Even more than in previous instances, the July elections in Pakistan were swayed by the army, a veritable state within the state. The country has experienced three military coups since its independence, which allowed the army to govern the country for some thirty years altogether. Ten years ago, the military vacated centre stage, allowing the formation of civilian governments after elections often tainted by irregularities. The vote in 2008 brought about a two-stage democratic transition. The first phase was when the Pakistan People’s Party won the general elections owing to the wave of sympathy caused by Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. The second phase was in August 2008 when General Musharraf yielded the presidency to Benazir’s widower, Asif Zardari. Five years later, for the first time in its history, Pakistan saw not only a democratically elected government remain in office to the end of its term, but also a transfer of political power, with Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League, or PML(N), taking over from the PPP.
The deepening of the democratic process could not fail to indispose the army, referred to obliquely as “the Establishment.” The entrenchment of a civilian power legitimated by elections not only overshadowed it, some civilian leaders also sought to conduct their own policies, particularly toward India. Zardari, for instance, offered to work with New Delhi in the investigation of the Mumbai attacks in 2008, but soon backpedalled after the army signalled its disapproval. Nawaz Sharif, paradoxically, proved less docile. While the businessman owed his political career to the Establishment, he sought to free himself of its patronage in the late 1990s. As prime minister in 1997–9, he attempted to make peace with India, convinced not only that Pakistan was fighting a losing battle in the arms race but also that the country’s economy stood everything to gain by trading with its neighbour. He revived this strategy on returning to office in 2013, as evidenced by his meetings in 2014 and 2015 with his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi.
Hostile toward normalising relations with India, which would amount to confirming the partition of Kashmir and partly deprive the military of its raison d’être—and hence, of parts of its huge budget—the army has repeatedly managed to derail these so-called peace talks. It also did its best to get rid of Sharif. The Panama Papers, which revealed the existence of eight offshore companies in the name of his family, did much to advance the army’s cause, as the courts not only expedited the case but enlisted the military’s help with the inquiry: the Joint Investigation Team formed at the behest of the Supreme Court included two representatives from the Establishment. On the basis of the JIT’s report, the Supreme Court ruled that Sharif had violated articles 62 and 63 of the constitution, which require officeholders to be “truthful” and “trustworthy.” Sharif was disqualified from holding public office and convicted of corruption. But who was to replace him?
Prima facie, it would have been easier for the army to take control directly, but it has denied itself that possibility for the past ten years. First, military coups are often costly in terms of international sanctions, something the country cannot afford. Pakistan, which goes from one IMF loan to the next, is dependent on external bankrollers. Imran Khan or his finance minister will have to hold out his begging bowl very soon, as Sharif did after he was sworn into office five years ago. Second, the military leadership has drawn a very mixed assessment of General Musharraf’s tenure from 1999 to 2008—governing also involves managing a deficit-bound economy and a society fraught with a host of tensions. Rather than get its hands dirty, the army sought a civilian leader, which would enable it to remain above the fray but in control of the issues it cares most about, such as the country’s policy toward India, Afghanistan and China, with which Pakistan has undertaken a huge 62-billion-dollar infrastructure project, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. The army and civilian rulers both claim the project as their brainchild and want to benefit from it.
The army needed someone who not only shared some of its ideas, but also enjoyed enough popularity to be elected, to please those watching abroad, as well as satisfy the Pakistanis’ own aspirations for political freedom. For over the past seventy years in Pakistan, there has been an underlying tension between a desire for a strong state offering security from the so-called Indian threat, which explains the weight of the army, and a thirst for democracy, which explains why the army has never managed to establish a lasting dictatorship. Imran Khan emerged as the only possible candidate, even if his erratic temperament ensured he did not offer all the necessary safeguards.
Khan owes his popularity among a large segment of the population not only to his sports career—especially the cricket World Cup that the “captain” brought home in 1992—and his charity work, but also to his fight against corruption. That has been his key issue since he founded the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf in 1996. For the army, this theme has the advantage of being popular among the middle class exasperated with the personal enrichment of big political families, including the Zardari-Bhuttos and the Sharifs, and also of casting discredit upon the political class as a whole. Khan and the military thus had a common target: he, as an outsider to politics as usual, the Establishment as perennial critic of the depths to which the political sphere would stoop. Since Ayub Khan in 1958, all the generals involved in a coup have used the corruption of civilian politicians to justify their power grabs.
Further, Khan has a nationwide appeal. Unlike his rivals, he is not associated with any particular province. While the Bhuttos were identified with Sindh and the Sharifs with Punjab, Khan, even if he portrays himself as Pashtun, does not speak Pashto and belongs to an elite that transcends regional divides, owing in particular to his career as captain of the national cricket team. Now, since 2008, the military have been seeking to counter the deepening of Pakistani federalism that the PPP and the PML(N) have been promoting since the eighteenth amendment to the constitution, which gives more autonomy and financial resources to the provinces, was passed in 2010.
Khan’s nationalism, like the army’s, is suffused with hostility toward India—which he constantly vilified throughout the recent election campaign—and appeals to Islam. Despite his air of eternal playboy (and its attendant lifestyle, including two divorces), Khan professes Islamic piety and social conservatism. He outlined his very personal relationship to Islam in his 2012 article for the Riyadh-based Arab News, “My Journey into Religion.” He recounts his rediscovery of Islam in reaction to Western materialism, immoral behaviour and criticism of his religion surrounding the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. He began to understand god’s plan through cricket: “the more I understood the game, the more I began to realize that what I considered to be chance was, in fact, the will of Allah.”
The discovery of being chosen by God, he explains, cured him of fear. Faith also made him more compassionate toward the less fortunate. Most of all, he assigned himself the mission of initiating “a dialogue” between Pakistan’s Westernised elites and radical Islamists, whose intolerance, he says, is against the spirit of Islam. Although he equally blames these “two extremes” to position himself as a mediator, Khan gradually began to champion stances upheld by the Islamists in the name of tradition, particularly those pertaining to family values. In this regard, he has come out in favour of strictly enforcing sharia and the anti-blasphemy law. Since 2013, he has been eager to negotiate with the Pakistani Taliban and defends the Afghan Taliban, whose judicial “system” he approves, in their jihad, which he defines as a war against foreign occupiers, the Americans. Khan further gained the reputation of an intransigent nationalist by protesting against drone strikes on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in 2010.
During the recent election campaign, he exploited this image and his religiosity to political ends. He visited the shrine of a famous Sufi saint accompanied by his third wife, whom he presents as his “spiritual guide.” The PTI also urged Pakistanis not to vote for the PML(N) because it ordered the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, the man who murdered the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, ostensibly for Taseer’s attempt to water down the blasphemy law. The law by which blasphemers can be sentenced to death is anathema to the Ahmadi, Christian, Hindu and even Shia minorities. Up until now, Islamist parties alone exploited this highly sensitive issue, but the PTI had no qualms about using it to tout its leader’s Islamic credentials.
From 2013, the army began to use Imran Khan to weaken Nawaz Sharif by backing his agitation against the prime minister, whom he accused of winning the elections by fraud. In 2014, Khan’s supporters were authorised to lay siege to the government in Islamabad, where they set up camp for 126 days. During the recent election campaign, the military gave him a further leg up by undermining the media’s independence: distribution of Dawn, the country’s main daily newspaper that is very critical of the army, was disrupted, and forms of intimidation including the kidnapping of journalists prompted European Union and Commonwealth observers to qualify such incidents as obstacles to the freedom of expression and factors of self-censorship. The Establishment also encouraged political defections to the PTI. Many in Sharif’s party withdrew their candidacy at the last minute and contested as independents. At the same time, many PML(N) leaders were prevented from standing for election by the timely opening of investigations.
Nawaz labelled these legal actions—which came on the heels of those that led to his own disqualification—“pre-poll rigging.” That did not prevent the occurrence of true electoral fraud, as the army, at the behest of the electoral commission, posted men in uniform at polling stations, where party election observers were sometimes barred during the vote count. The tensions caused by this unusual practice delayed the announcement of the results, which were often issued not on the forms designed for this purpose that require the signature of party observers, but on plain paper. All political parties—with the exception of the PTI—deem that the election was not carried out in compliance with voting regulations, which did not seem to trouble the electoral commission, clearly under the army’s thumb.
Despite such interference, the PTI did not win an absolute majority. It claimed 116 seats out of 272 with 32 percent of the vote. In comparison, the PML(N) had a 24 percent vote share and the PPP, 13 percent. This can be explained by the resilience of certain institutions, including the legal system, which, for instance, finally authorised several party leaders who had been barred from contesting elections to campaign. This might also reflect the strategy of the army, which was seeking less to hand power to Imran Khan than to prevent the PML(N) from winning another term in office—and perhaps even to bring about an assembly without a majority, which would weaken civilian power in general. This analysis is buttressed by the remarkable score made by newcomers to politics secretly backed by the Establishment. Not only were members of the Islamist movement Lashkar-i-Taiba, an organisation traditionally close to the military, allowed to stand as independent candidates, but Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan, a party formed a year ago to uphold sharia, took over four percent of the vote. These new champions of a radical Islam in the political arena have taken over for the traditional Islamic parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, whose coalition is slipping, with less than five percent of the vote.
Even if it is in the army’s interest to have a fragmented parliament, Khan did not have much trouble forming a coalition government with independents, regional elected assembly members and the six elected representatives of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, the Karachi-based Muhajir party that suffered a serious setback due to its divisions. Not only has Khan got a majority in parliament, but his party also managed to head the government of two of the country’s provinces—including the largest constituency, Punjab—succeeding in doing something no party had achieved since the PPP under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The PTI has also won an absolute majority in Khyber-Pakhtunkwa, the province it has governed since 2013 together with the Jamaat-e-Islami, which has now gone into the opposition, denouncing election fraud. The Punjab win was a major prize and a relief for the army, which was concerned about the Sharif influence in a province from which it recruits most of its officers. Shahbaz, Nawaz’s brother, was heading the province since 2009.
Will being in such a position of strength enable Imran Khan to conduct his own policy, or will he have to concede to the army’s diktat? Nawaz had tried to shake free of it, but Zardari endured it and owed his survival to his docile attitude. Khan may forge a middle road. The answer will soon become apparent in his handling of certain matters. Khan may not be opposed to amending article 18 and subdividing Punjab, as the army wishes to prevent the PML(N) or any other party from building a bastion in a province that contains a majority of parliamentary seats. On the other hand, he is likely to have trouble financing the “Islamic welfare state” he has promised without cutting into the army’s budget, and he may enter into confrontation with the military if he wants to have his say in CPEC projects and relations with Beijing in general. But once again, it is the relationship he intends to have with India that will decide his fate. His future may also be affected by the opposition’s newfound unity as well as the fate decided for Nawaz: keeping him in prison is likely to make him a martyr; releasing him could considerably reinforce the opposition.
The population’s mood varies depending on the sector of society and covers the full spectrum from resignation to jubilation. Protest against the electoral outcome is not on the agenda as long as the main losers are prepared to take part in parliamentary politics. On one hand, the voter turnout of 52 percent, three points lower than five years ago, indicates a certain disillusionment with the electoral process. On the other, some sectors of society are mobilising, be it the Pashtuns combating the discrimination affecting their community led by a charismatic new leader, Manzoor Pashteen, or those who have ousted political families from their historic strongholds—such as Bilawal Bhutto, who lost in Lyari, the Karachi district where his parents and other PPP bosses had been elected without a break since the 1970s—or urban youth drawn by Imran Khan’s projects for a “New Pakistan.” How far the mobilisation of these enthusiastic supporters will last remains to be seen, especially if the financial crisis clips the government’s wings for good.
Christophe Jaffrelot is a contributing editor at The Caravan. His books include The Pakistan Paradox: Instability and Resilience; The Hindu Nationalist Movement; Dr Ambedkar and Untouchability; India’s Silent Revolution; and Religion, Caste and Politics in India.