Pakistan in turmoil – what next?

By Prof Swaran Singh – Director SAFN June 7th, 2023

Pakistan’s unfolding political drama has taken the focus off its piecemeal economic collapse in the making and the resultant social turmoil and plight of its citizens.

For the region and Pakistan watchers around the world, it has eclipsed all other issues including the Ukraine war. Especially during the past week in Pakistan, things have been changing by the hour.  

On Monday morning, for instance, former prime minister Imran Khan, who believes he could be detained, jailed or even killed soon, claimed that the “London plan is out” and now the army has “assumed the role of judge, jury and executioner” and plans to invoke sedition charges to put him and his wife in jail for the next 10 years.

Khan was referring to former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in exile in London having been the mastermind orchestrating Khan’s ouster from power, and how the current prime minister, Nawaz’ brother Shehbaz Sharif, has begun working with the army to ensure the elimination of Khan and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). 

Meanwhile, there have emerged cracks within the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), a coalition formed in 2020 by all major opposition parties to remove Imran Khan from power. This was achieved in a vote of no-confidence in the Federal Assembly in April last year. After that, a coalition government led by the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and the Pakistan People’s Party was formed. 

This weekend saw PDM leader Fazal-ur-Rehman preparing to hold a sit-in and protests in front of the Supreme Court that had declared Imran Khan’s detention illegal, followed by the Islamabad High Court granting him bail. Rehman believes the Supreme Court has been overly enthusiastic in protecting Khan.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, on the other hand, sought to have the protest moved to another venue, lest it trigger a law-and-order challenge in case Khan and his supporters showed up at the Supreme Court for their next legal action.

History and religion

Imran Khan meanwhile has begun to invoke history and religion while addressing not just members and supporters of PTI but the entire nation, which he sees as in peril of another dismemberment. 

Invoking emotional calls of fighting to last drop of his blood, Khan urged Pakistani citizens to bow to none other than Allah and not allow the army to threaten them with their un-Islamic behavior.

Khan has become focused on targeting the Chief of Army Staff, General Asim Munir, avoiding criticizing the army itself as an institution and seeking support of the judiciary. But he also alludes to learning from the past when military repression resulted in the liberation war in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. 

Such references reverberate enduring assertions of Baloch nationalism being the next existential threat for the nationhood of Pakistan. It is such insinuations that have triggered questions whether Imran Khan is headed for becoming Pakistan’s future Mujibur Rehman or might end up like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

To recall the history of Pakistan’s former prime ministers, two of them, Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, were exiled, and the latter was assassinated on her return. Another popular prime minister, Benazir’s father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, faced trial and execution. 

In all of these cases, the military remained either directly in control of Pakistan or the kingmaker for subsequent regimes, including that of Imran Khan himself. Khan was anointed as prime minister in August 2018 after Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification. 

But the current state of affairs, of the Supreme Court declaring Imran Khan’s detention illegal, and nationwide protests threatening or destroying symbolic military properties, has put into doubt the army’s formerly unquestioned power and aura, and even its cohesion. 

Army’s cohesion in question

Without doubt, armies the world over stand out as disciplined and united organizations, and the same should be the case of the Pakistan Army. Yet most armies also have had their own internal division and dissensions that occasionally become visible to the outside world and even a challenge for military leaders. Last week’s public outrage and violence following Imran Khan’s detention was one such occasion. 

The fact that the home of Lieutenant-General Fayyaz Ghani, corps commander of Lahore – once the home of the father of the nation, Mohammed Ali Jinnah – was attacked and damaged by fire has ignited speculations. 

Was this a case of the army being taken unawares? Was it the action of people restless due to increasing difficulties following a prolonged economic crisis? Or was it a case of at least a few generals looking the other way to express their displeasure with the way the army chief has handled the Imran Khan affair so far?

The fact that two dates for holding elections for the Punjab Assembly have passed without elections being held also reveals inability of the both the government and the military to deliver results. 

While some see this as an example of the army becoming vulnerable, others see it as the retaliation of common people who have been on the receiving end of Pakistan’s economic collapse in the making. 

Election year

Perhaps the fact that this is the year of Pakistan’s federal elections should explain some of this hyperbole if not its consequences. With Federal Assembly elections due by October, the continued popularity of Imran Khan has become a headache for both the ruling coalition and the military, especially General Asim Munir, who has become a target of Imran Khan’s tirades since his removal as prime minister. 

This government completes its term in August, which means federal elections can take place any time between now and October, that is, within 60 days of the National Assembly’s term coming to an end or within 90 days if it is dissolved earlier. This puts a premium on time, and the army needs to act fast, as the costs of ensuring peace and the pride of its place in Pakistan will keep increasing.  

The protests that followed Imran Khan’s detention last week would lead many experts believe that if elections are held on schedule on October 8 or before, Khan will win hands down. This has seen the army trying to ensure calm by deploying troops all over and detaining large numbers of PTI cadres and supporters. 

But this will only get the army more deeply entrenched in politics that it would like to avoid given that the impending economic collapse of Pakistan is not a time for the military to step in to ensure order.

The coming two weeks will be crucial to see which way this intra-institutional and personality war in Pakistan go, and the world will keep awake given Pakistan being a state with nuclear weapons. Whether this will involve any major power’s intervention remains unclear as of now.

Prof.Swaran Singh is a Director at South Asia Foresight Network(SAFN) and a visiting professor at the University of British Columbia, Fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Calgary, Alberta, and professor of diplomacy and disarmament at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The commentary was initially published by

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