On May 9, political activists and followers of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) came out in a direct confrontation with the state and attacked civilian and military assets. Many in Pakistan presumed that the strife had come to its peak. For the military, it was unprecedented to see their created monsters rampaging.
The military deemed May 9 as Pakistan’s version of 9/11 and has decided to pursue trials of those involved in military courts. Some analysts see it instead as Pakistan’s January 6th moment — where a populist leader provoked his cult of followers to break into state institutions thinking to bring about a revolution. However, these are both oversimplified generalizations.
The story goes back at least to 2014’s long sit-in of 126 days, in which the PTI had the complete support of the military-judicial establishment. Back then, they had broken into the buildings of PTV (the state television) and the Supreme Court while the military urged the government not to use force against them. As the years passed by, the PTI leadership started becoming more aggressive and more blunt in their choice of words and actions. Their strong social media operation vilified other politicians, reinforcing the narrative that politicians in all other parties are thieves and only the PTI stands for honesty and justice. Again, the truth is not so simple. The current government built similar cases of corruption against former Prime Minister Imran Khan as a pressure tactic.
The Pakistani military, in the last decade, has helped brand Khan in such a way that his followers, especially the youth, are unable to see anything beyond greatness in the PTI leader. His personal charisma has outdone all the bitter realities, the top of which is that he himself was brought into office by the establishment using all its dirty tricks.
In Pakistan, every mainstream party has at one time or another been nurtured by the military. At times, they go back to their facilitators. The present coalition government used to mock Khan for being a military puppet, oppressing them when they were in opposition, and criticized the military for its interference in politics. Yesterday, it was the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) who were lambasting the establishment. Today, it is Khan taking the lead.
The voices of resistance were crushed back then, and the case is similar now as well. It’s happening exactly the same, except that it’s on an even bigger scale. The establishment wants to undo its mistake now and take Khan’s PTI out of the political arena. For that, the use of force became inevitable. The military’s interference in politics seems to be nowhere near an end.
The PTI is not a dynastic party, unlike the other two major parties, the PMLN and PPP. Khan’s party is doomed to crumble like a house of cards. When he was in power, he couldn’t transform his party into something that would stay intact without him. Khan was the PTI, and the PTI was Khan. And that’s where the problem lay for Khan and at the same time an opportunity for the establishment.
Most of the politicians who, for their own self-interest, came from other parties to join the PTI have left the party now. The powerful military, explicitly and implicitly, incentivizes or even presses politicians to switch sides.
Angry PTI followers who have just realized that civilian supremacy is important are noticing that the military sees civilian governments as machines to be operated in pursuit of the military’s desires. PTI followers are just beginning to see how political engineering works in Pakistan. To Khan’s fans, the military generals were good a few years back when they supported PTI to become the biggest political party in Pakistan, and the same establishment is bad now for not supporting them.
The problem with the PTI, and other mainstream political parties, is they do not truly stand for civilian supremacy. Had the PTI really been in favor of the rule of parliament, Khan would have shown some flexibility and talked with the civilian leaders who were speaking against hybrid rule before Khan’s ouster from the office. Instead, he created an environment of hostility, forcing other parties to join hands with the military to impeach him.
PTI supporters have a high degree of solidarity among one another on the basis of an “us versus them” mindset. The party kept building and reinforcing allegations so strongly against its opponents that a big chunk of the population fell for the narrative. They framed Khan as a messiah who could pull Pakistan out of the clutches of the “corrupt,” “dynastic” politicians with the help of the military-judiciary-clergy nexus and boosted this story via a strong media campaign.
As the relationship with the military was hampered, however, the PTI found itself in deep water. The nexus tattered. The military decided to undo the “project New Pakistan” under Khan that it had started a decade ago, which resulted in massive sociopolitical polarization of Pakistani society.
The clergy is largely silent over the matter now. Religious clerics were largely happy at Khan’s use of religion in politics and reshaping the society along conservative lines.
The judiciary has always been a facilitator of the military establishment in Pakistan’s history. This time Khan allegedly has some support from the senior judges, but it has not been enough for Khan to stand against the wind. The judicial system of Pakistan is weak, unable to provide people with justice. Pakistan ranks 129th out of 140 countries in the Rule of Law index. On top of that, there are multiple laws — from Shariah to democratic laws — often with vague interpretations.
In practice, the only law that prevails is Murphy’s law, especially on matters of power games: If something can go wrong, it will.
At one end, Pakistan’s economy is sinking and inflation is going up, foreign reserves are drying up, and climate disruption is depleting agricultural resources. Investments are burning out and the brain drain is accelerating. At the other end, political instability is triggering massive havoc. There uncertainty about the future, aside from an acute certainty that things are worsening in the politico-economic arena.