The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

In a Rare Show of Power, Pakistan Opposition Elites Challenge the Generals

Political temperatures rise in Pakistan as the opposition takes on the military and Imran Khan headlong.

Daud Khattak
In a Rare Show of Power, Pakistan Opposition Elites Challenge the Generals
Credit: Flickr/openDemocracy

Pakistan is heading toward an imminent political deadlock as leading opposition parties, with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the vanguard, have chalked out plans for a countrywide movement against the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan.

As per their plan, public gatherings will be held in different cities in October, November and December with the expected result of bringing the government to its knees, or at the negotiating table at the least. Beyond this, the opposition plans on a long march toward Islamabad and a sit-in protest in in the federal capital in January next year.

Turmoil is not new in Pakistan’s tumultuous politics. But what seems to be somehow atypical this time around is an across-the-board anger and discontent among opposition leadership against the military’s meddling in political affairs. What used to be discussed by politicians in drawing rooms or behind closed doors and off-the-record conversations with journalists is now being talked about in public meetings.

Moreover, what used to be criticized by ethnic Sindhi, Baloch, and Pashtun leadership in the three smaller provinces —  Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan — is now being aired by mainstream political leadership in the mainland Punjab, the fourth federating unit often sarcastically referred to as the “big brother.”

Breaking his two-year-long silence, ex-premier Nawaz Sharif told a multi-party conference through a video link from London last month that there is a “state above the state” in Pakistan. Referring to the widespread allegations of poll rigging by the military in favor of Khan in the 2018 elections, Sharif said his struggle was against “those who had imposed such an incapable person” upon the nation through a manipulated electoral process. Opposition parties in Pakistan refer Khan as the “selected” and the military as his “selectors.”

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Sharif’s “state above the state” remarks reverberated a similar statement by another former premier, Yousaf Raza Gillani, in 2011. Referring to the army generals and an alleged conspiracy to overthrow the elected government after the American raid in Pakistan’s garrison town of Abbottabad to capture Osama bin Laden, the otherwise soft-spoken Gillani told the parliament that “there cannot be a state within a state.” There is no confirmation whether the military had actually tried to stage a coup.

To neutralize Sharif’s freshly launched thrust, the government and few self-proclaimed spokespersons of the military establishment among politicians have labelled the top opposition leaders as “traitors,” “anti-state” and “Indian-agents,” — a time-tested weapon in the arsenals of Pakistan’s governments in general, and its security establishment in particular.

In a television interview on October 1, Khan said that Sharif is playing a “dangerous game” by leveling allegations of political interference against the army. Khan alleged that Sharif has India’s support.

Days later, a sedition case was filed against Nawaz Sharif and other top leaders of his Pakistan Muslim League-N for “conspiring against the country” and other top institutions. The “institutions” or “state institutions” euphemistically refer to the army and its intelligence agencies in Pakistan.

The allegations of being “anti-state” or “foreign agent” are not unprecedented. From Fatima Jinnah, the sister of Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, in the mid-60s, to Nawaz Sharif in 2020, anyone who raised their voice for civilian supremacy or against violations of the constitution and human rights or in favor of freedom of expression, has been dubbed anti-state or Indian agents.

In other words, patriotism means silent submission to the state-sponsored narrative as defined by the so-called “state institutions” with the aim to keep a tight hold over the reins of powers.

In the late 1980s and early 90s, Nawaz Sharif was the darling of Pakistan’s military establishment for standing up to the late two-time Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was declared a security risk. Two generals – Aslam Baig and Asad Durrani – admitted their involvement in stopping her party’s re-election in the 1990s.

Sharif lost favor with the generals when he tried to assert his constitutional authority as the elected prime minister. His government was sacked twice in the 1990s.

Unlike the past, the generals have overtly picked a side in a political battle between Imran Khan and his opponents this time. This explains why Sharif says the opposition’s struggle is not against Imran Khan; he is referring to the military. The talks of “hybrid rule” is no more a secret in Pakistan.

Such is the fear of being declared as “anti-state” that no 24/7 television channel has ever  questioned the military’s violation of the Constitution by military generals the way they criticize politicians for their “incompetence.”

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For example, news of illicit assets of Sharif and former President Asif Ali Zardari have been covered as regularly by these channels. But they have not dared to air a single line about the investigative story by journalist Ahmad Noorani who reported about alleged undeclared assets worth millions of dollars owned by former General Asim Saleem Bajwa and his family. The private television channels picked the issue only when Bajwa issued a statement denying the charges as baseless.

Bajwa, who now heads the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) Authority, also served as director-general of the media wing of the Pakistani military.

In the same token, the local media raised hue and cry about  a meeting between certain politicians and the army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa few weeks ago. Most commentators and television anchors were heard condemning the politicians for meeting the army chief. But no one dared to ask on what authority did the army chief call a meeting with the politicians in the first place.

Despite the government and military working hand in glove to smear the opposition leaders, if the battle continues the powerful military could suffer.

For example, when the government ministers or television anchors raise questions about Nawaz Sharif being an absconder, the opposition leaders point accusing fingers at General Pervez Musharraf, the former military ruler who also fled the country and was declared an absconder by the courts. In the same vein, when the government functionaries accuse the opposition leaders of being corrupt, the other side raise questions about Saleem Bajwa and his family’s ill-gotten assets.

Sharif’s revelations that then chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) General Zaheerul Islam had asked him to resign must be creating waves not only among the ex-premier’s support base but also elsewhere in Pakistan.

While the military has already been accused of bringing into power and supporting a government that, according to some analysts, has failed to deliver on many fronts over the past two years, statements, disclosures and allegations such as the ones by Sharif is not going to augur well for the favorable image of Pakistan’s most powerful institution, its military. Banning criticism of the army in the media is not going to help the hybrid government as social media makes headway in Pakistan, allowing news and opinion to be shared unfettered.

Expect the political temperature to rise in Pakistan in an otherwise moderate October.