Across Asia, populists and authoritarians have taken advantage of the pandemic to go after their political opponents. Last week, Pakistan’s already frail opposition was dealt a further blow: A case was filed against the former prime minister and stringent critic of the military, Nawaz Sharif, for “sedition,” while former president Asif Ali Zardari was formally charged with corruption. Sharif and Zardari lead different parties and are old antagonists; all they have in common is that they are now tentative and distrustful allies against the army-backed government of Prime Minister Imran Khan.
It isn’t hard to see why the Pakistani state has escalated its attacks on the opposition. Zardari, Sharif and the Islamist cleric-politician Fazlur Rehman — three very unlikely fellow travelers — recently launched a joint movement to unseat the government. In exile in London, Sharif has delivered a series of belligerent, unrestrained speeches in which he has accused the military of being a “state behind the state” and of manipulating the election of 2018 that brought Khan to power.
That seems to have been the last straw for Pakistan’s military establishment. Sedition cases weren’t just registered against Sharif but also his daughter and heir-apparent Maryam, as well as 44 other leaders of his Pakistan Muslim League. Sharif’s brother Shahbaz, until recently the chief minister of Pakistan’s populous Punjab province, has also been arrested. Shortly afterwards, Pakistan’s media regulator banned speeches or interviews with “fugitives,” clearly meant to prevent the re-broadcast of Sharif’s speech or others like it.
Others, including ministers from Khan’s party, have said that criticism of the military in Pakistan is unconstitutional. Imran Khan’s own response has been to claim that Sharif — thrice elected prime minister of Pakistan — is an agent of the Indian government.
The Pakistani military has some hard thinking to do. Most of its choices in the past three or four years have been bad ones. First it decided to prop up Khan and his party. As the Pakistani security analyst Ayesha Siddiqa points out, Khan’s government has failed on at least two counts that matter to his uniformed backers. It has not been able to ensure that funds continue to flow into Pakistan’s fragile, externally dependent economy. Meanwhile, foreign-policy grandstanding, including cozying up to his fellow populist, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seems to have irritated Pakistan’s most reliable supporters in Riyadh and Beijing.
In time, too, the military may discover that Khan himself is not quite as biddable as they would like. Earlier this month, in response to Sharif’s claim that the then-chief of military intelligence had asked him to quit as prime minister in 2014, Khan claimed that, in Sharif’s position, he would have demanded the spymaster resign for making the threat.
While a bit over the top, Khan’s boast is a reminder that the prime minister has had a proper populist’s ego ever since his days as a star cricketer. He has claimed that he himself is the personification of Pakistani democracy and that the army is quietly obedient to him because of his clean image. One wonders if the only person in the Pakistani establishment who doesn’t believe Imran Khan is beholden to the military is Khan himself.
On Oct. 16, the joint opposition will face its first test — a rally in Sharif’s Punjabi heartland. It is a long road back to power for Sharif’s party and Zardari’s; the former has lost Punjab and the latter its own power base in Pakistan’s only global city, Karachi. Yet it won’t be easy to root for the new opposition alliance, either. It is being led, after all, by the radical Fazlur Rehman, a canny cleric-politician who has openly said he shares the objectives (if not the dedication to violence) of the Taliban.
While Pakistan’s Islamist parties have been junior parties in government before and can draw large numbers of demonstrators, they have always been electorally marginal. Now, given that the mainstream political parties are unpopular and enfeebled, this might be the moment that Rehman and his colleagues have been waiting for. Egypt has shown us how hard it is for military dictators to fight political Islamism. And in India, Hindu nationalists were similarly marginal to electoral politics until they became part of the alliance, 40 years ago, that defeated the authoritarian Indira Gandhi.
If mainstream parties continue to fade, Pakistani politics may well see a three-way tug-of-war between a middle-class populist, an aggressive military establishment and radical Islamists. That’s in nobody’s interest — not even the Pakistan army’s.-Bloomberg
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