Understanding Pakistan’s flawed democracy as it heads for general election

Going against the military is the cardinal sin in Pakistan's politics and ex-premier Imran Khan's predicament is neither different nor will it be the last such incident.
A collage of outgoing Pakistan PM Shehbaz Sharif (R) and his now jailed predecessor Imran Khan used for representational purposes only. (Photos | ANI, AFP)
A collage of outgoing Pakistan PM Shehbaz Sharif (R) and his now jailed predecessor Imran Khan used for representational purposes only. (Photos | ANI, AFP)

KOCHI: If there was a competition among countries for arresting former prime ministers, Pakistan would win hands down. As the country is getting into election mode, ex-PM Imran Khan will be conspicuous by his absence. He is lodged in Attock prison after a court sentenced him to three years in jail in a corruption case.

Imran is the seventh former premier to be arrested in Pakistan. The other six who were incarcerated for various reasons in the past are Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy (1962), Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1974), Benazir Bhutto (1985 and again in 1986), Nawaz Sharif (1999, 2007), Shahid Khaqan Abbasi (2019) and Shehbaz Sharif (2020).

The charges against them, in most cases drafted by the military leadership, would appear as bogus and silly as they come, with the obvious intention of keeping them out of power for some time or even banishing them from power, politics, and - in rare cases - life.

For instance, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy was thrown behind bars on charges of 'anti-state activities'. His actual crime: refusal to support the then military ruler General Ayub Khan. The jail experience shattered him and after release, he moved to Lebanon where he spent the rest of his life.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, however, was not that lucky. Arrested for conspiracy to murder a political opponent, he was sentenced to death and hanged.

The Imran story

Imran Ahmad Khan Niazi, who became PM with the Army’s blessings, was ironically thrown out of power after his fallout with the powerful military brass. He was ousted as PM in April last year via a dramatic no-trust vote, which was first dismissed by the National Assembly deputy speaker but later restored by Pakistan Supreme Court.

After losing power, Imran set out to push for early elections, playing the victim card and stepping up rhetoric. He levelled startling accusations against the US, claiming Washington put pressure on the Pak army to keep him out of power due to his ‘independent foreign policy decision’ to bolster ties with Russia.

Days after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Imran had travelled to Moscow to woo the Russians. The trip was planned long back but Imran went ahead and met Vladimir Putin, upsetting power centres at home and abroad. He refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to boot.

Demanding that elections be held immediately, Imran held rallies across the country, whipping up nationalism and drawing huge crowds. He took on the powerful military empire, claiming a top ISI official was behind the assassination attempt targeting him in November 2022. The reckless verbal attacks kept him in the limelight and in a way shored up his popularity, but they triggered a sharp statement from the military rubbishing the charges as baseless.

A day after the army’s strongly worded response, on May 9, 2023, Imran was arrested from inside the Islamabad High Court, where he had gone in connection with the hearing of one of the cases against him. Dramatic visuals from the court showed Pakistan Rangers, the paramilitary law enforcement corps, using brute force to enter the court by smashing window panes and breaking open doors to arrest the politician.

The brutal manner in which the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief was arrested from the court premises evoked questions about the legality of the action but the court ruled that the arrest, ordered by the anti-corruption body called National Accountability Bureau was in accordance with law. Following this, the PTI cadre took to the streets and turned violent, clashing with police and attacking government properties and ransacking even the army headquarters. Later, the Supreme Court ordered his release terming the arrest illegal.

Toshakhana case

However, the other cases against him were still unfolding. On August 5, he was convicted in the Toshakhana case, being charged with selling the expensive gifts he received from heads of states during his foreign trips as PM but failing to disclose the income thus generated, which is a criminal offence. On August 8, Pakistan’s election commission formally disqualified him for five years, which means he won’t be able to contest in the upcoming general elections.

For his part, the PTI leader has been maintaining that he has done nothing wrong and that he legally bought the gifts from Toshakhana, the government depository, terming the cases against him politically motivated. His lawyers moved the Islamabad High Court against his conviction but failed to get an interim relief. The court is likely to decide on the matter within a week.

Even if it gives a favourable verdict, it may not be of much relief because there are some 100 other cases pending against the cricketer-turned-politician on various charges including corruption, sedition, terrorism and even blasphemy. It is likely that he will be convicted in some of them, which will keep him ineligible to participate in elections for a long time.

Method in the madness

His supporters believe their leader was pushed to the corner through a series of events that were carefully orchestrated. While Imran has claimed he was targeted for his independent foreign policy that was at variance with the interest of the US, Pakistan’s long-time ally, his ouster came as a natural corollary of his bid to control the military affairs, including promotions.

In 2021, he publicly opposed army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s decision to appoint Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum as the ISI chief, replacing Lt Gen Faiz Hameed. Imran wanted the incumbent to continue as the head spook. Gen Bajwa’s writ prevailed and Imran’s ouster came barely six months later. In Pakistan’s history, no PM has completed a full term. And Imran’s unceremonious exit has kept that dubious track record intact.

Elections and crises

The Pakistan Parliament consists of the President and two Houses - National Assembly (lower house) and Senate (upper house). Under the country’s laws, general elections must be held within 60 days after the National Assembly (NA) completes its term or 90 days if it is dissolved prematurely.

On August 10, 2023, Pakistan President Arif Alvi prematurely dissolved NA on the advice of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. Which would mean the election should be held by the first week of November. However, the date may be pushed back as the election will be based on the new census data but the delimitation process will take at least four more months to complete.

This will unfold another crisis, as the caretaker government will have to then rule for a longer period rather than the mandated three months. While Imran’s party alleges Sharif is delaying elections because now the public sentiment is in favour of the jailed leader, analysts say this could be to avoid the huge financial burden the polls could pile on the already fragile economy.

Hand-to-mouth existence

Amid the ongoing political instability, Pakistan’s economy is diving from bad to worse. Inflation is at record levels with petrol and essential food items costing a bomb. The price of wheat flour, the staple diet, has shot up to Rs 320 a kg, while that of a litre of petrol has gone past Rs 272.

Pakistan has managed to get around $ 7.7 billion in funding from friendly nations such as Saudi Arabia, UAE and China. It has also secured an urgent, short-term bailout package from IMF to the tune of $3 billion, which may keep the economy floating for a while but big challenges remain.

Barely a month ago, Pakistan had witnessed its foreign reserves depleting to less than one month’s worth of imports and it was about to default on its external debt. It has to repay as much as $25 billion in debt repayments in 2023-24.

What next?

There are three major parties in the fray for elections. Imran Khan’s PTI, Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) led by incumbent PM Sharif and Pakistan People’s Party led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. Going by history, Pakistan is expected to go strictly as per the Army’s script, and former PM Nawaz Sharif, the incumbent PM’s brother, may stage a comeback.

Whoever becomes the next premier, he or she will have the unenviable task of steering a collapsing economy and improving domestic security. According to IMF’s projections, the country will take a “considerable time” to get back on its feet, let alone progress. Till then, political crises will continue to entertain the neighbours.

And, of course, Imran will not be the last former Pakistan PM to be arrested.

  • Buying time for polls
    Pakistan’s National Assembly was dissolved on August 9, two days before its tenure was to end. Had it been dissolved on August 11, the law would have made elections mandatory in 60 days. Early dissolution gave the government 90 days to hold polls, again by the same law. But will it be held within three months?
  • Further delay
    The latest national census that was approved recently added a new element to the dilatory tactics. It’s mandatory for the election commission to undertake a delimitation of constituencies once the census is approved. The process could easily take 4-7 months. Then there is the task of preparing new poll rolls. In other words, polls could happen only next year
  • Who benefits
    The ruling coalition and the military hoped the arrest of Imran Khan would put him out of sight and out of the mind of the voters. They would want to put off polls till they are convinced the Imran factor would not influence the outcome of the polls
  • The catch
    Imran has a loyal band of young followers who appreciate his standing up to the military establishment. Putting them out of business is not easy. Remember Indira Gandhi ordered national elections during the Emergency in 10977 assuming the jailed Opposition had been vanquished. But she was trounced at the hustings.
  • New caretaker PM
    Pakistani senator Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar has been named caretaker PM. He is said to be a staunch supporter of the military, so he can be expected to further its agenda.

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