Asia In Focus
Imran Khan unlikely to face dismissal
- Creating a Resilient Organisation
Imran Khan unlikely to face dismissal
Arsla Jawaid, Analyst
On 16 October, a new opposition alliance, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), formally launched a series of anti-government protests demanding an overthrow of the government and fresh elections.
- Although the alliance will sustain protests over the coming months, it will not topple the government.
- The coalition government led by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party will continue to have military support and complete its term in 2023 despite reports of the army’s growing frustration with the government.
- Although the PDM will initially convene large public rallies, it will likely fall victim to its constituent parties pursuing their own interests, thereby fracturing the anti-government alliance.
- Opposition parties will seek to capitalise on PDM’s momentum, but internal and external challenges will prevent these parties from reclaiming their previously dominant political position.
Since assuming power in August 2018, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government has struggled to stabilise a balance of payments crisis and a fragile economy, diversify foreign relations to shore up investment, bolster its regional diplomatic efforts with regards to the Afghan peace process and the Kashmir issue and respond effectively to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the government has struggled to juggle these multiple challenges, there has been one constant: the support of the powerful and influential military.
The military has directly ruled Pakistan for more than half of its 73-year history. Khan’s 2018 election was only the second democratic transition. Days before the election, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif (1990-93; 1997-99; 2013-17) was imprisoned over corruption charges, one of a series of developments that hinted at military efforts to weaken Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) party. As a result, the opposition has accused Khan’s government of being handpicked by the military. Moreover, where Sharif tried to reduce the military’s role in domestic politics, Khan has welcomed – and often relied on – it, raising concerns over how much power the PTI truly has.
Having manoeuvred Khan into power, the military will continue to support the PTI-led government in the coming years. However, the military is allegedly growing frustrated with the PTI’s approach to governance, particularly its inability to adequately govern the populous Punjab province, frequent changes of ministerial portfolios and its poor handling of the COVID-19 crisis. The PTI’s economic mismanagement – specifically its inability to control inflation – will add to the military’s frustration as the economic crisis deepens.
As the PDM increases its criticism, the PTI will increasingly rely on the military’s support and will struggle to keep its fragile ruling coalition intact. The military will remain influential in determining the direction of strategic foreign relations and continue to increase its footprint in critical investment areas, such as maintaining oversight of the USD 62bn China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) initiative. Given its dependence on the military, the government is unlikely to seek to limit the army’s role in internal politics. Civil-military relations, which remain a key driver of political stability, will thus continue to be stable, allowing the PTI to complete its term in 2023.
However, stable civil-military relations do not imply that the government will end its term without challenges. The opposition, headed by the PML-N and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), will continue to be vocally critical of the PTI and the growing role of the military in internal affairs.
On 20 September, 11 main opposition parties formed the PDM, demanding the resignation of the government and an end to the military’s involvement in politics. The PDM’s anti-government rallies are expected to culminate in a sit-in outside parliament in January 2021, which the PDM will seek to sustain until its demands are met.
Such political manoeuvres are not rare in Pakistan. In 2011, the PML-N launched a similar political march against the then-PPP government; in 2014, the PTI held a months-long sit-in outside parliament demanding the resignation of the PML-N government; and in 2019, the religious and conservative Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazl (JUI-F) marched against the PTI government. None of these political rallies succeeded in ousting any of the governments they protested against, but the incumbents were weakened.
The opposition is vocal but not strong. No single party has the power to topple the government on its own – a reality indicative of the growing political weakness of mainstream parties, making the need for an alliance even more urgent. And the timing of the rallies will initially work in the opposition’s favour as public resentment over rising inflation will motivate participation in these rallies. But despite initial success, the PDM will struggle to sustain momentum over the coming months.
The opposition is unlikely to remain united due to diverging political objectives, including on how openly the military’s growing political role should be criticised. Although Sharif, who is in London for medical treatment, has criticised the military for bringing the PTI to power in 2018, senior PML-N leaders, as well as those from the PPP and JUI-F, have adopted a more tempered approach, choosing to target the PTI. Despite criticisms against the institution, both the military and mainstream political parties recognise that the army will remain a key political actor. In the leadup to the 2023 elections, political parties will likely reach an understanding with the military to secure power.
More centrist parties, such as the PPP, will also ideologically remain at odds with religious political parties, such as the JUI-F. The PPP has consistently adopted a strong stance against Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law, while the JUI-F has supported it. Entrenched differences will lead to a gradual erosion of the alliance; political leaders will prioritise securing their party’s political survival.
The PML-N and the PPP will exploit the political momentum that the PDM will generate to boost their political standing. However, both will likely face significant internal and external challenges that will preclude a return to their former dominance.
The PML-N’s stronghold remains the populous Punjab province. In recent years, the party has positioned itself as a nationalist, middle-class party focusing on infrastructural development. However, issues of succession following Nawaz’s disqualification from leading a political party in 2008 have sparked a family rivalry that does not align with party members’ increasing weariness with dynastic internal politics. The rivals are Nawaz’s daughter, Maryam Nawaz, and Nawaz’s brother and opposition leader, Shahbaz Sharif. Although Maryam can garner votes and lead rallies, her political experience is limited. Despite lacking charisma, Shahbaz has proven to be an effective administrator.
Political tensions also exist between the Sharif brothers. Although the PML-N under Shahbaz’s leadership has in the past two years tempered its criticism of the military while attempting to revive the party, Nawaz’s comments will cause uneasiness within elements of the party leadership that believe in maintaining a civil, if not amicable, relationship with the military to ensure political viability.
The PPP’s struggles will largely stem from external factors. Having lost significant mass appeal in its stronghold of Sindh, it will rely on its leader, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, to revive its voter base (especially in urban centres where the PTI has demonstrated political strength). However, the party will remain plagued by criticisms over bad resource management in Sindh (where it leads the provincial government) and allegations of corruption.
The PTI government is highly likely to complete its term ending in 2023 amid military support and the political weaknesses of the PML-N and the PPP. However, it will be weakened, as PDM rallies will place additional pressure on the PTI to govern effectively, particularly in curbing inflation. Nevertheless, Khan remains a populist leader, and his party will rely on his charisma to generate mass support ahead of the next elections. Khan is a tail-ender batsman whom the military believe they can manage, making him likely to play a second innings in 2023.