Pakistan’s government led by Prime Minister Imran Khan seems to be on the edge of collapse. Internal divisions in Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI, have become so intense that it is no longer possible to keep them under wraps. Senior government ministers are openly accusing their cabinet colleagues of backstabbing, conspiracy and breach of trust. Within the government, there are multiple fault lines, which are likely to increase by the day. This leaves the PTI government structurally vulnerable to being pushed around by the more professional and organised institution – the Pakistan Army, which has become significantly more assertive.
According to media reports, at a crucial cabinet meeting recently, PM Imran Khan had to intervene to stop ministers from hurling allegations against one another. The immediate reason for the cabinet meeting, in which Khan advised his ministers not to discuss the party’s internal issues in open forums, was an explosive interview given by Federal Minister for Science and Technology, Fawad Chaudhry.
Fawad, in his interview to Voice of America (VOA), had discussed internal differences within the PTI and accused senior leaders of conspiring to remove each other; and that senior leader Jahangir Tareen hatched plans to get federal minister Asad Umar removed from the cabinet while the latter was behind the removal of Tareen from the key position of general secretary of the party, also known as the real powerhouse of the PTI.
Underlining the Pakistani people’s high “expectation from PTI and Imran Khan”, Fawad said the national government had failed miserably to make the system more professional and autonomous through systematic reforms. He argued that “the public had not elected us or the prime minister to fix nuts and bolts but to reform the system”.
Fawad was echoing the disappointment felt by most Pakistanis, who, having voted Khan’s party into power, have been holding their breath, in desperate anticipation that the transformative moment in their nation’s destiny would come soon. According to a survey, “The percentage of Pakistanis who believe that the current PTI government’s performance up to this point in its tenure is worse than that of the previous government has increased from 35 per cent in December 2018 to 59 per cent in February 2020.”
This public airing of differences by those in the government has its reputational dimension; the consequences of irreconcilable internal rift within the PTI are far more perilous because the stakes are higher in a government dependent on support from smaller coalition partners. With PM Imran Khan struggling to bring a semblance of unity among his party colleagues, it is only a matter of time before his government is brought down under the unbearable weight of the army’s relentless psychological warfare as well as its own inherent contradictions.
The PTI government has also been highly inept in dealing with the Covid-19 health emergency. This has resulted in a steep decline in public trust in the government’s capacity to rule effectively. Things have come to such a pass that Imran Khan’s allies in the government are deserting him, with many joining the opposition camp.
Accusing the PTI of not keeping its promises, the chief of the Balochistan National Party (BNP-M), Sardar Akhtar Mengal, has left the government. His party has four seats in the National Assembly. Expressing his annoyance over insufficient funds for development projects in Balochistan, Mengal regretted the diminishing role of the National Assembly in policy-making, and said, “The parliament has become the speakers’ corner in Hyde Park (in London) where the members vent their frustration through their speeches but nobody is listening to them seriously.” Mengal has since met with the chief of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F), Maulana Fazlur Rehman, and is believed to be planning to topple the Imran Khan government.
Now, other coalition partners such as Muttahida Qaumi Movement Pakistan (MQM-P), Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q), Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA), and Balochistan Awami Party (BAP), on whose support the government depends for its majority in the National Assembly, are likely to step up their bargaining power vis-à-vis the PTI. The government will be under additional pressure to keep these small allies happy at all costs. As argued by a Pakistani analyst: “Do not be surprised if you see the allies becoming a bit more vocal in their grievances, a bit more aggressive in their dealings and a bit more demanding in their requirements. They may do all this because they can see the larger political canvas groaning under the weight of PTI government’s problems.”
The lack of internal cohesion and trust within the PTI has created deep fractures in the government’s ability to manage, as reflected in the marginalisation of trusted advisers of PM Khan. Most important among them is Tareen, who was a political heavyweight deciding tickets for the 2018 parliamentary election. His removal has left Imran Khan without someone who can manage the complex game of political alliances in a fragile government.
Besides domestic governance problems, the undeniable realities of corruption, cover-ups, abuse of power, and all the macroeconomic indicators trending downwards, Pakistan currently faces multiple challenges on security and foreign policy fronts such as Afghan peace process, military tensions with India, and American pressure to shift the focus away from China.
Giving more power to military
Since there is a clear division of labour between the government and the army, the latter is the de-facto decision-maker on security and foreign policy issues. But the PTI government’s failings on domestic governance, including on Covid-19, have led to many key civilian positions being infested with people from military backgrounds.
Previous civilian governments in Pakistan often tried to resist the army’s dominance in domestic policy-making, but the PTI government has made no such attempt. Consequently, military interference or hold over routine aspects of governance such as airlines, finance, railways, and media has gradually increased.
For instance, the state-owned Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) is headed by Air Marshal Arshad Malik, who was appointed as CEO in October 2018. Malik’s management of the PIA has recently come under scrutiny following a fatal plane crash in Karachi in May. Similarly, Lt Gen. Asim Bajwa, a former Pakistani military spokesman, was appointed in April as the new special communication adviser to the PM. He is also heading the Chinese-sponsored Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Pakistan, under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). These appointments are in sync with the broader trajectory of the collapse of institutional autonomy in the civilian sphere of governance under the PTI government.
Don’t forget the past
There is increasing speculation of Pakistan’s military establishment being extremely unhappy with the manner in which the national government is being run. The army has always desired an increased role in managing politics in Pakistan, but it doesn’t mean that a civilian government’s inefficiency, incompetence and venality should be used as an excuse to garner more power for itself. That is a logically absurd and tactically irresponsible proposition.
While the present seems bleak, the future does not augur well for change either. It is true that barring a few exceptions, political leaders in Pakistan often turn to the army, behind the curtain, to resolve their differences rather than work things out through the democratic process of dialogue.
But it is equally true that the rule of law cannot effectively survive without civilian supremacy. And unfortunately, Pakistan has already paid a huge price for extra-constitutional interventions by the army. History’s lessons must not be forgotten by generals in Rawalpindi.
Vinay Kaura is assistant professor, Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, Jaipur. Views are personal.
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