Imran looms, but will voters surprise Army?

The only problem is that Pakistan's voters, despite years of military rule, have a strong democratic streak in them.

As Pakistan heads for parliamentary polls on Wed-nesday, political speculation as usual is centred on who will emerge the winner. The bets are on cricketer-politician Imran Khan, whose party Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), or Pakistan Justice Movement, is believed to have the support of the country’s all-powerful Army.

Most Pakistan-based commentators are of the view that this time the country’s military establishment wants a weak government that can be cajoled, coerced and if need be intimidated.

To add to the confusion and prevent the emergence of a strong, and perhaps defiant Imran Khan in the future, the generals are hedging their bets by introducing radical Islamist elements into the political picture.

This is not the first time the Pakistan Army has sought to place a feeble government in Parliament. It has tried this tactic in the past with varying degrees of success. Military dictator Yahya Khan allowed the 1970 elections because he expected a fragmented mandate which would allow him to retain effective power. As it turned out, he was proved horribly wrong — Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s Awami League emerged with an absolute majority in Parliament. The West Pakistan political establishment refused to be ruled by a Bengali Prime Minister, a stance that ultimately led to the breakup of the country.

This time, the Army favours avowed allies and Islamists on its payroll. Thus, arch-terrorist Hafiz Saeed, a close ally of the country’s military establishment, was encouraged to field his minions under a different political banner. Although he is not contesting for obvious reasons, his party, Milli Muslim League, is contesting 200 seats.

Among hundreds of other violent Islamists pushed to the fray by the Pakistan Army is Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi, leader of the violent anti-Shia outfit Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat, which ironically continues to be banned although many of its leaders are openly contesting the polls.

While extremist Islamists are being encouraged to enter mainstream politics, the country’s two main political parties, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), founded by the late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, have effectively been decapitated. The leaders of both parties have been indicted on corruption charges: former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, disqualified from office by the courts in June 2017, is now in prison along with his daughter Maryam, while PPP leader Asif Ali Zardari, husband of the late Benazir Bhutto, has been declared an absconder. He too will be put behind bars the moment he steps foot in Pakistan.

In a startling disclosure, a judge of the Islamabad high court, Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, claimed that the country’s intelligence agencies were influencing judicial decisions. He alleged that the ISI had told the Chief Justice to ensure that Nawaz Sharif and his daughter remain behind bars during the polls.

According to Pakistani newspapers Justice Siddiqui delivered a speech before the Rawalpindi District Bar Association where he declared: “In today’s era, the ISI is fully involved in manipulating judicial proceedings.”

Who emerges as the ultimate winner in the July 25 general election is therefore a secondary issue. The key question is why the Army is so desperate for power? Why is it going all out to push known terrorists into Parliament, coerce the judiciary and cut off the heads of the country’s main political parties?

The answer perhaps lies in Pakistan’s descent into hard times. The United States, which was till recently forever prepared to gift millions in dollars and subsidise weapons transfers, is no longer a munificent donor. Saudi Arabia, another generous contributor to Pakistan’s coffers, is itself going through a painful belt-tightening process.

China is the only patron left but is tight-fisted and offers loans instead of grants. Chinese loans are only increasing Pakistan’s indebtedness and pushing it towards insolvency.

Rising energy costs and Pakistan’s inability to pay for its import-heavy consumption has led to an unprecedented fall of the Pakistani rupee, which now trades at Rs 125 to the dollar. The economy was doing well under Nawaz Sharif’s prime ministership, with GDP growth rising to 5.7 per cent in 2017, which was the highest in 10 years. GDP growth had hit a low of 1.7 per cent in 2008, the year dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf was forced to resign, paving the way for the PPP’s Asif Ali Zardari’s ascendance to the presidency.

In June 2013, Nawaz Sharif once again became Prime Minister after a convincing win in the the parliamentary elections.

The successful transfer of power, economic reforms and a favourable global investment climate pushed up GDP growth from 4.3 per cent in 2013 to 5.7 in 2017, the year Mr Sharif was ousted by the courts, apparently at the instigation of the military, which feared that his success was making him politically invulnerable.

Mr Sharif had also made it clear that he would not forever play second fiddle to the Army in matters the latter considered its own preserve. He wanted more say in deciding budgetary allocations, the choice of military commanders and foreign policy. This was anathema to the Army.

The Army needs money to continue financing the bloodletting in Afghanistan, resisting the Indian Army along the Line of Control in Kashmir and in modernising its forces.

It also needs to curb civilian intrusion in its dealings with the People’s Republic of China, which is today a stern patron, dictating certain policies that impinge on Pakistan’s economy and security. Today, China owns huge tracts of territory in Pakistan and controls thousands of acres more.

As Pakistan’s Army comes to rely more and more on Beijing, it will be forced to make concessions that an independent-minded civilian government could baulk at. It therefore needs the Islamist wolves to terrorise civilian politicians and armtwist parliamentarians as it continues with its sellout to the Chinese.

The only problem is that Pakistan’s voters, despite years of military rule, have a strong democratic streak in them. The Army’s hackneyed tactics of discrediting the civilian leadership by portraying them as corrupt and incompetent might not work. As it is, the recent spectacle of crowds shouting anti-ISI slogans outside the Pakistan Army headquarters is unprecedented in the country’s history. The Pakistani people have outwitted the Army on occasion, and nobody should be surprised if they do so yet again.

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