Government and governance, National security | Asia, South Asia

24 November 2016

The military remains the ultimate winner in the political manoeuvering between Pakistan’s Prime Minister and populist opposition leader, Ayesha Siddiqa writes.

Donald Trump’s victory in the US elections may have shocked the world, but in authoritarian, military-dominated political systems like Pakistan, the shock does not carry the same intensity. The country has its own Trump-like character in the form of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan who, like the President-elect, is known for making statements that often raise eyebrows. In any case, the Trump victory will give hope to Khan’s followers who themselves bear a certain resemblance to Trump’s supporters – an urban middle class that wants to shake up politics on its own terms with seemingly little respect for the preferences of others. But unlike Trump supporters, the majority of whom represent white blue-collar workers, Khan’s close coterie and a large part of his support base are not under-privileged. Instead, they are an increasingly vocal and influential group that wants to grab power in the name of fighting corruption in Pakistan.

Khan, leader of a new opposition party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-insaaf (PTI), is viewed by many young people, and even the military, as symbolic of the need to replace traditional parties and politicians such as the (late) Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party and Mian Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League.

But the military, a major protagonist of the country’s power politics and considered by many to be the largest political party, reserves its greatest anger for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif – in particular Sharif’s perceived eagerness to improve ties with India and his reluctance to intervene in Afghanistan in a manner favoured by the armed forces.

More on this: The Kashmir cauldron: How the death of a young militant sparked a tinderbox

Sharif is a Punjabi, part of the largest and politically most powerful ethnic group in Pakistan, and is also moderately conservative like the military. Although these qualities should endear him to Army General Headquarters (GHQ), the generals seem unhappy with his inability to market the Kashmir issue in international forums. The popular perception amongst the military-led establishment is that although Sharif spoke at the 71st session of the UN General Assembly in September 2016 about Indian state atrocities against Kashmiris, the Prime Minister’s heart was not in the appeal. Indeed, one of the first things that Sharif claimed he would achieve after being elected in 2013 was to improve ties with New Delhi.

Nawaz Sharif is, therefore, a catch-22 for the armed forces. The generals are no fans of his, yet they are not willing to back Imran Khan as his replacement because Khan is perceived as someone who cannot be entirely relied upon to follow the military’s instructions.

Like Trump and the Republicans, even Khan’s party members often get embarrassed by positions he adopts. In particular, his more liberal followers are uncomfortable with what they perceive to be a soft stance on the Taliban. Similarly, Khan organising a sit-in protest this month against the government, only to call it off without having won any concessions, does little to raise his esteem in the eyes of his supporters. Furthermore, despite his lofty claims, Khan was ultimately unable to gather enough followers to ‘lockdown’ Islamabad in October as he had promised. He couldn’t even get one million people to march to his tune in 2014. It seems that although his supporters will still vote for him, they are not prepared to sacrifice their physical comfort by turning out for rallies and undertaking long sit-ins.

Yet for all these flaws, and even though Khan may not have won the 2013 elections as he expected to, his PTI party is still the second largest party in parliament.

More on this: Could India-Pakistan tensions lead to a nuclear war that neither side wants?

An additional problem with Imran Khan is his inability to correctly interpret the political conflict between Prime Minister Sharif and the Chief of Army, General Raheel Sharif. This year it’s been clear that there is a lot of tension between the government and the army, potentially over who would succeed Raheel as the new army chief, a decision that has to be made by the middle or end of November at the latest. Despite the General announcing in early 2016 his intention to retire, rumours still circulated this month that General Sharif was ready to overthrow the Prime Minister in order to extend his own tenure, thereby pushing Imran Khan onto centre-stage. And blinded by his own ambition, Khan seems to have played along with the army’s unfavorable perspective on the Prime Minister, hoping that the tension would result in the GHQ giving Sharif the final push.

However, the Prime Minister has always been a successful negotiator, at least domestically. Some senior political commentators suspect that the Khan rally was thwarted due to the army and Sharif developing a private understanding. Unlike Khan’s previous sit-in in 2014, when Islamabad police were unwilling to take orders from the political government to stop PTI workers attacking the television station, and looked at the army instead, this time the Sharif government was willing to use police violence to disperse the PTI protesters. The fact that the Sharif government was willing to order a police crackdown, seemingly without any concern of a military intervention, is considered an indicator by some commentators of a prior agreement being arranged between the GHQ and the Prime Minister’s office.

However, the de-escalation of political tension in Islamabad must not be seen as a victory for Sharif. The army has once again won a political contest, reinforcing its power to manipulate the civilian government and have its way. After all, the military under General Raheel Sharif has shifted from government to governance. It has mastered the art of ruling without being behind the steering wheel itself.

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Siddiqa, Ayesha. 2017. "Pakistani Military Pulling The Strings - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.