The swearing in of Shahbaz Sharif as Pakistan’s Prime Minister after the Army-backed ouster of Imran Khan has set the stage for troubled times ahead in Pakistan. The ouster itself was effected by direct intervention of the Pakistan Army, in both the political and legal/constitutional processes.
While Imran Khan himself had been viciously vindictive in his dealings with fellow politicians, he also made the serious mistake of seeking to promote his favourites even in the Army. He developed a close relationship with Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, the former head of the country’s most powerful intelligence organisation, the Army’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The ambitious Faiz Hameed was evidently using his proximity to the Prime Minister to replace the present Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who is scheduled to relinquish office on November 29 this year.
Lt. General Hameed came to notice when he became the centre of international publicity on the day the Taliban was assuming office in Kabul. Such behaviour of an intelligence chief was hardly professional, or warranted. Despite strong opposition by Imran, General Bajwa moved immediately to get his ISI chief transferred to command an operational corps on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Bajwa could even then not realistically hope to get another extension. But he could normally influence the appointment of a successor of his choice.
Imran Khan, however, earned the wrath of the senior military establishment by attempting to play politics within their ranks. Imran, who is also noted for his arrogance, soon found that his opponents, evidently with encouragement from the Bajwa led intelligence establishment, were working to encourage growing dissensions between political parties in his government, so that he lost his majority and a new coalition replaced his Government.
In the meantime, the Opposition parties in Parliament, led by the self-exiled Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, worked feverishly to get members of Imran’s ruling coalition to join the Opposition. The Army obviously played an important role in putting together this coalition, with a majority of 174 seats in Parliament. The Army’s direct interference in the elections was clear when General Bajwa, accompanied by his personally chosen ISI Chief, Lieutenant General Nadeem Anjum, met Imran Khan late on the evening of April 9.
General Bajwa demanded quite bluntly that rather than deliberately delaying the vote of confidence (which Imran Khan was trying to do), Imran should seek a vote of confidence immediately in Parliament. This was after several members of the ruling coalition had moved across to the Opposition. Imran’s efforts to cling on to office came to an end in the early hours of the morning of April 12, when the Opposition coalition secured a win, with a thin majority, with the support of 174 members in a National Assembly of 342 members.
India judiciously stayed away from any comments on the confidence vote. Interestingly, nobody in Pakistan even made the remotest reference to any Indian involvement in what transpired. But Imran Khan and his Party colleagues made it clear that there was direct American involvement and interference in events leading to the vote of confidence. Interestingly, throughout the political campaign, Imran voiced strong praise about the strength and resilience of India’s democracy. He, however, also repeatedly alluded to an American role in the election process, which led to his ouster.
It is, however clear, that it was really the Pakistan Army’s establishment that was determined to ensure Imran’s ouster. While General Bajwa spoke positively about the US-Pakistan relationship and its future prospects, Imran and his Party seem determined to carry on a strong anti-American election campaign. While Imran made several references to a purported report from the Pakistan Embassy in Washington, which referred to American interference, there is little belief that what was written in the report credibly nailed the US.
While Prime Minister (Designate) Shahbaz Sharif, who is now heading the Pakistan Muslim League (N), is in the process of finalising his Cabinet, he would not have much difficulty in dealing with the Pakistan People’s Party, which is his major coalition partner. The Pakistan People’s Party is led by the relatively young Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. The other important coalition partner in the present dispensation is the veteran Islamist leader, Maulana Fazlur Rahman, who has for long been a staunch opponent of Imran’s Tehriq-e-Insaaf. It, however, needs to be remembered that Pakistan’s polity is fragmented, with over a dozen parties being represented in Parliament. It is this fragmentation that gives the Army a distinctive say in determining the working of the Parliamentary system.
Even major political parties today have inhibitions in challenging the authority of the Army. Imran is, however, set to become the first politician to challenge the vast authority and powers the Pakistan Army wields. He is drawing large crowds in his public meetings in Punjab, and in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province bordering Afghanistan. He is also a politician who shows no inhibitions in calling a spade a spade. But his radical Islamist views and support for Islamist causes remain a source of concern.
Shahbaz Sharif, however, has also been close to the military establishment. Even his elder brother Nawaz Sharif had support of the military, till he fell apart with General Musharraf after the Kargil conflict. With his brother Shahbaz now the Prime Minister, Nawaz will be preparing to return home. It is, however, clear that the Army will continue to play a significant role in foreign and security policies. Despite all this, Pakistan’s economic woes of high external debts and low rates of savings and growth will continue to be the most serious problem the country will continue to face.
China will continue as Pakistan’s “all weather friend”, while relations with the US will likely improve. The Pentagon spokesman has already expressed the hope that a “healthy military to military relationship” with Pakistan will thrive. China will continue with strengthening Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, missile, maritime, air power and intelligence capabilities. It remains to be seen how the Russia-Pakistan relationship grows..
While the Sharifs are given to talking about better relations with India, they have done precious little to expand trade and economic cooperation, or clamp down on terrorist outfits . While one can hope for an end to cross-border terrorism, one has to recognise that changing that hope into reality is going to be a difficult task.
The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan