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Explained: What joint opposition rallies signal to the Imran Khan government and Pakistan Army

What role is the Army likely to play in this complex emerging situation? To what pulls and pressures is its relationship with the civilian government likely to be subjected?

Written by Nirupama Subramanian , Edited by Explained Desk | Mumbai | Updated: October 25, 2020 12:34:54 pm
Maryam Nawaz, the daughter of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) are seen during an anti-government protest rally organized by the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), an alliance of political opposition parties, in Karachi (Reuters)

Two back-to-back joint opposition rallies in Pakistan with tens of thousands taking part despite the pandemic, the first in Gujranwala on October 16 and the second in Karachi on Sunday, have set the stage for a new season of a game of thrones in that country.

Four big opposition parties, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), Pakistan People’s Party, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazlur), and the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, and some smaller ones, including the Baloch National Party and the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, have come together to channelise public discontent at rising prices, power cuts, closure of businesses and other economic misery. Their alliance is called Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM).

Protests against Prime Minister Imran Khan over his ‘failure in handling the nation’s ailing economy’. (AP Photo/Fareed Khan)

The PDM has also launched Gen Next leaders of political dynasties: Nawaz Sharif’s daughter Maryam Nawaz, and Asif Ali Zardari’s son Bilawal Bhutto. The counterintuitive choice of Maulana Fazlur Rahman, head of the JUI(F) as president of PDM, sidestepped a possible leadership tussle between the Sharifs and the Bhutto-Zardaris. The Islamist maulana also brings to the PDM a sizeable Pashtun following, a substantial hardline right wing element, and a national character, pre-empting government criticism of a foreign hand in these protests.

What does the PDM want?

Its main demand is that the Imran Khan government must go. It has alleged he was not so much elected as “selected” in the 2018 election by the Pakistan Army.

Although the pandemic appears to have tapered down, the report card on Imran Khan’s 27 months in office is dismal: according to the World Bank, Pakistan’s growth rate has contracted from 1.9% in FY2019 to –1.5% in 2020; and inflation is at 10.7% this year, four points higher than in 2019. What has kept Pakistan afloat is the infusion of financial aid.

Supporters of the Pakistan Democratic Movement take part in an anti-government rally in Karachi, Pakistan, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Fareed Khan)

But it is not just Imran Khan who is being targeted. For at least the PML(N), the target is clearly the Pakistan Army. From London, where he is under treatment after securing bail from his imprisonment in a corruption case, Nawaz Sharif has made two thundering attacks against the Army’s role in politics in Pakistan, singling out Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa by name to blame him for Pakistan’s ills. On both occasions, he accused the Army and Gen Bajwa of ousting him, the judiciary of colluding in this, and the Army of having become “a state above a state”.

What is so remarkable about this attack on the Army?

Sharif’s speeches are unprecedented, and take his long battle with the Army to the next level. No politician, particularly one hailing from Punjab, of Sharif’s stature has openly challenged the country’s most powerful institution in this manner. Most of the Army, from general to soldier, is drawn from the Punjab province. This is also the first time such an attack has come from the opposition when an elected civilian government is in office. But the Imran Khan government has declared many times that it is “on the same page” as the Pakistan Army. The opposition alliance is thus targeting both.

Leaders of opposition party ‘Pakistan Democratic Movement’ Maryam Nawaz, second left, and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, right, wave to their supporters as they arrive to attend an anti-government rally, in Karachi, Pakistan, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Fareed Khan)

How has Imran responded?

Imran has hit out at the opposition for playing India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s game, in trying to weaken Pakistan by trying to topple his government, a charge the PDM has refuted at both rallies by heaping scorn on Modi and his actions in Kashmir, and talking up communalism in India.

The Kashmir issue, and Imran’s inaction, as perceived in Pakistan, is one of the big themes of the protest — “Imran Khan did nothing to protect Kashmir or Kashmiris, he did a deal on Kashmir, the Army did a deal on Kashmir” — was a recurring trope in speeches at the two rallies.

Supporters of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) hold up masks depicting their leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairman of the PPP, during an anti-government protest rally organized by the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) (Reuters)

The 2013 Sharif government was India’s best chance for rapprochement with Pakistan. Sharif’s overtures to India made the Pakistan Army jumpy. While his removal as PM was a setback for India-Pakistan relations, how he might have reacted to the changes in Kashmir had he been in power remains an open question.📣 Click to follow Express Explained on Telegram

How will the Army respond?

Bajwa and the ISI chief, Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, are reported to have had a meeting with key opposition leaders in September, and asked them not to drag in the Army. Sharif has indicated, in as many words, that he “will no longer be silenced”.

The Army’s reaction will depend on the momentum the opposition is able to gather. As the final arbiter, it will decide how much leeway to allow the protestors. It will undoubtedly factor in the political fallout of a crackdown to itself, against the costs of making a deal with parts or the whole of the opposition.

If the Army gets nervy about being challenged politically, it may review its relationship with Imran Khan. There are many contenders within Imran’s party waiting in the wings for the top slot.

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But doesn’t the Army owe Imran for the three-year extension to Gen Bajwa?

That is part of the problem, but could also be the key to Imran’s survival. The extension had to be approved by Parliament, and was not popular within the Army. Sharif’s repeated naming of Bajwa seemed to be signalling that he held no grievance against others in the Army. In Karachi, Maryam Nawaz showered praise on the Army, and said “one or two personalities are not the entire institution, but one or two people can defame the entire institution…”

The Pakistan Army craves public legitimacy. It would be worried at being identified too closely with a government that has proved inept from the get go. It would rather sacrifice individuals than the institution.

During the election, Bajwa was the face of the Army’s plan to have Imran Khan elected. His fate is inextricably linked to Imran’s. Before Bajwa retires in 2022, he would want to line up the ducks for his chosen successor. That person, it is believed, is ISI head Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, but it will not be smooth, as there are other contenders.

Jettisoning Imran could torpedo the plan, as it would weaken Bajwa himself. But first, Lt Gen Hameed has to command a corps to be considered for the top slot, for which there has to be a full reshuffle. Posting out a trusted intelligence chief will deprive Bajwa of a powerful ally. All in all, this is a still developing complex three way handshake.

What next?

The eventual plan is for a long march in January to culminate in Islamabad in a show of strength. More rallies are planned in the build-up to that. The next one is in Quetta, on October 25. How it goes could provide a clue as to what the Army intends to do next.

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