Pakistan finds itself at a critical juncture at the hands of former Prime Minister Imran Khan. The decision to delay elections due to “security concerns” is disingenuous and signals to the broader public and the world at large that the hybrid system instituted by the Pakistani military is in danger. The issue is not whether Khan has committed crimes, or that the security situation in Pakistan is unsuitable for an election – the real problem is the existential threat that Khan poses to the hybrid system, which fundamentally relies on the tacit approval of the two major dynastic political parties.
As most observers of Pakistan know, the hybrid model tilts the balance of power toward the Pakistani military, which chooses the dynastic political party that will come into power. It is an unwritten rule in Islamabad that the military generals in Rawalpindi have the final word. The current prime minister acknowledged this fact in a recent interview.
Khan ignored this rule and forced the military and political establishment into a corner by refusing to fall in line.
The old political establishment is desperately clinging to power, with the support of the military, by preventing Imran Khan from running for office. Khan’s political party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), enjoys overwhelming support from the Pakistani middle class and, most importantly, its youth. Many analysts believe that if elections were to be held soon, the PTI would win overwhelming support.
The old political establishment, composed of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), has lost much of its luster over the years. Their decline has only accelerated with the current caretaker government’s incompetence, best demonstrated through their mishandling of the most recent loan negotiations with the International Monetary Fund.
What is different about the current political situation is the negative discourse directed toward the military. The narrative being spun by Khan alleges that his removal from power in April 2022 was due to his interference in the selection of the next Army chief. The general discourse within Pakistan is that Khan wanted to keep the previous head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, in charge of the ISI and appoint him as the next army chief to secure upcoming elections. Hameed’s removal as ISI chief led to a standoff between Khan and the Army brass in the fall of 2021, when the then-prime minister at first refused to approve the new ISI head’s appointment.
Following the clumsy and heavy-handed raid on Khan’s residence on March 18, Khan tweeted that “this is part of [the] London Plan where commitments were made to bring absconder Nawaz Sharif to power as quid pro quo for agreeing to one appointment.” Khan is alluding to a meeting last November where the current prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, traveled to London to discuss the appointment of the next army chief with his brother in exile, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Adding legitimacy to Khan’s claim is the public fallout he had while in office with the Sharif-appointed Chief of Army Staff, Asim Munir, who at the time was in charge of the ISI and subsequently removed.
Furthermore, Khan has publicly stated that the nomination of the current head of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), Sikandar Sultan Raja, was made at the behest of the military. The decision by the ECP to delay elections is not only unconstitutional but strengthens Khan’s argument that the military and political establishment is deliberately crafting measures to prevent Khan from running for elections.
Reinforcing this view are recent remarks made by the PML-N leadership stating that “if Mr. Khan goes to jail… it will be much easier for his opponents, especially the PML-N, to manage the election in Punjab.” Statements such as these only ingrain political gridlock, strengthen Khan’s resolve to defy court orders, and embolden Khan’s supporters to challenge the state’s authority.
What truly complicates the situation and threatens the hybrid model is Khan’s unique ability to exploit the inherent weakness embedded within the model itself. The dynastic political parties (PPP and PML-N) have historically enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with the military that has allowed the two entities to cyclically enjoy the financial benefits of being in office. In exchange, the military as an institution gains autonomy and an unrestricted budget to pursue whatever it deems significant. The system, up until now, has relied on the corruption and ineffectiveness of the dynastic political parties to justify the military’s autonomy and to uphold the myth that Pakistan’s military is the only institution capable of protecting and preserving Pakistan’s interests.
Khan’s political party breaks from the unwritten contract agreed upon by the dynastic political parties and threatens the sanctity of the military. While the hybrid system has faced its fair share of challenges, the current situation breaks from precedent. The PTI enjoys overwhelming support in three Pakistani provinces (Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Gilgit-Baltistan) and has morphed into a national force with overwhelming support instead of the regional support that the dynastic political parties hold. Furthermore, Khan’s rhetoric and deft use of social media, since his ouster from office, have not only chipped away at the myth of the military’s infallibility but actively encouraged public ridicule and contempt toward the institution. The generals in Rawalpindi have yet to find an effective way to silence their critics within social media.
Khan has successfully leveraged this position and even stoked divisions within the Pakistani military as an institution. Following his removal from office, Khan was able to gain the support of a multitude of retired military officers and junior personnel. The most notable is the support of the former director-general of the ISI, Zaheerul Islam, who pledged his support for Khan and promised to help his reelection campaign.
To maintain discipline within the ranks, the army was forced to cancel the pensions of five retired army officers last year that were supposedly involved in the PTI’s “anti-army campaign.” Rumors circulating in Pakistan suggested that around 150 ex-servicemen from the rank of major to major general were being investigated for crossing the military’s redline – rumors that the General Headquarters vehemently denied.
The old establishment is terrified and cannot find a way out of its current predicament. They cannot allow Imran Khan to run in the elections because they know that he would enjoy an overwhelming electoral mandate that would ultimately force the military and the dynastic political parties out of power and dismantle the hybrid system that has dictated Pakistani politics over the past decade.
Khan’s demands for real democracy, his use of social media to garner the support of Pakistan’s youth, and his consistent message to the Pakistani people that he alone can eliminate the practice of bribery that is at the heart of Pakistani politics have left the old establishment with three options. The military can intervene and take a greater role in governance, force Khan into imprisonment, or remove the problem of Khan altogether. None of these options would bode well for Pakistan or the old establishment.
In this game of political chess, both Khan and the old establishment need to tread carefully. Pakistan and its people are facing a multitude of challenges. The two warring sides would be wise to let democracy run its course and reflect the will of the people.