September 7, 2022
ISLAMABAD – Pakistan’s hybrid democracy is facing unprecedented upheaval. The ousting of Imran Khan in the country’s first-ever successful vote of confidence has shaken up the system, primarily due to Imran’s rising popularity in the wake of his ouster. Refusing to cool down his narrative, Imran is facing contempt of court proceedings and an anti-terrorism case, which may lead to his disqualification from contesting public office.
The temperature has risen once more after Imran’s remarks at a political rally in Faisalabad, where he said that his political opponents “want to bring in an army chief of their choice through joint efforts”. This has led to a reaction, with the ISPR saying that the military was “aghast at the defamatory and uncalled for” remarks by Imran.
This most recent flashpoint only sharpens the confrontation between Imran and the military establishment, increasing the likelihood that Imran and his party will be squeezed in the coming weeks.
Should a scenario where Imran is disqualified or jailed plays out, massive protests are likely to erupt across urban Pakistan, raising questions as to whether it could lead to an undemocratic intervention in the country.
While there are some open questions about Imran and his party’s ability to openly confront the military establishment and survive the onslaught without making compromises, the resulting instability will deal a body blow to an economy that has been devastated by floods. This instability, should it lead to economic and political collapse, will also have negative spillovers for the region and possibly global consequences.
Emergence of hybrid democracy
Pakistan’s ongoing democratic transition began when elections were held on February 18, 2008. As Musharraf’s dictatorship weakened in 2007, foreign mediators led by the United States made efforts to bring about a restoration of democracy in Pakistan. These discussions allowed for the return of Benazir Bhutto, the leader of the PPP and Nawaz Sharif, who was the leader of the PML-N. While Benazir was assassinated on December 27, 2007, after a political rally in Rawalpindi, the agreement broadly remained in place, leading to elections in February 2008.
The democratic transition was part of a deal brokered by internal and external guarantors of economic and political stability in the country. The external guarantors included the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates; Pakistan’s military establishment, which was then led by Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was the internal one.
It was this agreement that led to the emergence of Pakistan’s hybrid democracy, which has since survived many sabotage attempts, including an attempted coup.
But elections did not lead to parliamentary sovereignty in Pakistan. Soon after coming to power in 2008, a coalition government led by the PPP began experiencing an onslaught aimed at destabilising the government, initially through pressure exerted on it to restore Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who had been ousted by Musharraf towards the tail-end of his regime.
Once Chaudhry was restored, the Supreme Court emerged as an institution that sought to keep the PPP government off-balance, with the PML-N led by Nawaz Sharif playing an active role as a spoiler during the Memogate controversy. Delivered in May 2011, the alleged memo was written by Husain Haqqani, who was serving as Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States. It was claimed that the PPP government was seeking the Obama administration’s support to reign in the Pakistan military after the Osama bin Laden raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The controversy eventually led to the resignation of Husain Haqqani as ambassador and significantly weakened the PPP government.
This was not the end of the government’s struggles. Yousuf Raza Gilani, the country’s prime minister at the time, was dismissed from office by the Supreme Court for contempt of court, becoming the first prime minister in Pakistan’s history to be removed from office by the superior courts.
Elections in 2013 led to the first-ever peaceful and democratic transition of power in Pakistan’s history. Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N emerged victorious, but it soon realised the limits of civilian supremacy in Pakistan’s hybrid democracy.
Hounded by an emerging contender to power in the form of Imran Khan’s PTI, who alleged mass rigging in the elections, the PML-N government also remained off balance. A protest in Islamabad that lasted from August 14 to December 17, 2014, was held against alleged rigging in the 2013 elections.
It was later stated in political analyst Shuja Nawaz’s book “The Battle for Pakistan: The Bitter US Friendship and a Tough Neighborhood” that Zahirul Islam, who was leading the ISI at the time, was mobilising for a coup in September 2014. This alleged coup, according to the writer, was thwarted because General Raheel Sharif, who was the COAS at the time, was unwilling to go along.
Nawaz was ultimately ousted from power in the wake of the Panama Papers revelations, with the Supreme Court of Pakistan carrying out daily hearings on a case related to the Sharif family’s assets which were revealed in the papers. He became the second prime minister in history to be dismissed from office by the superior judiciary, but his PML-N hung onto power until the 2018 elections, which led to the emergence of PTI as the largest political party in Pakistan’s national assembly.
Enter the PTI
Elected with a narrow four-vote majority in the lower house of Pakistan’s parliament after the 2018 elections, Imran’s power was also severely constrained by Pakistan’s hybrid democracy. While his ministers frequently talked about the civilian and military leadership being on the same page, with the then-PM even endorsing the extension in General Bajwa’s tenure as COAS, the divide only grew with the passage of time.
The disagreements revealed themselves fully in 2021 with the delay in the change of leadership at the ISI, following which opposition parties soon began to mobilise to oust Imran.
Once more, a prime minister had stretched beyond his limits, leading to his eventual ouster, this time in the first-ever successful vote of no confidence in Pakistan’s 75-year history.
In Pakistan’s hybrid democracy, the military establishment had always remained all-powerful. Imran’s ouster and the deal that his political opponents had purportedly struck with the military top brass — as the PTI chairman continues to allege — reinforced the primacy of the military in this hybrid regime.
End of the hybrid democratic compact
The compact between the civilian and military elite that underpinned this hybrid democracy now lies in tatters, which is why we are seeing unprecedented political chaos and upheaval in Pakistan.
Three key reasons have led to the ongoing chaos — the dramatic increase of Imran’s popularity, particularly in urban and middle-class households; the disengagement of external guarantors of political stability in Pakistan; and the discrediting of the current military establishment.
Complicating the situation further is the fact that what was previously a three-player game involving the military establishment, the PML-N and the PPP, has now become a five-player game with the addition of the PTI and the superior judiciary in Pakistan. This has made the situation extremely unstable, especially in the wake of economic instability in the country, with the nature of the political game having changed due to the addition of new, powerful players in the contest.
But it seems as if the traditionally dominant players, which includes the establishment, the PML-N, and the PPP are not fully internalising how the sands have shifted beneath their feet.
In recent weeks, these actors, especially the military establishment, have been outfoxed by Imran’s PTI and his narrative. Imran’s increasing popularity, as evidenced by the size of his rallies and recent electoral wins, has led to a growing belief within his party that the PTI can dominate the contest by taking on all its political and non-political opponents.
This confidence is pushing Imran and the PTI to cross well-established red lines: the anti-military social media campaigns, Imran’s own remarks about the military establishment during his speeches, and the most recent remarks made by his chief of staff following which he was arrested, showcase this shift.
These developments have now led to increased tensions, with the coalition government, seemingly backed by the military establishment, seeking to rein in Imran and his supporters through arrests, filing of cases against Imran, and efforts to weaken his social media machinery. But the apparent interventions have so far only emboldened Imran’s followers, reinforcing his own belief that he can emerge victorious in this fight.
What comes next?
Many political analysts within and outside Pakistan expect that things will stabilise in the coming weeks, especially once a new COAS takes over in November, later this year. But these perspectives ignore that the nature of the game has changed dramatically, meaning that a return to the post-2008 hybrid democracy is not possible.
The anti-military narrative crafted first by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and subsequently by former prime minister Imran Khan, which has targeted the military establishment for interfering in political affairs, has captured the imagination of a significant number of Pakistanis, especially its youth. This makes it extremely difficult for the country’s two largest parties to once again engage in backroom deals that bring them to power; the PML-N’s own strategic communication troubles after the widely rumoured collusion with the military to oust Imran are a case in point.
What emerges in the coming weeks and months remains to be seen, and a new COAS (as is at least expected in November), may calm things down. Given the current situation in Pakistan and the complexities involved in this new five-player contest, such a scenario is unlikely. What is more plausible is that many of the actors involved, especially the PTI and the military establishment, push for maximalist gains, leading to unintended consequences.
As Pakistan’s politics spiral out of control, its economy is going to remain dysfunctional, meaning that the country will continue to rely on external support to stay solvent. This chaos could provide terrorist groups, including the militant Islamic State, which has found safe havens in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, to foment chaos within and outside Pakistan. A military establishment facing internal chaos may not be able to focus as much as it should on this emerging threat, leading to increased challenges for regional actors and the international community.
These developments will eventually lead to the emergence of a new model underpinning Pakistan’s political economy — which may or may not be more democratic than the hybrid democracy that has existed since 2008. What is certain, however, is that Pakistan’s political economy is undergoing a major upheaval, which means that stability is going to remain a distant dream not only for Pakistan and the South Asian region, but for the global community.