Pakistan that seems to be in a state of “permanent uncertainty” had another dramatic week in politics:
1. To begin with, a court in Islamabad sentenced former Prime Minister Imran Khan to 3 years in Jail for misappropriation of official gifts, or what was called the Toshakhana case. The 3 year term also disqualifies him from standing for elections for the next 5 years.
Unlike 3 months ago, when he was last arrested for another corruption case that he was charged in however, this time, his party workers did not come out on the streets.
2. The arrest was significantly timed, as it is also time to head towards the next elections in Pakistan
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif stood up for one last time for a farewell address to the Pakistani parliament, after which the President dissolved the assembly
3. Another big moment this week- the publication of this article in US website The Intercept- that put out the text of a diplomatic telegram dated March 7,2022 that detailed how a senior US State department official conveyed deep concerns to the Pakistani Ambassador about then Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ties with Russia – indicating that if Khan was voted out in the confidence vote , the US and Europe would be willing to “forgive” Pakistan for the visit to Moscow by Imran Khan right as the invasion of Ukraine was launched. When he was ousted, Imran Khan had alleged that it was the Pakistani military who had helped push him out at the US’s behest, a charge they all denied.
So three interconnected, but equally important events in Pakistan’s politics- and we will try and pull all the threads together.
What’s next for Imran Khan:
-Now that he has been convicted, he has to prepare for a lengthy appeals process, which could take months if not years
-The Toshakhana case is one amongst roughly 100 cases filed against him after his ouster as PM, by the new Shahbaz Sharif government that followed him.
-Many of those are serious security cases- for the violent protests that followed his last arrest in May 2023, when Army cantonments were attacked, the Pakistan Radio office burnt down
-It seems unlikely he will complete his appeals prior to the elections that are due at the end of 2023/early 2024, and may not be allowed to contest
-Meanwhile Khan’s party the Pakistan Tehreek e Insaaf is being whittled down by the day- cases against top PTI leaders, many have announced their resignation from the party, some like former Minister Shireen Mazari even announced her resignation from politics earlier this year.
-While Khan’s popularity appears to be intact, there is no clear sign of what will follow if he is made to sit out the next election.
-The fact that Khan’s political troubles rose as his rift with the Military grew- first General Bajwa and then General Asim Munir, is no coincidence, and it remains to be seen whether Pakistan’s all powerful military will allow him any quarter in Pakistan’s politics
What’s next in the election process?
While Pakistan has parliamentary system like India, its processes for election transition are more complex.
1. With the Parliament dissolved, a caretaker government made up of a non-political Prime Minister has to be appointed.
2. The caretaker government is expected to be neutral – while the election commission begins preparations for elections due to take place within 90 days, or by the end of November this year.
3. However, in June, Pakistan completed a new census that increased to nearly 250 million. But elections will require new delimitations for electoral constituencies based on the new census figures- that will take atleast 120 days- or until December, after which the election process will begin.
4. This means a caretaker government, and the military, that is taking a more and more prominent role in politics, will form a sort of hybrid model of governance for Pakistan for atleast the rest of the year if not more.
When asked if elections would take place in 2023, Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah- said categorically- No.
What do the cypher details mean for Pakistan’s geopolitics?
1. If proven true, the Cypher in the Intercept story indicates the US certainly supported the ouster of Imran Khan- if not actively pushed for it
2. It is significant that while the Biden administration had no truck with the Khan government, it engaged the Sharif government right from the start- Foreign Minister Bilwal Bhutto has visited Washington a number of times, and PM Sharif has met with President Biden – who didn’t once speak even over the phone to Khan after he was elected in 2020.
3. While Imran Khan had visited Moscow- right on February 24, 2022, when the Ukraine Invasion began, albeit unknowingly, the Sharif government has strengthened ties with Ukraine. Last month Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytry Kuleba visited Islamabad and held talks with Mr. Bhutto over Pakistan’s supplies to Ukraine during the war. In its defence the Sharif government has said it maintains a neutral stand on the war, like India, and has even begun the import of cheap Russian oil.
Here’s what the State department said about the cypher—while not denying its veracity:
“So a few things one? Yes, it’s a it’s a report reported to be a Pakistani document, I can’t speak to whether it is an actual Pakistani document or not just simply don’t know. With respect to the comments that were reported, I’m not going to speak to private diplomatic exchanges, other than to say that, even if those comments were accurate, as reported, they in no way show the United States taking a position on who the leader of Pakistan ought to be. We express concern, privately to the Government of Pakistan, as we express concern publicly about the visit of then Prime Minister Khan to Moscow on the very day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. We made that concern quite clear. But as the former Pakistani ambassador to the United States himself has stated the allegations that the United States has interfered in internal decisions about the leadership of Pakistan are false. As we’ve stated, they’re false. They’ve always been false, and they remain false.”
What then can we make of all this: joining me now is Husain Haqqani, Director South and Central Asia at the Washington Based Hudson Institute- he is currently teaching at the Anwar Gargash Academy in Abu Dhabi. He is the author of Pakistan between the Mosque and Military and Magnificent Delusions. I should add that he has been Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US, but has faced a number of charges in Pakistan and is in a sort of self imposed exile abroad. More recently, Mr. Haqqani sued Imran Khan for claiming he lobbied for the Pakistani military with the Biden Administration. Despite the case- he has recently authored an article in Foreignpolicy.com entitled: Pakistan’s Military won’t Loosen its Grip
1. Has the establishment ended Imran Khan’s careers, or should we never say never in Pakistani politics?
Pakistan’s politics is like a nine-round boxing match. Unless somebody has been completely knocked out, or has lost all nine rounds, the game is not over. That said, I think Imran Khan is out for the moment. He made a classic blunder of taking on the military, but going violent. Now we must understand one thing about violence. Whenever there is violence, then whoever has the preponderance of ability to be violent, always prevails. If Imran Khan had done what other politicians had done, gone to prison, kept protesting, kept his support base intact and waited for elections, he would have had a better outcome. He is already 70 years old. He will miss the coming election, which means he will be out for a few years. And then by the time there’s another round of elections, he will be in his mid 70s. Will he be able to sustain his support all this time? One can’t be sure. And it is unlikely that he will have the kind of return that Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto had by virtue of their ability to compromise, he has proved one thing that he does not compromise. But not only that, his followers, most of his hardline followers dislike the word compromise. So it’s complicated. He could come back at some point later, but right now he’s definitely out.
2. What does this mean for upcoming elections...a clean sweep for the ruling coalition, but a stronger role for the military?
We must understand that in politics, there can never be a situation in which there is only a ruling party and no opposition, unless of course, that is by design, and it’s a one party state. So what is more likely to happen is that the existing political parties will reconfigure, Imran Khan’s party is also reconfiguring. Many people have left the party, created new offshoots. The main party will also have the wrong party will also have some new leaders, where they will be competitive in certain areas. They will not be competitive in others in new grouping of politics, or politicians and politics will emerge.
And the establishment will have an opportunity to build new coalitions. We must remember that coalitions are the establishment’s biggest advantage, they are able to use one group against another or they are able to take advantage of differences among them. Imran Khan’s failure was that he thought that he had won the election outright, that it was all about Imran Khan. He never kept his coalition partners happy enough to actually say at the last minute, no, we are not deserting our coalition head and we are going to stay there.
Shahbaz Sharif, on the other hand, and Asif Zardari are very have proven to be much better coalition builders. But there is a yearning for change among Pakistan’s young people. Pakistan has a very young population, how will that play out remains to be seen. Could it also result in a total disenchantment with the political process, people reaching the conclusion? It doesn’t make a difference, having a low turnout election, that is possible as well. Pakistan had very low turnout elections in 1985, for example, and again in 1997. So we can have those outcomes as well.
3. Is there more to the US’s role as PTI alleges? Especially with the new cables that have come out.
Many people in Pakistan wish that the United States would keep the level of interest in Pakistan that is required to be able to conspire to change its government. The US has lost interest in Pakistan at the moment, and Imran Khan’s shenanigans have resulted in even the Assistant Secretary of State not paying any attention to Pakistan. So Pakistan has not had a high level visit from anybody from the United States. To think that the US would spend time and energy trying to change the government in Pakistan is rather unrealistic.
Moreover, if you look at this cypher, very closely, it is a communication from the Pakistani ambassador to the Pakistan government, about a conversation between him and a senior American official. And the senior American official is saying, ‘we don’t like your Prime Minister, we think he’s responsible, certain decisions that we dislike, there’s a vote of no confidence coming. If after the vote of no confidence a new government is formed, maybe we will re-engage and things will be better.
How does that prove anything other than the fact that they were unhappy with Imran Khan, which was a well known fact, there is no conspiracy there, there is no threat there. Moreover, 174 members of Pakistan’s National Assembly voted against Imran Khan, are we to assume that by just talking to the Pakistani ambassador in Washington, and the Americans were able to convince 174 Members of Parliament to change their opinion on politics, I think that is just a conspiracy theory.
Imran Khan is the master of conspiracy theories. He builds up master narrative through conspiracy theories. First, there was the conspiracy theory that all politicians in Pakistan are crooks. They have billions of dollars in foreign accounts. I’m the honest guy, I will come into power, I’ll bring that billions back the country and everybody will be prosperous. People who bought into it, people like to hear a good story. But the truth is, it is just a story.
4. What should India, that has elections next year watch out for?
One of the reasons why Imran Khan and the military fell out was because the military had realized certain things, the military and Imran Khan, were on the same page not long ago. What was that page, that page was this notion that somehow the economy can be stabilized by bringing money that Pakistanis have parked in foreign banks, that didn’t turn out to be true. The thought that a new, inexperienced celebrity can actually prove to be a better leader than experienced corrupt politicians that didn’t turn out to be true, administration was really poor. Imran Khan changed officials many times, we had four finance ministers in three years.
So as a result, the military was disappointed. But the biggest disappointment was when the military realized that maybe trade with India is a good idea. And Imran Khan stuck to the old views, when the military realized that the United States is Pakistan’s biggest export market, and Pakistan needs better relations with them. And Imran Khan stuck to his old rhetoric of we are not going to listen to the Americans. And when the military realized that it needs to have a slightly more flexible approach to the Taliban and Imran Khan said, the Taliban are breaking the chains of slavery.
The inflexibility of Imran Khan was the issue. So the military as long as it is the major force in Pakistan does provide some element of predictability. The question is, is the change of the military’s worldview, deep enough to actually manifest in policy? Or will the internal struggles of Pakistan keep Pakistan stable? If I were an Indian, I would worry about that. Because no country likes having a neighbour that is in a state of permanent instability.
WV Take: Pakistan’s polity lives with one basic contradiction- while politicians fight elections, no government rules without the military’s backing. This is the single reason no Pakistani Prime Minister has completed a full 5 year term since the creation of Pakistan in 1947. What the Sharif government has done to Imran Khan and his party in terms of cases, shutting down their media coverage, and arresting all, is something every government does to its predecessor, forgetting that the real threat to the democratic process comes not from political rivalries but from a force outside the polity. In an election year for India, New Delhi cant afford to take its eye of the developments next door.
WV Reading Recommendations:
1. Pakistan: Between Mosque And Military by Husain Haqqani who also wrote
Reimagining Pakistan: Transforming a Dysfunctional Nuclear State
2. Pakistan: Origins, Identity and Future by Pervez Hoodbhoy
3. The Struggle for Pakistan – A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics by Ayesha Jalal
4. Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War by C. Christine Fair
5. The Battle for Pakistan: The Bitter US Friendship and a Tough Neighbourhood by Shuja Nawaz
6. Pakistan: Courting the Abyss by Tilak Devasher – an Indian diplomat posted in Pakistan
7. Faith, Unity, Discipline: The ISI of Pakistan by Hein Kiessling
8. Pakistan Adrift: Navigating Troubled Waters by Gen Asad Durrani
9. Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military by Ayesha Siddiqa
10. No-Win War: The Paradox of US-Pakistan Relations in Afghanistans Shadow by Zahid Hussain, Also author of The Scorpion’s Tail: The Relentless Rise of Islamic Militants in Pakistan-And How It Threatens the World
Script and Presentation: Suhasini Haidar
Production: Gayatri Menon and Reenu Cyriac