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Signs of Rift Between Military and Prime Minister Imran Khan in Pakistan

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Signs of Rift Between Military and Prime Minister Imran Khan in Pakistan

Khan and his party’s handling of the key Punjab province may have irked the Pakistan army.

Signs of Rift Between Military and Prime Minister Imran Khan in Pakistan
Credit: Depositphotos

Once again, Pakistan’s capital is rife with rumors that the government of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has lost the support of the security establishment.

These rumors may have some weight if the last two weeks’ developments in Pakistan’s politics are taken into account. Recent happenings indicate that opposition to the PTI’s government from within and outside the party ranks are increasingly significantly.

In Pakistan’s politics, a widely held view is that nothing happens unless the military makes a move, be it in favor of a sitting government or to oppose it. As things stand, everything is happening against the sitting government, and Prime Minister Imran Khan’s 2019 statement that this is the “first setup where the Army is standing by the government agenda and manifesto” may not be true anymore.

The key warning in this regard comes from within the ruling party’s ranks. One of the PTI’s most senior leaders from Punjab, Jahangir Khan Tareen, has formed a forward block in the national and provincial assemblies against his own party’s government. The development is very unusual as Tareen’s group, which has the support of roughly 34 parliamentarians from the PTI, says his own party’s government in Punjab is targeting them with fake legal cases in the name of accountability. It is important to note here that Tareen played an important role in putting together the PTI’s government in Punjab in 2019 and his efforts were lauded as instrumental by Khan.

Meanwhile, earlier this week, the current opposition leader in the National Assembly, Shahbaz Sharif, was placed on the no-fly list by the federal government when he tried to travel abroad for medical reasons. Sharif, who served as the chief minister of Punjab province for more than a decade, is considered to have ties with the military’s leadership. Another opposition leader with close ties with the military is likely to take his oath as a member of the Punjab Assembly, almost three years after being elected.

Put together, all these developments indicate that the military may not be happy with Khan’s handling of Punjab province. While the government’s performance at the federal level remains questionable, with mismanagement of the economy being one of key issues, its handling of Punjab has become a major source of friction.

It is possible that opposition parties, particularly the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN), have settled their differences with the security establishment after months of tussles. On May 17, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, who also served as Pakistan’s prime minister during the PMLN’s last government, told local media that “we don’t have any differences with the military,” adding that “reports of reconciliation between the PMLN and the military are devoid of truth as we never had any differences to begin with.”

Arguably, the military is annoyed with Khan’s insistence in targeting the PMLN’s leadership in Punjab and his refusal to change the team running the province. It’s possible that Tareen’s threats to form a forward block within the ruling party are a message from the security establishment that if they can put together the party, they can divide it as well if their concerns are not addressed. Khan has pushed ahead with his accountability campaign against opposition leaders and has not done much to focus on governance in Punjab – a province which remains key as far as the military’s support base is concerned.

All this is not to say that the military is going to kick out the current government in the coming weeks. Rather these developments indicate that the military has started to act in a direction that suggests that it wants changes.

For Khan, the message in these developments is that he needs to hear what the military is saying. Still, the idea of throwing out Khan is not feasible as he has allowed plenty of space to the military on foreign policy and the economy.

If Khan does not pay heed to the ongoing developments, however, he may end up losing Punjab.

Tareen’s group has already warned that they will not support the incoming Punjab budget, and may back any no-confidence motion against the current chief minister of the province if their reservations are not addressed.