In transition, Pak set for more turbulence
Pakistan’s future will get some sense of clarity as it prepares to be guided by a caretaker government. But more fissures remain for the distressed country
Imran Khan’s imprisonment and disqualification from electoral politics for five years suggests an end to a phase of Pakistan’s internal turmoil. The future direction is now in the hands of a caretaker government, which will administer the next general election some months from now, possibly in early 2024. The chain of events unleashed by the premature termination of Khan’s prime ministerial tenure last year saw both enormous domestic turbulence and intensified civil-military contestation amidst a tanking economy and devastating floods. That former Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif, his brother and outgoing PM Shahbaz Sharif, their family, and party (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz) could become the military’s new favourites to run the country, would have appeared bizarre even two years ago. But Pakistan’s politics is a constant reshuffle of a deck of cards with the military holding both the ace and the king, making very surprising combinations possible.
The caretaker government’s tenure will provide the stop-gap needed to administer some bitter medicine to implement the road map attached to the latest International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) funding arrangement. The ruling combine — the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) — could hardly have been expected to take these decisions with an election coming up. But a technocratic or semi-technocratic setup with little political stake can do the heavy lifting, and the political parties can distance themselves from the process. For this reason alone, the ruling combine would want as long a gap as possible before the elections are finally held.
The transition to a caretaker government is not the only turbulence that Pakistan will witness in the coming weeks. The tenures of President Arif Alvi and Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial end soon. Both played significant parts in the Imran Khan drama over the past year, and to many, their roles often were partisan and tilted in the former PM’s favour. Their exit means a more predictable environment for the military to rejig the political architecture.
With these changes, Imran Khan locked up, and an IMF stabilisation package in place, it may seem that a more stable, or relatively stable, phase lies ahead for Pakistan. This may well be the case, but cautionary notes and caveats are in order.
The overall context does not look bright. The IMF facility is a basic ingredient for a minimum stabilisation on the financial front, but the economy remains in dire straits. The security situation is equally precarious. Efforts to get the Taliban regime in Afghanistan to rein in the Tehrik -i- Taliban Pakistan have been less than successful as terrorist attacks continue. Given Pakistan’s past history of even the last one year – floods, civic unrest, a tottering economy and major terrorist incidents – no contingency can be excluded. More than anything else, the precariousness of the political arrangement that the military is now putting together cannot be underestimated.
In the longer view of Pakistan’s history, the military’s track record of achieving stability after radical political interventions is impressive. General Zia ul Haq in the 1980s and General Pervez Musharraf in the first decade of this century both successfully achieved this. They, however, had a favourable geo-political conjuncture that worked for them. In both cases, the external assistance coming from the United States (US) became a powerful factor in domestic stability; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the 9/11 attacks, respectively, made this possible.
The current situation is markedly different. A wider geopolitical environment cementing domestic stability is not so visible. Many traditional partners, the US in particular, are simply less interested. This is not only an outcome of the Ukraine war but also the result of exasperation and exhaustion with their engagement with Pakistan. Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Gulf are helping Islamabad but with greater caution and forbearance about wading in. China will try and help but it, too, has learnt the difficulties of too much ambition from its vexed experience of a decade of executing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The point is that foreign capital faces the same headwinds in Pakistan as do domestic businesses, and the State has singularly failed in addressing the concerns of the latter.
But more than anything else, the uncertainty that the Imran Khan factor will continue to create may prove corrosive. Now in prison, disqualified, his party dismantled, and many of his principal associates distancing themselves from him, Imran Khan looks like a spent force. Were his cult status and political strength entirely social media hype and the military’s engineering? It may well be so, but nobody can say this with certainty.
The answer might be to the contrary — that whatever remains of his party will do well in the election, if allowed a fair chance. Will the election be free enough to provide an answer to that question? At present, it looks unlikely that anyone, including the military command, will want to take that chance. But never say never in Pakistan. Older scripts have surprising resilience and a way of returning in new formats.
TCA Raghavan is a former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan. The views expressed are personal.