Pakistan: Plunging into Chaos?
Pakistan: Plunging into Chaos?
Pakistan's former prime minister Imran Khan pledges to his supporters, during what they call 'a true freedom march', to pressure the government to announce new elections, in Lahore, Pakistan October 28, 2022. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro
Q&A / Asia 12 minutes

Pakistan: Plunging into Chaos?

A would-be assassin wounded former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan as he led his followers in a protest march calling for snap elections. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Samina Ahmed explains the causes and possible consequences of the country’s latest political tumult.

What has happened?

On 3 November, Imran Khan, the former prime minister of Pakistan, was shot and wounded in a failed assassination attempt in Wazirabad, a city in Punjab province. The attack killed a Khan supporter and wounded fourteen others, including several leaders of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. A party stalwart foiled the attempt on Khan’s life by apprehending the shooter, whom police then detained. Khan accuses Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah and a senior ISI official (Inter-Services Intelligence, the military’s premier intelligence agency), Major General Faisal Naseer, of conspiring to kill him.

The attack took place on the seventh day of a march Khan has staged in protest of Sharif’s coalition government. The marchers are inching their way toward Islamabad with a one-item agenda, a demand for snap elections. In the wake of the attack, enraged Khan supporters have held protests in cities around the country, blocking major roads and highways, and clashing with the police, including on the outskirts of the capital. Khan has called for the protests to continue until such time as the authorities take action against the three so-called conspirators, which could spark more violence as the march on Islamabad resumes. His intention is to impose sufficient pressure on the civilian government and the military leadership that they will accept his demand for early polls.

Why is Khan fomenting unrest?

Khan’s attempt to pressure the government through mass protests is not new. Ever since he was ousted in a no-trust parliamentary vote in April, Khan has claimed that his opponents came to power through foreign, namely U.S., intervention. The former prime minister cites as proof a routine diplomatic cable sent by Pakistan’s then-ambassador to Washington following a March meeting in which a U.S. diplomat was critical of Khan’s anti-Western rhetoric and ill-timed trip to Moscow the day that Russia invaded Ukraine. His dismissal from office occurred by constitutional means, but he claims otherwise.

By rejecting the no-confidence vote and resigning along with his party’s lawmakers from the National Assembly (the lower house of parliament), Khan has succeeded in whipping up public opposition to Sharif’s government. His anti-Western rhetoric seems to have found ready takers among a public well attuned to such conspiracy theories. General Pervez Musharraf’s regime (1999-2008), for instance, promoted such a narrative after relations with Washington soured due to its support for the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. Khan’s claim that Sharif’s government is mismanaging the economy also resonates with many, as the cost of living rises.

In opposition, Khan at first focused on his civilian adversaries. Calling Sharif’s government “imported” and “foreign-imposed”, he insisted that early elections were the only way out of the political impasse. According to the constitution, elections are to be held when parliament is dissolved or when its term is within 90 days of expiration. The current parliament’s five-year term is up in August 2023, and the government has been adamant about holding the next polls on schedule. In May, Khan led a rally in Islamabad calling for snap elections. There were violent clashes between PTI activists and law enforcement after protesters attempted to breach security cordons guarding the Red Zone, which houses government ministries and diplomatic missions. A day after those clashes, Khan abruptly called off the protests, citing the threat of confrontation between his supporters and military personnel guarding the sensitive location.

The commission ruled that Khan was guilty of “corrupt practices” for “false statements” about his assets [...] It declared his National Assembly seat vacant.

Khan’s verbal attacks on the government, as well as on the leaders of the governing coalition parties PML-N and PPP, grew more frenzied, referring to PML-N’s Nawaz Sharif and PPP’s Asif Ali Zardari as “crooks” and “thieves”. His accusations of bias on the part of the Election Commission of Pakistan, the apex elections body, also mounted, particularly after it held the PTI responsible for violating restrictions on funding from foreign sources. In mid-October, the PTI filed a reference with the Supreme Judicial Council for the chief election commissioner’s removal, claiming that he had an “illicit relationship” with the Sharif government. On 21 October, the commission ruled that Khan was guilty of “corrupt practices” for “false statements” about his assets with regards to gifts he had received from foreign governments and/or dignitaries. It declared his National Assembly seat vacant. Khan’s supporters responded to the ruling with violent protests in major cities, including Lahore, Peshawar and Islamabad.

On 24 October, days after the commission’s ruling, Khan announced an anti-government march to begin four days later in Lahore and to reach Islamabad on 4 November. “A gang of thieves and slaves of America were imposed on us”, he said, adding: “Our march is for haqeeqi azadi (true independence) and it has no timeframe”. On the march’s fourth day, Khan referred to the movement behind him as a “revolution”, asking rhetorically: “Will it be a soft one through the ballot box, or a destructive one through bloodshed?”

Three days later, Khan was shot in Wazirabad. In a leaked video recording of his police interrogation, the would-be assassin insisted he had acted on his own, saying he had been angered by Khan “misleading the nation” and “uttering blasphemous and anti-religion words”. Khan retorted: “This is not the work of a religious fanatic, as is being projected, but a bigger assassination plot”, and accused Prime Minister Sharif, Interior Minister Sanaullah and ISI’s Major General Naseer of planning it. Demanding the resignation or removal of all three in a televised address from hospital on 4 November, he urged supporters: “Continue your protests against all three individuals until they step down from their posts”. While Khan’s anti-government rhetoric is fuelling violence among angry followers, his attacks on senior military officials could have implications that extend beyond his bid to regain power.

What led to the downturn in Khan’s relations with the country’s powerful military?

Khan’s relations with the military high command, led by army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, have been deteriorating for some time, and they have now reached a new low. When he was prime minister, Khan and his cabinet often boasted of their close ties with the top brass, emphasising that Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders had the same domestic and foreign policy priorities. Yet tensions emerged when the military began to perceive that Khan was trying to intrude upon its jealously guarded institutional autonomy, particularly through reported attempts to shape the army’s leadership succession after Bajwa’s retirement at the end of November.

Relations then become acrimonious when Bajwa, saying the military would no longer play an unconstitutional role, refused to side with the PTI government against its PML-N and PPP adversaries. In late March, as momentum built behind a no-confidence vote in parliament, Khan launched a counter-offensive, claiming that the opposition was conniving with Washington to oust him. He cited as evidence the diplomatic cable sent by Pakistan’s then-ambassador to Washington. But the army chief refused to uphold Khan’s conspiracy narrative, including at a National Security Council meeting in late March. The no-confidence vote went ahead, and Khan was out as premier.

Khan stepped up his attacks on General Bajwa after his ouster. If Khan hoped to pressure the high command into backing his demand for early polls, insulting the army chief was not the best way to do it. Military spokesmen repeatedly rejected Khan’s anti-U.S. conspiracies, as Bajwa continued to insist that his institution would not be dragged into the political fray. Khan widened the breach with statements politicising the pending army leadership change. On 4 September, he accused the PML-N and PPP of opposing snap elections, which he demanded, in part to ensure their own control of that transition. He said the government wished to prevent a “strong and patriotic” officer from succeeding Bajwa. The military took umbrage. The army chief is chosen from a short list of senior corps commanders, and the military said it was “aghast at the defamatory and uncalled-for statement”, which implied that such a senior leader could be unpatriotic.

The army “will never allow any country, group or force to politically or economically destabilise Pakistan”.

The plot thickened in autumn. In late September and early October, leaked audio tapes revealed that, while still in office, Khan had allegedly strategised with his key cabinet ministers to concoct the supposed U.S. conspiracy by distorting the March cable’s contents. Khan then lodged a new accusation, saying military intelligence officers were conspiring against Punjab’s PTI-led coalition government, and stressing that “people would take to the streets to hold peaceful protests or we will hold elections by force”. In early October, Bajwa warned that the army “will never allow any country, group or force to politically or economically destabilise Pakistan”.

Despite growing misgivings about Khan’s behaviour, the generals still reportedly kept their lines of communication with him open. Yet the high command’s patience with Khan was sorely tested after he implied that military intelligence agencies had played a role in torturing two PTI leaders and killing a journalist who had been critical of the military in Kenya on 23 October. In rebuttal, ISI chief Lieutenant-General Nadeem Anjum held an unprecedented press conference a day before Khan’s anti-government protest started on 28 October. He reiterated that Khan’s anti-U.S. conspiracy narrative was “far from reality” and denied any military involvement in the journalist’s death. Denouncing Khan’s innuendo about Bajwa’s patriotism, Anjum said Khan met Bajwa at night and “called him a traitor in the day”. The ISI chief also disclosed that he had been present at a March meeting in which Khan had offered Bajwa an indefinite extension as army chief in return for the military’s backing, “through illegal and unconstitutional means”, in the parliamentary no-trust vote. Bajwa declined the offer, Anjum said.

The last straw for the military could be Khan’s allegation that a senior ISI official conspired with Sharif and Sanullah to kill him. In a 4 November press release, the military condemned Khan’s “baseless and irresponsible allegations … against the institution and particularly a senior army officer”. It added: “The institution will safeguard its officers and soldiers no matter what”.

Yet Khan again refused to back down, insisting that the ISI officer’s name be included along with Sharif’s and Sanaullah’s in the initial police investigation report. The police did not do so. Filed days after the assassination attempt, the report mentioned only the alleged shooter’s name. Khan’s latest conspiracy theory could further strain his relations with the incumbent and future military leadership. Yet what shape that relationship takes will also depend on how well the Sharif government copes with Khan’s agitation.

How has Sharif’s coalition government dealt with the political impasse?

If Khan’s bottom line is snap elections, the Sharif coalition government’s is that elections be held on schedule, within 90 days of when the National Assembly completes its five-year term in August 2023. It is likely motivated by concerns that Khan, riding a wave of popular support, would be the main beneficiary of an early election. In October by-elections, Khan’s party won back six of the eight seats its members had vacated when they resigned from parliament in April. Since the PTI heads government in two of the country’s four provinces, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, it also enjoys the advantages of incumbency, which can be considerable in Pakistan.

Sharif’s coalition government has some of these advantages as well, since it runs the federal executive, but it also must reckon with an economy in dire straits. With considerable justification, government ministers identify inflation as a big factor in Khan’s popularity and by-election victories. The devastating floods that hit the country over the summer have compounded the government’s economic – and hence political – challenges. Some senior PML-N leaders have publicly supported early elections, concerned that the later polls are held, the more the party is likely to suffer as public discontent rises. Prime Minister Sharif, however, insists that the coalition government will pay the political price of unpopular economic measures, many demanded by the International Monetary Fund, meant to stabilise the flagging economy.

Sustaining mass protests is not easy; it is an expensive endeavour.

The coalition government’s determination to stay the course is likely motivated by two additional factors. First, it probably hopes that the next ten months or so will see Khan’s anti-government movement lose steam. Sustaining mass protests is not easy; it is an expensive endeavour, not least because protesters have to be fed, venues have to be rented, and even the most ardent supporters cannot put jobs and livelihoods on hold indefinitely. The coalition government could also hope, albeit with little reason as yet, that it will succeed in at least dampening inflation well ahead of August 2023.

With Khan threatening to keep marching on Islamabad, the challenges before the government in staying the course until the National Assembly completes its five-year term have increased. It does not want a repeat of the May episode when violent PTI supporters attacked police, damaged public property and came close to breaching the Red Zone in Islamabad. The government intends to extend the Zone, where protests and mass gatherings are banned, to cover almost the entirety of the capital’s centre. Until now, a police force relying mainly on tear gas and batons but bearing no firearms has been able to stop attempts by protesters to enter Islamabad. Yet with PTI-led governments in both of the provinces bordering Islamabad, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, it might not be easy for the federal government to keep the protesters at bay. If push comes to shove, police will need help from the army. The military has assured the government that it will, if requested, provide that support. Yet a military leadership in the process of transition would have to consider the pros and cons of confronting citizens to save a civilian government.

Will political turmoil spin out of control?

Even in the deeply polarised atmosphere, Sharif and his top ministers have been reaching out to Khan, calling for dialogue to resolve differences. Khan, however, has insisted that an early date for elections is the only issue on which dialogue is possible. On one occasion in mid-October, when he warned the government he would march on Islamabad if it did not announce snap elections, Khan said: “There’s no negotiation with criminals”. On 30 October, Sharif claimed – though Khan subsequently denied – that a month earlier the PTI chief had offered through an intermediary to hold negotiations on two issues: the army chief’s appointment and a date for elections. But if there was a potential for compromise then, it seems far less likely now, after Khan named the prime minister and one of his top cabinet colleagues as two of the men “hatching a conspiracy” to kill him. Sharif has suggested that the Supreme Court constitute a judicial commission to look into Khan’s allegations, an idea Khan endorsed with the caveat that an “impartial and fair investigation” would be impossible unless Sharif, Sanaullah and Naseer resigned first.

Khan’s pointing a finger in the direction of a senior military intelligence official might not find him many friends in the military. But the military leadership will determine its course foremost in terms of the institution’s interests. If political violence threatens to spin out of control, causing death and destruction, the military could opt to press the Sharif government to accept Khan’s demand for early elections. Yet exercising that option would hold its own risks. Political stability would not necessarily follow if the government were to give in to Khan’s populist demands. Alternatively, if the military sees the beleaguered coalition government as the best bet for stability, it could opt to back Sharif and his colleagues. Regardless, political tumult will enhance the military’s leverage vis-à-vis civilian institutions.

The fate of Pakistan’s troubled democratic transition rests on its political leadership. Should cooler heads prevail, the two sides could reach some form of negotiated settlement, including on the schedule for the next elections. Should tempers instead keep rising, more violence and turmoil are on the cards, which will further destabilise the polity and undermine a fragile economy at the cost of Pakistani citizens’ lives and livelihoods.

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