Syed Ata Hasnain | An unlikely spring in Pak: Will Army finally prevail?

The Asian Age.  | Syed Ata Hasnain

Opinion, Columnists

To comprehend the situation, one needs to be aware of the factors which impinge here and finally decide which way Pakistan will head

Police fired tear gas to disperse supporters of jailed former Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan on February 11 after his party urged protests outside election offices where they said rigging had taken place in last week's national vote. (Photo by Abdul MAJEED / AFP)

Nations are known to throw up unclear verdicts in elections leading to hung legislatures and the cobbling of coalitions. However, Pakistan is one of those nations where such verdicts can bring threats to the nation’s integrity and security because far too many extraneous factors play a role in bringing about such situations. In the recently-held general election in Pakistan the fractured mandate has created problems of national security, economic viability and the nation’s existential status. It has led to four different parties taking pre-eminent positions in the provincial elections in Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), Balochistan and Sindh. The National Assembly’s lower house, which decides the formation of the national government, is even worse. The pro-Army parties — PML(N) and PPP — which had earlier constituted the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), have scored 76 and 54 respectively in the 265-strong Parliament, which requires a grouping or a single party with 134 seats to form a government. Former PM and cricket icon Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), which was barred from participating with a ban on its electoral symbol (a cricket bat), managed to have 97 Independent candidates elected — all supposedly backed by the PTI. Who then forms the government at the centre is a million-dollar question because we haven’t as yet mentioned the elephant in the room — the Pakistan Army, which remains the final authority for putting together coalitions to govern with the acceptable personalities to lead them; it’s not just a leader but one who has the credentials of acceptance by the Army.

To comprehend the complexity of the situation, one needs to be aware of the factors which impinge here and finally decide which way the nation will head. The PTI’s legitimacy is suspect because of the legal factors and its ability to even retain the 97 Independents is questionable. However, its appeal is real and it’s to the young who have apparently voted for the Independents who carry the PTI’s backing. Under normal circumstances this vote would have gone further and created the right stability at the centre, but then PTI’s leader Imran Khan isn’t exactly the Army’s favourite. At one time six years ago, he was. However, he ran afoul with the then Army chief Gen. Qamar Bajwa while attempting to follow a more independent defence and foreign policy that included the appointment of various generals in key appointments such as DG ISI. A surfeit of personal corruption charges was levelled against Imran Khan, with current Army Chief Gen. Asim Munir leading the investigations. Imran Khan was finally removed constitutionally and a coalition was cobbled which ruled Pakistan for almost 15 months. None in the coalition tried to exert the individuality of the constituent parties as long as the PTI was excluded and hounded by the Army. But now it’s going to be different. The next government isn’t an interim one, it’s for five years, and so the factors which bring disunity, such as power play between the constituents, is something to contend with.

This election, or “selection”, as it is often referred to, and its aftermath, had some important terms of reference unofficially laid down by the Pakistan Army. First was the necessity to exclude Imran Khan and his PTI from any potential of coming to power. Second, a single party among the mainstream ones, such as PPP or PML(N), coming to power was avoidable as it would increase the possibility of confrontation with the Army if points of difference arose. Yet, to get any economic reprieve for Pakistan’s nearly collapsed economy, a stable front had to be projected. In his long deliberations with American officials during his visit to Washington, Gen. Asim Munir probably took endorsement for his strategy and promised to also work on excluding the extremist elements so that they got no official handle to push the radical ideological agenda. For the US, which too is clandestinely helping the Taliban survive in Afghanistan, any furtherance of the Afghan Taliban agenda in Pakistan through the sponsored proxy Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) would be counter-productive. For Gen. Munir, his personal agenda was to achieve such an electoral status as to enable him to urge the following of a geo-economic rather than a geopolitical agenda. As part of the so-called Munir Doctrine, which is ascribed to his thinking, his intent was to transform Pakistan into a stabilising regional security actor following an agenda of strategic neutrality.

In many ways, the Pakistan Army has achieved at least some part of its overall agenda. However, its handling of the “selection” has been quite ham-handed, allowing itself to be targeted on legitimacy charges. It could have officially given warnings about Internet shutdowns and other control measures instead of just executing that, and then ascribing it to terrorist threats. It’s never easy to conduct a controlled election without running the risk of achieving illegitimate status; in this case the Pakistan Army has once again come out with egg on its face. However, much of it can be forgotten if a credible coalition can be formed. That might become a challenge because the PPP may demand more than its pound of flesh; in terms of the appointment of the Prime Minister, and that too for someone as young as Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari. In that case neither of the Sharif brothers can join the government, and it may be Maryam Nawaz who may be the one occupying the highest rank from the PML(N) — although this is a highly unlikely proposition. If such a formula is arrived at, the legitimacy of the government in the eyes of the international community will also be further eroded. That isn’t something Pakistani economists would be looking at with glee.

All talk of government formation will only come to fruition once it is certain that the PTI will not object to the verdict and its declaration. If it proposes to oppose it and take to the streets, a completely different scenario may emerge. On the face of it, this seems less plausible and we may see government formation in a fortnight or so. Even the MQM could have a role in it; strange bedfellows that they may all be. Whatever be the combination, one thing appears almost certain: that a new PDM 2.0 government will have even lesser legitimacy than its previous avatar. Gen. Asim Munir’s grandiose thoughts of trying to prove that what Gen. Bajwa could only preach in the form of a doctrine, he (Gen. Munir) will actually execute, are more likely to come cropper, until another day, another election.


The writer, a retired lieutenant-general, is a former GOC of the Srinagar-based 15 (“Chinar”) Corps