nce again, Pakistan is faced with a crisis of political instability and uncertainty. Half-way through its five year term, the PTI hybrid regime is struggling to stay afloat. It has mismanaged the economy, demonstrated a cavalier approach to the pandemic and hounded the opposition without successfully discrediting it. The Miltablishment that engineered the PTI’s accession to office is smarting from the popular backlash against it and drawing up plans to get out of the fix.
But the nature of this crisis is fundamentally different from apparently similar ones in the past when political parties used to vie with, and conspire against, one another for the favours of the Miltablishment to win office. Today, the most popular party in the country, the PMLN, backed by small sub-nationalist regional parties, is challenging the writ of the Miltablishment while the mainstream PPP, ANP, et al, are lining up behind it. This is a historic role reversal. The PML was always a handmaiden of the Miltablishment because of its base in the Miltablishment’s Punjab heartland, while the PPP in Sindh and ANP in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa always billed themselves as anti-Miltablishment players. Consequently, the outcome of this struggle for political office is threatening to become a bid for redistributing power in the civil-military matrix of Pakistan.
This process, however, is riven with deep contradictions and conflicts that are spawning the latest new round of instability and uncertainty. Consider.
The Miltablishment conspired to oust Nawaz Sharif from office when he began to challenge its writ. Having rejected the PPP as an incompetent and unreliable ally or partner, the Miltablishment now turned to Imran Khan and helped launch the PTI, just as it had done in the past when it launched parties and moulded them to its aims and objectives. Unfortunately, however, its latest experiment has failed to deliver and become a source of acute embarrassment that is undermining its credibility and hegemony. Far from being on the much acclaimed “same page” narrative, the two sides are bickering on foreign policy, economic revival, administrative management, accountability, even corruption in government, and are so suspicious of each other that they are contemplating alternative strategies for survival or change. Further, seizing upon Imran Khan’s discomfort stemming from this situation, groups of disgruntled PTI parliamentarians in Punjab and Islamabad have banded together to demand greater recognition and rights. Jehangir Tareen, an old Miltablishment asset who helped PTI get the numbers for governments in the Punjab and Islamabad in 2018 but was later edged out by Imran Khan for being over-ambitious, is waiting in the wings to display the same talent for horse trading, if required, to effect an “in-house” change.
On the other side, however, unity of action and focus on objectives are sorely missing. The Pakistan Democratic Movement founded last year to overthrow the PTI regime and compel the Miltablishment to retreat from its hegemonic position of power is in toxic disarray. In the wake of the PMLN’s surging popularity and the PPP’s dismal performance in Sindh that is threatening to undo its government in the next elections, Asif Zardari has succumbed to pressure and decided to line up behind the Miltablishment. His actions – helping the Miltablishment put together a pliant government in Balochistan, getting a Miltablishment man elected as Chairman Senate and getting their own man nominated as the opposition leader in the Senate despite promising the slot to the PMLN – betray his intent. As such, Maryam and Nawaz Sharif now consider the PPP a Trojan Horse of the Miltablishment and are against its machinations.
But the PMLN is also conflicted by Nawaz Sharif’s openly anti-Miltablishment stance. Indeed, Shahbaz Sharif and many mainstream PMLN leaders and followers are averse to confronting the Militablishment head-on as advocated by Nawaz Sharif and his heir apparent, Maryam. The “old guard” is scared of the consequences of the rebellious new policy but is reluctant to articulate its views because the popular vote now belongs to Nawaz while Maryam has captured the imagination of younger PMLN supporters. In any free and fair elections, the PMLN would sweep to a majoritarian victory and restore Nawaz and Maryam to office. But here’s the rub.
The Miltablishment is determined not to let that happen. It can live with a PMLN victory if Shahbaz Sharif is in charge but not Nawaz or Maryam. As leverage it continues to prop up Imran while playing footsie with Asif Zardari and Shahbaz Sharif. Thus when Shahbaz Sharif tries to establish control over the PMLN and negotiate terms with the PPP and Miltablishment, he is thwarted by Maryam, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Rana Sanaullah, Pervez Rashid, etc. with the tacit approval of Nawaz Sharif. That explains why Shahbaz Sharif has been stopped from bringing the PPP and ANP back into the fold of the PDM because such a step would tilt the PDM from being an anti-Miltablishment front into another apology for it.
Such intra and inter-party problems are accentuated by the lack of a credible and coherent policy framework by the Alt-PMLN to trigger radical change in civil-military relations as envisaged by Nawaz Sharif. But, without tacit support from the Miltablishment or a popular and violent upsurge against the current dispensation, the PMLN cannot overthrow the PTI regime, let alone guarantee free and fair general elections that return it to office in the near future. Nor is there any surety that once in office it will genuinely have the power to redefine civil-military relations in its favour. Under the circumstances, the olive branches proffered by Shahbaz Sharif and Asif Zardari to the Miltablishment have acquired a sense of “practicality” for getting back into the game and starting afresh.
The Miltablishment is in a hurry to tilt towards “geo-economics” away from “geo-strategy” as the defining parameter of Pakistan’s national security. It is wooing the international community, in particular the US and its allies in the Middle-East, to secure this gain. But it is hindered in its quest by the unpopular PTI that is unable to deliver its part of the management bargain and by the popular Alt-PMLN that is in open confrontation with it. Something(s) or someone(s) will have to give way sooner rather than later.