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Establishment Losing Authority in Pakistan

The political fragility can only be worsened by the economy, which has been in tatters for long, with little hope of imminent revival.

7 mins read
Security personnel are seen outside the building of the Election Commission of Pakistan in Islamabad, capital of Pakistan on Feb. 5, 2024. (Xinhua/Ahmad Kamal)

At the time of writing, Pakistan’s political landscape is full of chaos. The General Election 2024 results have not only thrown up a hung National Assembly, but have done so after a pre-election scenario ‘fixed’ to produce a ‘selected’ and not elected, government, and an electoral process riddled with irregularities. The meme currently doing the rounds in Pakistan is that the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) got more votes on February 9, than it did on February 8. Widespread protests and violent repression have already been witnessed in multiple locations across Pakistan, and it is widely believed that the political future of the country can only be extremely tumultuous.

The provisional results, bitterly contested and challenged, declared on February 11, 2024, indicate that the Independent Candidates have won the maximum number of seats, 101, of which 93 were backed-by the jailed former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI). This was followed by the Nawaz Sharif-led PML-N, 75; Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), 54; Muttahida Qomi Movement Pakistan, 17; Jamiat Ulama-e-Islam Pakistan, four; Pakistan Muslim League, three; Istehkam-e-Pakistan Party, Balochistan National Party, two each; Majlis Wahdat-e-Muslimeen Pakistan, Pakistan Muslim League-Z, Pashtoonkhwa National Awami Party Pakistan, Balochistan Awami Party, National Party, Pashtoonkhwa Milli Awami Party, one each. The result of one seat has been withheld.

The General Elections for 265 out of 266 National Assembly seats were held on February 8, 2024. Polling on one seat was postponed after the death of a candidate. The National Assembly comprises 336 seats, with 266 determined through direct voting, and 70 reserved seats (60 for women and 10 for minorities) allocated based on each party’s strength in the house.

In the simultaneous elections held for Provincial Assemblies of Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Punjab and Sindh, while PTI supported independents have emerged leaders with 136 seats out of a total of 297 direct voting seats in Punjab and 89 out of 115 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; PPP has won a maximum of 88 out of 130 in Sindh, and 11 out of total 51 in Balochistan.      

These results are a dramatic setback for the ‘all powerful’ Military Establishment in Pakistan, which had done everything possible to bring back its protégé-turned-foe-turned-protégé Nawaz Sharif to power again. To this end, the Establishment first helped the then-combined opposition under the banner of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) sustain an orchestrated street mobilisation and protests against the then Prime Minister Imran Khan – another protégé turned foe – leading to the build-up of a political situation which help the Establishment topple Imran’s government in April 2022. Subsequently, a PDM Government was installed under Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, Nawaz’s brother, which later handed over power to an Interim Government led by caretaker Prime Minister Anwar-ul-Haq Kakar, in the run-up to the elections.

In the interim, Imran Khan was sent to jail, convicted on multiple ‘corruption’ charges, his party was banned from participating in elections, and its election symbol was withdrawn by a pliant Election Commission of Pakistan. It is significant that Nawaz Sharif had been forced into exile in 2019 by a slew of corruption case, and had been banned from participating in elections ‘for life’. The ban was abruptly lifted by the Supreme Court on January 8, 2024, paving the way for his engineered return to power.

With just 75 seats in the National Assembly, Nawaz Sharif has declared himself the victor and staked his party’s claim to form the Government. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari of the PPP, with 54 seats, has announced that his party would join a PML-N led government, to “bring political stability” to Pakistan. Significantly, the combined total of the two parties, at 129, is still below the minimum of 133 required to secure a majority, and reports indicate that a process of poaching on the Independents has begun.

With the Establishment backing them, there is little doubt that a PML-N – PPP combine, with support from some other parties as well a few independents, can form a ‘unity government’, as had happened after the ouster of Imran Khan in April 2022.

Nevertheless, with widespread and credible allegations of election rigging, the Establishment is facing unprecedented ignominy and a rising challenge to its authority. It is significant that the PTI-backed Independents have performed well across the country – including Punjab, the Establishment heartland and Nawaz Sharif’s home Province. A crisis of legitimacy is inevitable, and will hobble any government that is formed in contravention of the popular mandate. The possibility of a situation arising where the Establishment may ‘be forced’ to take ‘full control’ of governance, citing critical disorders, is growing.

The political fragility can only be worsened by the economy, which has been in tatters for long, with little hope of imminent revival. Pakistan’s budget deficit reached PKR 2.4 trillion or 2.3 percent of the GDP in the first half of fiscal year 2024, up from PKR 1.7 trillion or 2 percent of GDP in the same period last year. As on February 11, the USD to PKR interbank exchange rate was PKR 278.5 according to Pakistan Interbank. The prices of essential commodities are soaring, with as inflation at 28.3 per cent.

Socio-political and economic turmoil have deepened further, as the Establishments entrenched policy of using terrorism as a strategic tool boomerangs. After a peak in 2009, at 11,317, terrorism-linked fatalities declined steadily, to bottom out at 365 in 2019. A sustained rising trend has since been established, with 1,502 killed in 2023 – including 532 Security Force (SF) personnel. 244 terrorism/insurgency linked fatalities have already been recorded in 2024 (data till February 11), including 75 SF personnel. While positive, the SF:Terrorist kill ratio is not very reassuring, at 1:1.098 in 2023; and 1:1.04 in 2024, indicating severe pressure on the SFs. These trends are unlikely to improve, with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Islamic State (IS) operating across the border from Afghanistan, the former with tacit support from the Taliban. It is useful to recall, here, that Imran Khan had often expressed sympathy with TTP, which has its strongest operational base in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Khan’s home Province. In the recent past, Khan has repeatedly reminded the Establishment that a refusal to accept an electoral mandate had led to the breaking away of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), and another such outcome was conceivable if the people’s will was ignored again. The degree to which such sentiments can coalesce with the TTP’s agenda and activities, with Pakhtun identity politics, and with the Taliban’s ambitions, in the restive Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region remains to be seen.

Domestic terrorism continues to thrive in Pakistan within a broader environment that the Establishment has created to facilitate the operations of foreign oriented terrorist formations, both directed against neighbours as well as wider global formations, and sectarian (anti-Shia) terrorist groups, as well as armed proxies – hit squads – that are deployed against dissident and rebel elements, particularly in Balochistan. Significantly, the mobilizing ideology of all these groups is Islamist (Sunni) extremism, and overlaps, crossovers and operational coordination are not uncommon. Indeed, groups that receive strong state support – including, for instance, the Lashkar e Taiba (LeT) and Jaish e Mohammad (JeM)– have had long and close links with the TTP as well as with the Afghan Taliban. A change in the political environment or ground situation in Pakistan can provide a dramatic fillip to domestically oriented terrorist formations, particularly the TTP.

Crucially, the Durand Line has re-emerged as a contentious issue between Islamabad and Kabul. There have been repeated and direct confrontations between the Afghan Taliban and Pakistani border forces. Moreover, despite urgent exhortations and pressure from Islamabad, the Afghan Taliban has taken little meaningful action against the TTP cadres/leaders who have been sheltering on Afghan soil. The increased volatility of the Af-Pak border has helped the TTP infiltrate most of its cadres into Pakistan, and the group has made deep inroads across Pakistan, far beyond its traditional strongholds in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Pakistan’s historical malfeasance has, moreover, left it with no friends in the immediate neighbourhood, with the exception of China. The fractious history with India, and Rawalpindi’s enduring proxy war on Indian soil do not bear repetition here. Friction with Iran also has a long history, and, most recently, on January 16, 2024, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards launched “precision missile and drone strikes” on two alleged strongholds of the Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice, formerly Jundallah) an anti-Iran Baloch separatist formation, located in the Pakistani Balochistan, which borders the Sistan & Baluchistan Province of Iran. According to reports, two children were killed in the Iranian attack, which was a response to an attack by Jaish al-Adl at a police station in the city of Rask, in the Sistan & Baluchestan, in which 11 policemen were killed on December 13, 2023. The Jaish al-Adl, re-christened in 2012 from its original Jundallah after a US ban on the latter, and blacklisted by Iran as a terrorist group, claimed responsibility for the Rask attack. Pakistan retaliated to missile and drone strikes with an air attack in Sistan & Baluchestan Province on January 18, targeting alleged hideouts of the Balochistan Liberation Front and Balochistan Liberation Army. At least nine persons were killed in the attack. Though the tension has deescalated, both sides continued to blame each other for harbouring ‘terrorist groups’.

Another source of concern for the Establishment in Pakistan is the recent spate of targeted killings of the leaders/cadres of India-directed terrorist proxies – both Islamist and Khalistani – by unidentified assailants inside Pakistan. Between 2020 and January 2024, at least 20 such terrorists have been killed. These killings are most likely the result of increasing differences within these terrorist groups or their rivals operating from Pakistan, though there are unsubstantiated allegations regarding the involvement of ‘Indian agencies’ in some of these. Since Pakistan refuses to acknowledge the presence of most of the deceased terrorists on its soil, transparent investigations and a definitive identification of the victims and the perpetrators remains unlikely. Within the current context of a deteriorating security situation, there is a strong likelihood of a surge in such killings as well, as the Establishment’s control of its proxies weakens.

Pakistan is at a crossroads. Though the country has survived deep crises in the past, it is useful to recall that it has emerged weaker from each. Crucially, the manifest loss of credibility and faith in the Military Establishment has unhinged the nation from the anchor on which it has long relied with dogged fidelity, despite the Establishment’s dubious role through Pakistan’s fractious history. Absent a political leadership which has the sagacity and vision to lead the country out of its present morass, the loss of the Establishment’s authority can only deepen the enveloping instability.

Ajit Kumar Singh

Ajit Kumar Singh, is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Conflict Management

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