Pakistan’s democratic institutions have been historically intertwined with its military. With the recent political unrest, inflation and economic crisis, Pakistan is witnessing a milestone in its history as a democratic republic. Political rivals have now become allies to rescue democracy from the clutches of the Pakistan army. Political parties across the spectrum have come under one umbrella — the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) — raising allegations against the present government’s incompetence. This political collective has also pointed fingers at the top tier of the army which has been accused of rigging the elections. This article throws light on the facts about PDM, the validity of the allegations made against the military and the prime minister. It also attempts to analyse how this uprising would affect Pakistan’s foreign relations.
Sam Thomas and Gazi Hassan
With the number of reported cases of COVID-19 increasing from 400 to 700 per day, Pakistan has officially confirmed that the second wave has started. The government will soon come up with new restrictions to curb the number of cases from rising exponentially. Just a month ago, Prime Minister Imran Khan received laurels for his smart lockdown strategy and policies that were put in place to fight the pandemic, despite his misgovernance that has resulted in the food inflation and economic crises. Meanwhile, Peshawar witnessed a bomb blast in a madrassa that killed 7 children and injured 70. There have also been other tremors making a shift and jolt in Pakistan’s political arena.
The entire political spectrum, the main rival political parties along with another 11 regional political entities, has joined hands with Maulana Fazal-ur Rehman (leader of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F)) under a single banner of Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) since September 2020. What is noteworthy is that the PDM has witnessed two major political rival parties — Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (N) (PML(N)), currently led by his daughter Maryam Sharif, and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) under Bilawal Bhutto Zardari — working together against Imran Khan’s alleged ‘puppet’ government, which has been hiding behind the military’s shield. Although they are demanding the Prime Minister’s resignation, their real target is Pakistan’s powerful military.
Last week, Nawaz Sharif addressed a multi-party conference in Islamabad via a video link from London. He stressed that the struggle was ‘not against Imran Khan but those who put him in power’. The meeting was called to plan a strategy to oust Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI)-led coalition government. Both major opposition parties are openly calling out the military in rigging the 2018 election. Nawaz Sharif has even dropped names of Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa and ISI Chief Lt. Gen Faiz Hameed. The PDM intends to ensure that the protests against the government are carried out in a disciplined and integrated manner. The movement has managed to undermine the military for its role of backing the government.
Imran Khan has denied any rigging allegations in the 2018 election and accused Nawaz Sharif of playing a ‘dangerous game’ by blaming the military and ISI. There already have been attempts made to silence the dissent. Pakistan works on a hybrid model of governance where the military takes many of the important political shots. The present government is said to be on the same page as that of the army for the first time in Pakistan’s political history. Pakistani military is infamous for supporting the successions of Prime Ministers and many times taken over control.
There is a lot of responsibility running on Fazal-ur Rehman as he is the only credible face of the movement not tainted with corruption. The present changes in Pakistan’s political scenario would alter the way they are perceived in every global platform. The PDM has definitely shown its people that there is an alternative to Imran Khan’s government. These rallies are taking place against the backdrop of a financial crisis with prices for basic food increasing, civilians rising and expressing their dissent. If this continues, they might be able to reduce the military’s influence on political governance, if not a complete divorce. The local media are being cautious with their reportage — extensively covering the rallies but refraining from reporting on the specifics of Sharif’s accusations against the army. The army, on the other hand, is waiting for the PDM to fizzle out and run its course; it is also prepared to retake power as it has done in the past. Politicians in Pakistan have a history of being mired in controversy but not the army. Pakistani military may find it easier to use Imran Khan as the scapegoat and withdraw its support for his government.
What does all these developments mean for its neighbours — China and India? Pakistan’s foreign policy has always been with the military and China has and will continue to provide its support to the Pakistani army. India would be seen supporting PDM in its pursuit for democracy. However, many political leaders within the PDM had made an anti-India stance before. With the exception of the 2013 election in which Nawaz Sharif won, India has always been in Pakistan’s internal politics and vis-a-vis Kashmir issue. India has raised its concerns over Pakistan conducting elections in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (elections were held in Gilgit-Baltistan on November 15) which it considers its own part. India can rise up to the occasion and manage its relation with Pakistan by supporting the unified opposition. However, the fact remains that Pakistani army may simply turn the tables around against India if it is seen overly keen in supporting the PDM. India needs to re-adjust its perception of its neighbour with these new developments. The change in civil-military relation may reflect a ‘naya Pakistan’ that ironically Imran Khan had promised in 2018. There has been no sign of any serious systemic change in Pakistan in the past two years for which the custodians of the real power must change.
Internationally, Pakistan’s foreign relations are also deteriorating with regards to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Gulf states. Saudi Arabia is failing to show its solidarity with Pakistan on the Kashmir issue at the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and has received criticism from the Pakistani foreign minister. Saudi relations with Pakistan are no longer stable. Pakistan is now looking at a frozen oil credit of over US$ 3 billion and also has to pay up a loan of US$ 3 billion to Saudi Arabia. Pakistan’s relations with the UAE is also in decay ever since they brokered a peace deal with Israel. The Middle East is very slowly placing Pakistan at an arm’s distance and will be an onlooker as Pakistan’s political parties go up in arms against the government. Malaysia and Pakistan were intending to enter into an economic partnership in the beginning of the year. With PDM shaking up the political corridors and Saudi Arabia cashing in on what they owe from Pakistan, Mahathir Mohamad will not be too keen on signing any new MoUs.
Presently, Imran Khan is hoping for the best while preparing for the worst. The army is weighing its options and watching closely as the PDM conducts one successful rally after another. The PDM has not made a blueprint of its strategy but removing Imran Khan and having a fresh election without the military interference has been its narrative. PDM has the potential to destroy the nexus between politics and army, but the results of this movement will no doubt change Pakistan’s global image.
Sam Thomas is Research Intern and Gazi Hassan is Senior Research Associates at CPPR-Centre for Strategic Studies. Views expressed are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.
Featured Image source: Dawn