dwindling foreign exchange reserve and a depreciating Pakistani currency depicts a grim picture. The devastating floods have added to the woes by causing unprecedented damage to life and property.
Moreover, the TTP has emerged to be a grave threat to the internal stability of Pakistan, especially after the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan. What the nation requires the least at the moment is political destabilization. The need of the hour for Pakistanis is to rise above petty political interests and address the issues of basic development and welfare of the citizens. But that looks far-fetched due to the ongoing duel between Imran Khan and the military establishment.
(The author is pursuing his PhD at the Department of Political Science, Presidency University, Kolkata. Views are personal. He can be contacted at email@example.com)