Pakistan cannot afford another political crisis

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In Pakistani politics, nothing is done by halves. A few months ago, one of ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan’s former cabinet ministers, Shahbaz Gill, warned lower-ranking military officers against “unlawful orders” from their superiors. The remarks were taken as an attempt to divide the country’s all-powerful military and Gill was quickly arrested.

This, and Gill’s subsequent claims about his treatment in prison, infuriated Khan, who last week warned various police officers and judges that they would face consequences for their involvement in the case. A magistrate in Islamabad complained that Khan’s statements were seen as threats and police filed a complaint against him under draconian anti-terrorism laws.

Khan’s conspiratorial supporters fully believe that a junior US diplomat orchestrated their leader’s removal as prime minister. They have no doubt that Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa are behind this attempt to overthrow a dangerous political rival. In fact, the real problem – and the reason why you hear the phrase “political crisis in Pakistan” too often – is probably more mundane.

In general, Pakistan’s repeated cycles of confrontation and overreaction only benefit populists like Khan, who thrive on grievances and the theater of street protest. His followers are so dedicated that they imagine his every action brings glory to Pakistan. Sometimes it reaches the level of farce: Social media is teeming with Khan’s party men reposting headlines from around the world about his possible arrest, arguing that it proves he is a leader of truly global stature.

In this particular case too, the government and military have more to lose from a standoff than Khan. Pakistan is still close to economic collapse, elections are not far away and recent by-election victories in the country’s largest province suggest that Khan’s party has regained much of its electoral appeal. Arresting Khan on such flimsy grounds will make him a martyr, encourage even more disruptive protests and elevate his popularity to stratospheric levels. It could also cause the economy to fall further.

In Pakistan, however, as in other countries ruled by a shadowy “establishment” of political and military elites, the top leadership is not necessarily behind such events. After a power shift, mid-level officials rush to demonstrate their absolute devotion to the permanent establishment by taking on the political faction that was recently driven out.

When these actors – officials, police, judges – attempt to outdo each other in displays of loyalty, they end up performing counterproductive stunts such as threatening to arrest a popular ex-prime minister on flimsy charges.

Khan’s party has taken to calling current army leaders “neutrals”, to mock the army’s alleged conversion to political impartiality. In fact, when you hold the power of the Pakistani military, you can rarely be truly neutral. To put it in terms that generals might understand, establishment foot soldiers are prone to planting aggressive forward positions that must then be defended or evacuated.

This time, the generals will have to exercise caution. There’s a good chance Khan’s appeal is, in fact, big enough to split the army itself. Bajwa’s term is due to end in November and he has already secured – or granted himself – an extension. A sufficient number of members of the oligarchy of corps commanders who control the nation might be inclined to retain Bajwa’s policy. But others, and particularly lower-level officers, might be more drawn to Khan’s mild anti-Western and Islamist rhetoric.

Pakistan’s military has long modeled itself on that of modern Turkey, envisioning itself as the resolute defender of national identity and Western alliances. It is worth looking at what happened when the Turkish army came up against a real populist with a taste for confrontation. If the current stalemate does not end up reducing the power of uniforms over Pakistani politics, it could well lead to a dangerous new axis between illiberal populism, Islamism and militarism.

More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

• Modi’s India may argue for partition: Nisid Hajari

• What if India and Pakistan really got along? : Tyler Cowen

• Pakistan’s political crisis is an energy crisis: David Fickling

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A senior researcher at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, he is the author of “Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy”.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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