The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

Pakistan’s Sit-In Protests Come to an End, But Key Issues Remain Unresolved

The protest might be over, but the central civilian-military tussle persists.

By Daud Khattak for
Pakistan’s Sit-In Protests Come to an End, But Key Issues Remain Unresolved

Supporters of a religious party sit in protest to block a highway, near Karachi, Pakistan, Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. Pakistani radical cleric Maulana Fazlur Rehman has abruptly announced to end his two-weeks long sit-in in the capital, Islamabad Wednesday, but claimed that now his supporters will block highways to pressure the prime minister to resign over his alleged bad governance. (AP Photo/Fareed Khan)

Credit: AP Photo

Pakistan’s two-week-long protest in Islamabad came to an end, but that doesn’t mean relief for the government. The political temperature will continue to stay high and may rise further as Maulana Fazlur Rahman, leader of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, ordered his party workers to block main highways in their respective cities and towns.

Rahman, whose pro-Taliban Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party did not perform well during the July 2018 elections, alleges that the military manipulated the poll results in favor of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Both the military and Khan deny the charge.

Khan, Pakistan’s former cricket star who also won recognition in social work by constructing the country’s first modern cancer hospital, promised an end to corruption, improvement in the country’s economy, and creation of millions of jobs for youth during his election campaign.

Outside Pakistan, Khan is being seen as a strongly believer in civilian supremacy. But his opponents allege that Khan’s PTI came into power with the backing of the country’s powerful military.

To mock Khan’s election victory, his opponents call him a “selected” prime minister and refer to the military generals as the “selectors.” While the Islamabad protest was apparently targeting Prime Minister Imran Khan, it was the military that most of the protest leaders were aiming at in their veiled messages.

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Without mentioning the military and its intelligence agencies by name, politicians, journalists and commentators euphemistically call it the “invisibles” or “Khalayee Makhlooq” (meaning aliens) in television talk shows and public meetings.

Meddling in elections by the proverbial “invisibles” is not new. But for the first time in Pakistan’s electoral history, the opposition parties now blatantly name the military while accusing it of fabricating the polls.

Pakistan’s seven decades of history have witnessed three military coups that together brought more than 30 years of military rule. However, politicians, being despised by the generals as dishonest, incapable opportunists, never gained the courage to openly question the military. Rather, many, if not most, sided with the coup-makers in the past to strengthen and prolong their own grip on power.

The army, due to its power, discipline, and control over public discourse regarding the so-called national interests, reserved the savior role for itself in the eyes of common Pakistanis. But the wind seems to be changing now.

One of the major demands of the opposition parties’ recently concluded Islamabad sit-in protest is that the army should not have a role in any future elections. This alone is a serious blow to the army’s image as an impartial institution.

Elections in Pakistan are generally guarded by army soldiers and officers, mainly because the army is regarded by the majority of Pakistanis an impartial institution. During the July 2018 elections, 371,338 soldiers were deployed to provide security.

However, aside from the victorious PTI, most mainstream political parties disputed the results, with some calling the polls “the dirtiest in Pakistan’s history.” The accusing finger was pointed at the “invisibles.”

Two major political parties – the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of late Benazir Bhutto, now jointly headed by her son Bilawal and widower Asif Ali Zadari, and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) of ex-premier Nawaz Sharif – have alternatively ruled Pakistan since 1988. Once bitter rivals, the two have agreed upon strengthening the parliament to avoid coups.

The post-2008 period, which began after Pervez Musharraf’s nine-year rule as military and later civilian president, not only witnessed the peaceful transfer of power from one elected government to another – from PPP to PMLN — for the first time in Pakistan’s 70-year history, but also enabled the civilians to unanimously remove loopholes in the laws and constitution that provided the military a window to enter the corridors of political power.

In a move to clip the wings of the civilians, the military apparently colluded with the judiciary in 2017 to force former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to resign. He was found guilty and jailed for seven years in a controversial case for possessing “assets beyond known sources of income.” During his third term, which began in mid-2013, Sharif had curtailed the military’s dominant role in foreign policy and questioned its support for jihadist proxies.

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The military’s backing for Imran Khan, the so-called anti-corruption crusader, is widely considered a calculated move to replace the dynastic leadership. The so-called “minus-two” formula and “Bajwa doctrine” – referring to the military chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa — is believed to be part of the same arrangements.

The current political crisis, in fact, stems from the deep-rooted concerns that the political and military elites have about each other. The politicians’ worst nightmare is one-party rule, where the civilians will concede the key role in crafting domestic and foreign policies as well as the economy and development to the military.

The military, on the other hand, seems worried about the strengthening of political culture, expanding political awareness, and an informed civil society. For example, never in Pakistan’s seven-decade history has the military been publicly criticized for its human rights record, “unconstitutional measures,” and encroachment on civilian domain as it is today. The role of the social media revolution in this regard is conspicuous.

Keeping in view Pakistan’s complex social, ethnic, religious, and political landscape, it is impossible to impose single-party rule. But there is also no denying the fact that Pakistan’s many complexities demand a role for its strong and well-disciplined army.

It is time for the generals and the political elite to agree upon a fresh social contract by clearly marking the military and civilian domains. Without such a bargain, the tug of war will continue to the detriment of the country’s much-needed economic progress and well-being of its people.

Daud Khattak is Senior Editor for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio. Before joining RFE/RL, Khattak worked for The News International and London’s Sunday Times in Peshawar, Pakistan. He has also worked for Pajhwok Afghan News in Kabul. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.