The curious case of Pakistan’s democracy

The curious case of Pakistan’s democracy

This article examines military influence in Pakistani democracy and highlights problems Imran Khan might face in implementing changes. The actions of the newly elected Prime Minister will have security and economic consequences at home and in the region.

Imran Khan was sworn-in as the 22nd Prime Minister of Pakistan on August 17th, 2018 after his party the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) won 151 out of the 342 seats. Khan is a popular former cricketer who captained the 1992 World Cup winning team. In 1996, he formed the PTI as an alternative to the dominant two-party system in Pakistan to counter corruption, nepotism, and poverty. Khan’s ascendance to the post of Prime Minister has stirred controversy about the legitimacy of these elections and the influence of the army; enough for him to proclaim at the swearing that he is standing on his own feet.

The popular belief remains that true power to alter politics lies with the military headquarters in Rawalpindi and not with politicians in Islamabad. Therefore, his election, like virtually all previous elections, will have little meaningful consequences for Pakistan’s behaviour at home or abroad.

Prime Minister: The Army’s selection

After independence in 1947, Pakistan was established as a parliamentary system based on elected forms of governance. However, the military has ruled for over three decades (1958-1971, 1977-1988, 1999-2008) instead and it has been difficult for democracy to take root because of governing conflicts. The first five-year term of an elected government started in 2013 and 2018 signifies the first democratic transfer of power.

However, civilian governments are subject to military influence and pragmatically accommodate the army in order to reduce the chances of a coup. In 2013, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) appointed General Raheel Sharif as the chief of army staff. The General then, as all his predecessors, assumed substantial influence over Pakistan’s national security and foreign policies. Nawaz Sharif subsequently angered the General and army with his speeches criticising military officers and offering peace to neighbouring countries. By extending an opportunity to strengthen diplomatic, trade, and security ties with India, Sharif was signalling the legitimacy of accepting India as a partner and not an existential threat to Pakistan.

This had two major implications. Firstly, it would make civilian and political institutions stronger in dealing with India over economic, security, and energy ties. Secondly, it would raise questions about the dominance of the military in foreign policy, mainly its defence expenditures. Since the country’s inception, the justification for a ballooned military budget has been the undiminished threat of India. Currently, 21% of Pakistan’s fiscal budget is spent on the army. In a developing nation where lack of infrastructure is endemic, the spending on military seems extravagant.

For these reasons, the army considered Sharif to be an unsuitable candidate of choice in future elections and pressurised the Supreme Court to disqualify him from holding office in August 2017. The Court ruled against him under Article 62 of the constitution on corruption charges, stating he was neither sadiq (truthful) nor ameen (honest) — these remain ambiguous charges undefined in law. Sharif has subsequently been banned from politics for life and is currently jailed along with his daughter.

The only candidate left to be cultivated by the army was Imran Khan of PTI. Khan has had a chequered political career since he founded PTI in 1996. He used to refuse to play the game of forging alliances, which is an essential tactic since it is rare for any political party to get majority across different provinces of Pakistan. Khan was also critical of the military, accusing them of rigging the 2013 elections in favour of Sharif, and selling Pakistani blood for American dollars. However, in 2013, Khan saw his inability to win support nation-wide without the backing of the army and changed his stance to praise the military unconditionally, including its management of internal security. The military reciprocated in his favour.

Sham of democracy

“Yeh jo dehsat gardi hai, is ke peechey wardi hai” (terror is backed by the military) was a popular chant during the 2018 elections and casted aspersions on democracy taking root in Pakistan. There is evidence to suggest the military ran a campaign of intimidation and threats to secure Imran Khan’s position by suppressing his political opponents, the judiciary, media, and activists.

Firstly, the media was subjected to unprecedented pressure, raising concerns that the army was carrying out a silent coup. There were widespread abductions of journalists, censorship, and financial ruin of establishments that refused to toe the official line — do not cover or praise the PML-N, focus on the winning image of PTI and Imran Khan. Geo TV, the country’s largest broadcaster, was forced off air for weeks. Dawn, the oldest newspaper, was threatened for interviewing Sharif where he suggested Pakistani militants were responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The brazen suppression of two of the largest media houses was a warning to the rest to fall in line. The suspension of media and press rights highlighted the excess of military influence on the electoral process.

Secondly, the vote-banks of opponents were systemically broken down and candidates from PPP and PML-N were forced to join the PTI — 248 politicians switched parties in four months. Party workers of the opposition were detained, harassed and disqualified from contesting elections. The army facilitated the rise of political parties with ties to jihadists, terror groups and right-wing Islamists. They were encouraged to field hundreds of candidates and the Election Commission of Pakistan, which is supposed to disallow any individual with terror-links from contesting or organising elections, made no efforts to stop them. These groups contesting include the Lashkar-e-Taiba (conducted terror attacks in 2008 in Mumbai), the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jammat (has ties with the Islamic State) and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Labbaik (popular for enforcing Pakistan’s blasphemy law that has led to murders of religious minorities on frivolous allegations of offending the Prophet). These extremists, backed by the military, will now be a part of the electoral coalition led by Imran Khan.

The military has denied any such influence and maintained that they do not intervene in elections. Michael Gahler, chief of the European Union election observer mission, observed that there was no rigging. He, nonetheless, “concluded there was a lack of equal opportunity” – the pressure on media, the “far stronger” efforts to encourage party switching and “judicial conduct” had all negatively impacted the vote.

Imran’s new innings

Khan’s promise is to build a New Pakistan in the long-term. However, he will have to recognise that an elected official in this country relies on the military’s willingness to sanction these policies. One of the most pressing issues in the country has been that of extremism. There has been a recent crackdown on internal militant groups but the root causes of extremism are not being tackled. Imran has earned the title of ‘Taliban Khan’ over his readiness to hold talks with terrorists and calling them “our brothers”. The presence of fringe elements in his coalition has made it a likely possibility for extremists to feel emboldened under his leadership. There was an alarming level of electoral violence in 2018, including suicide bombings, that led to over two-hundred people being killed.

He has been a vocal critic of America and its foreign policy, especially its use of Pakistan in its war on terror. Being in power however, Khan will have to engage with America on issues of financial and military aid, as well as the war in Afghanistan since these issues are of paramount importance to the army.

Furthermore, how will Khan’s rhetoric of engaging with India fare? He vowed to improve the ease of doing business between both nations but Kashmir remains the core issue. Kashmir is an Indian state but Pakistan views it as an integral part of its country — they have fought four wars against one another (1947, 1965, 1971, 1999) over this territorial conflict. With India unwilling to alter the status quo on Kashmir and the Pakistani military fixated on it, Khan will be conflicted to make good on his economic promises with India. The increased trade between them is of outstanding importance to Pakistan given the shambolic state of the Pakistani economy that is heading towards its second IMF bailout in five years. Khan promised a war on poverty and to create an Islamic welfare state that spends on education and health. Nonetheless, the financial crunch in the country does not allow any fiscal imprudence. On the other hand, Indian Prime Minister Modi is also heading for general elections in 2019. While his government is interacting with Khan’s on issues of shared interests, it is doubtful whether a long-term settlement over security and energy matters will be negotiated before 2019.

The first democratic transfer of power between two governments is a milestone in the country’s seventy-year history, however the state of democracy is questionable. It is unsure whether politics and politicians in Pakistan can ever be immune to the influence of the military and implement an agenda that is reflective of the mandate of the people. There remains uncertainty over the economic and security prospects of Pakistan. With little manoeuvrability, it is unlikely that Khan will be able to act on any progressive policies, either internally or abroad.


About Author

Malvika Singh

Malvika is the current Editor-in-Chief at GRI and an analyst specialising in the political economy of developing countries. Currently, she is developing a platform aided by AI to report on geopolitical risks for and in South Asia. Malvika has been involved in working with different levels of governance, including NITI Aayog, the official think-tank of the Indian Government, and as a campaign assistant and policy developer for Members of Parliament. She holds an MSc in Comparative Politics with a specialisation in Political Economy from the London School of Economics and a BA Honours in Politics from the University of Nottingham.