As November draws to a close, massive crowds are expected to flock to Pakistan’s capital Islamabad and its sister city Rawalpindi to cheer for charismatic former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who was ousted from power last April, and to take part in his relentless call for early elections.
The meeting scheduled for Saturday coincides with a usually tense transition that happens every three years in Pakistan by law: the appointment of a new army chief, the most powerful figure in the country with a nuclear arsenal, and ongoing tensions with his neighbours.
On Thursday, the current government, a multi-party coalition led by Shehbaz Sharif, ended weeks of intense speculation by appointing Lieutenant General Syed Asim Munir to the post. The decision comes at a time of fierce debate over the role of the Pakistani military in politics.
Pakistan is also currently reeling from a weak economy and the effects of historic, apocalyptic floods that recently inundated a third of the country and affected more than 33 million people.
Khan’s criticism makes the transition fleeting
Khan, a former cricket hero turned populist politician, has railed against the military, consistently accusing its leader of conspiring with his political rivals and the United States to orchestrate his ouster through a no-confidence vote in parliament last April – an indictment from both the Pakistani military and the United States. and Washington made groundless calls.
Still, the criticism has tarnished the military’s reputation domestically, and it means this transition is particularly volatile, with higher-than-usual stakes for the country’s fragile democracy, analysts said.
“It is such a huge event because the military has excessive powers in Pakistan,” said Mosharraf Zaidi, a senior fellow and founder of the Islamabad-based think tank Tabadlab.
“There’s not really a huge difference on how Pakistan should manage its relations with the rest of the world,” continued Zaidi, who expects foreign policy and how the country is handling its tense relationship with neighboring India to remain stable under the new chief. Domestic politics, however, is another matter.
“The disagreements are all about who should lead Pakistan,” he told TUSEN News.
“So the biggest question for the new army chief will be: should the army make a significant withdrawal from civilian affairs, or should it double down and continue to try to broker peace between warring political factions like Imran Khan and the current government.”
The outgoing chief insists the military will not interfere
Munir, the new head of the army, is the top general apart from the one he replaces.
He was formerly the head of Pakistan’s intelligence arm, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), but was removed as ISI chief in 2019 following a clash with Khan, then the prime minister.
The Pakistani military, with its outrageous clout, has seized power and declared martial law three times since the country gained independence 75 years ago. Even when civilian governments are in power, it is widely believed that the military manipulates politics behind the scenes.
In his last public speech earlier this week, outgoing army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa acknowledged that the army’s “unconstitutional” and decades-long meddling in politics has led to increased criticism.
Yet Bajwa insisted that in February this year the military had chosen to stop interfering in Pakistani politics, stating that senior military leaders were “strictly adamant” that the policy of non-interference would be maintained.
However, experts are very sceptical.
Experts predict political instability
“Many will find that hard to believe because the reason Khan lost power in April is because he had a falling out with the military,” said Madiha Afzal, a fellow in the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institute in Washington DC, in an email to TUSEN News.
“The outlook for Pakistan is political instability until the next elections, whenever they are held.”
Khan wants an immediate election as he accuses his political opponents of corruption and elitism. The current government refuses to deviate from its intention to hold elections as scheduled, no earlier than August 2023.
“The government has lost political capital in the past seven months and hopes to regain it before the next election through some kind of economic turnaround, which will take time,” Afzal said.
That loss of political capital has been suppressed by the impassioned throngs of supporters Khan leads.
“This protest continues,” one supporter, Malik Qasim Shehzad, told Reuters earlier this month. “God willing, it will continue until Khan’s legitimate demands are met.”
Zaidi considers Khan the most popular politician in Pakistan, although he believes support for the leader is lower than his base would like to think.
“There is not a population group in the country in which he does not enjoy support,” Zaidi said. “He’s a nationally popular leader in a way that Pakistan hasn’t had in a while.”
An assassination attempt in which Khan was shot in the foot in early November forced him away from what his supporters call his “true freedom” gathering for several weeks while he recovered.
The former leader now returns, just as the army chief takes over.
Analysts see more instability on the horizon.
According to Zaidi, the country will “continue to muddle through and swing from one economic and political crisis to another”.