Pakistan’s powerful military is struggling to keep its grip on power as the country seethes with anger over the rising cost of living caused by sluggish economic growth, political victimization, narrowing space for freedom of expression, and the militarization of politics.
The military ruled Pakistan for 35 out of the country’s 70 years of history. Each military takeover – General Ayub Khan in 1958, General Zia ul Haq in 1977, and General Pervez Musharraf in 1999 — was followed by a sharp rise in people’s demand for democracy.
Over the past few years, the military’s savior image has suffered a blow due to ex-premier Nawaz Sharif’s ouster through a controversial court verdict in 2017 and the rigging allegations in the July 2018 elections. While Sharif’s political party points an accusing finger at the collusion between the judiciary and military in his removal, the other opposition parties believe the results of the July 2018 elections were manipulated in favor of Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf or Justice Movement. Khan denies the charge.
The Khan government, meanwhile, is believed to be playing second fiddle to the military establishment, adding to the perception that Khan is being kept in power to provide civilian face to the decisions taken by the military leadership.
As the “Azadi March,” a protest by Maulana Fazlur Rahman, chief of the religious Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party, continues in Islamabad to seek Khan’s resignation, louder calls from the political leadership are heard about the meddling in 2018 elections by the military.
The opposition parties, headed in this march by the pro-Taliban Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party, also want fresh elections without the supervision of the military. It is the army soldiers and officers who ensure security of the polling stations during elections and till 2018, the majority of Pakistani political parties used to demand elections be held under military supervision.
The precarious health condition of Nawaz Sharif adds fuel to the fire. The 69-year-old has so far turned down all behind the scene offers to quit politics and leave Pakistan to settle abroad.
Sharif’s narrative of “Vote Ko Izzat Do,” an Urdu phrase which means accept the sanctity of the vote, is ringing across Pakistan and stoking anger against Imran Khan and his backers.
Sharif, the most popular leader in the Punjab heartland, which is also the main recruiting base for Pakistan’s armed forces, was maligned with the slogan “Modi Ka Jo Yar Hai, Ghaddar Hai” (Whoever is Modi’s friend is a traitor) for his peace overtures with archrival India.
Yet even staunch opponents of Sharif stand behind him when it comes to his “Vote Ko Izzat Do” narrative, which asks for civilian supremacy and the rule of law. Similarly, a majority of Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s supporters on various social media platforms are liberals who would never subscribe to Rahman’s religious views. The only ground for their backing is his unwavering stance on civilian supremacy.
One major reason for the decline in Khan’s popularity is his alleged secondary role to the military, besides his government’s failure so far to provide relief to the middle class and poor in terms of prices, jobs, and good governance as promised.
Khan admitted during a recent meeting with journalists that the military is standing behind him. The military’s reach is also evidence in its activities, which reach far beyond the security realm. Earlier, business tycoons met General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan’s army chief, to apprise him of their grievances. And in December 2018, Pakistan’s military spokesman advised journalists to adopt positive reporting for “just six months” and “see where the country reaches.”
In the past, those who dared to stand for the cause of civilian supremacy, civil rights, and the constitution, was labelled as traitors, anti-state, and Indian or Afghan agents. Fatima Jinnah, sister of Pakistan’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah, was also labeled as traitor when she challenged General Ayub Khan in 1964.
Such labeling, however, is now vehemently challenged on social media. Later this month, Hafiz Hamdullah, an ex-senator, was declared an “alien” for being an Afghan by the country’s national database registration authority NADRA, which also directed television channels not to invite Hamdullah for talk shows. Only days before, Hamdullah had criticized the security establishment in a television talk show for its role in politics.
Within hours, the name Hafiz Hamdullah was trending, with friends and foes posting on their timelines that “I am an Afghan” to express solidarity with the ex-senator. Days later, the government withdrew the order of declaring Hafiz Hamdullah an “alien.”
Mufti Kifayatullah, another political leader, accused three military dictators – Ayub, Zia, and Musharraf – of committing crimes by violating the constitution in a talk show. He was arrested the next day on charges of “hate speech” and threat to public order. Kifayatullah was later freed on bail.
On the eve of July 2018 elections, high court judge Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui accused Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency of meddling in the political system and exerting pressure on the judiciary to keep Nawaz Sharif behind bars. A few months later, Justice Siddiqui was sacked on charges of refurbishing his official residence beyond entitlement.
From political meddling to media restrictions and interference in judiciary, the proverbial accusing finger is pointed at the establishment. The military always deny the charges of interfering in politics. Military spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor questioned Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s comments when the latter accused the “national institutions,” a euphemism for the military, of supporting the government.
To help arrest the trend, the government has blocked interviews of key leaders such as former president Asif Ali Zardari and Maulana Fazlur Rahman on private television channels. In a fresh move, the media regulator PEMRA asked television anchors not to sit as hosts in talk shows.
These measures prove that the government and the establishment are rapidly losing their monopoly over the flow of information. Instead of getting crafted and selected information, social media is offering fair choices to common Pakistanis.
As Sharif is battling death, his “Vote Ko Izzat Do” slogan is echoing in Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s “Azadi March,” which has brought the religious right and secular left together on a one-point agenda of civilian supremacy.
However, irrespective of left or right, the ongoing struggle is seen by many in Pakistan as a struggle between the country’s powerful establishment and civilian leadership. The end, whenever it comes, will be decisive for the future course of democracy in Pakistan.
Daud Khattak is Senior Editor for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio. Before joining RFE/RL, Khattak worked for The News International and London’s Sunday Times in Peshawar, Pakistan. He has also worked for Pajhwok Afghan News in Kabul. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.