Pakistan elections: It is army versus none
The Army has shortlisted a former three-time prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to lead the next government. Now, it’s a matter of namesake elections to happen
Pakistan goes to polls on Thursday to elect members of the National Assembly and prime minister. A country of 240m people, marred by political instability, economic chaos and border issues on all fronts, including Iran, Afghanistan, and India, hopes to elect a miraculous leader to uplift the country’s general profile. But the real question lies in whether the Pakistani _Awam_ (public) has any choices to make other than the one presented by the all-powerful Pakistani army and its Chief General Munir.
The answer may not be that difficult to find. The Pakistani ‘establishment’—army, intelligentsia and elite politicians, has already consolidated power and is in no mood to let it go. The military staged a political coup against the elected prime minister, Imran Khan, in Nov 2022 after the two had a falling out, and, of course, the army denied the allegations.
Now, the army has shortlisted a former three-time prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to lead the next government. Now, it’s a matter of namesake elections to happen.
Sharif, the poster boy for the prime ministerial position and chairman of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N), has been brought back to Pakistan by the army from a four-year-long self-exile in London. Sharif did not have a great time dealing with the military leadership during his previous tenure, especially after General Parvaiz Musharraf staged a military coup and jailed him in 2000.
This time, the army seemed to have no other credible choice left. Sharif has a dedicated fanbase in Pakistan that knows him for his development works during his three tenures, which will be enough to camouflage the army’s direct role in micromanaging Pakistan’s political affairs.
It will not be the first time that the military wants to control the entire political process and government in Pakistan. The country has spent decades under military rule since its partition from India in 1947, and today, it has become the country’s most potent and stable institution.
The open secret about the Pakistani army is that no head of the government questions it. Former prime minister Khan was a recent exception whom the army brought in 2018 through the election process, but the bonhomie turned hostile as Khan went against the top military leadership. The army allegedly staged his ouster through a no-confidence motion in the parliament in November 2022, marking the end of the Imran Khan era.
Khan, a former seasoned cricketer and chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), was an experiment gone wrong for the ‘establishment’. Imran Khan and his wife are locked in jail today, but his supporters across the country, especially the young voters, are vying for his release. With dozens of cases against Khan and his party members, the army has left no scope for his comeback.
To make it worse, Khan’s party, PTI, has lost the party symbol, which is crucial for a party to reach out to people in rural areas, as not many Pakistanis can read or write. Though the Khan-backed candidates are reaching out to the masses through digital platforms, it is a limited phenomenon in urban areas.
There is no denying that Khan remains a famous voice in the elections even if he is not contesting directly and remains behind bars for the next 31 years. There is certainly a wave of Khan sympathizers wanting Khan-supported candidates to win.
There is no doubt that Khan’s image as a young leader who connected with all age groups made him a popular leader. Above all, the army backing changed the course of Khan’s political life from a struggling politician to a prime minister. However, Khan’s misconception was that he was at par with the army and not under it, which jeopardized his journey, and obviously, the army was in no way ready to commit an ‘original sin’.
On the external front, Khan detested the US, especially in the last phase of his premiership in 2022 and directly accused Washington DC of staging his ouster in cohorts with the army. Khan had drastically tried to take Pakistan out of the American sphere of influence and put more into partnership with Russia. The world watched when Khan landed in Moscow on the eve of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It clearly made the US and the Western world unhappy. Khan also raised scratchy questions about China, especially the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
The army has nourished relationships with the US and China in the last few decades. While Pakistan became the critical strategic geography for the US to launch and continue its ‘War on Terror’ in Afghanistan, China saw it as a gateway to accessing the Arabian Sea for economic and military purposes. Having invested and extended billions in assistance to Pakistan, Khan had undoubtedly risked the interests of the US and China.
Now, under the new incoming leadership, the army would want to be less celebrative of the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan and be more accommodating of the US concerns in Taliban-run Afghanistan. Second, Pakistan would want some US backing in taking the next fight against Iran if the ceasefire fails. Following Iranian military strikes against Jaish al-Adl groups—a militant group based in Pakistan’s Balochistan, Pakistan had retaliated by launching counter-attacks in ‘terrorist hubs’ in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province.
At the same time, China cannot be replaced either by the US or the Islamic world, which has come to the rescue of Pakistan amidst its economic fall. The UAE and Qatar have moved to buy Pakistani state assets, including seaports, airports, telecom companies, etc., to let the money flow into the country. Pakistan also needs US support in the ongoing International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout. Similarly, China is helping Pakistan challenge India by creating pressure on the Himalayan front.
With Delhi, the Pakistani army would not try to do a lot of readjustments and experiments. There is no denying that the ties with India have deteriorated, and there is little that Pakistan hopes to revitalize, with trade being of little hope.
If Sharif is back in office, he might want to engage with India as he has continuously pitched for bettering ties with India in his election campaigns and advocates to resume talks with Delhi. At the same time, India has conveyed, in the strongest words, its ‘zero-tolerance policy on terror’. Given that the terror industry receives protection from the ‘establishment’, India would continue to demand the dismantling of terrorism in all forms in Pakistan.
While the army remains all-powerful and has found a candidate in Nawaz Sharif to be a titular head of the state, there remains no doubt that the elections will not be free and fair—something the global community has raised concerns about, including the US.
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