(Photo by World Economic Forum via Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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From the echoes of the violence shed during the 1947 partition to the present-day civil unrest that has permeated provincial borders, Pakistan is a country that has struggled in its fight for democracy. Corruption scandals, the politicization of religion, and the involvement of military figures in political office have overshadowed attempts to establish a democratic government through the forging of personal alliances. In its 76-year lifespan, the country has failed to witness a prime minister who has finished their full five-year term in office.  The lack of stability within the Prime Ministerial office has left citizens more and more hopeless, with many emigrating overseas in search of a brighter future, where their security is not a matter of contention, but guaranteed.

The deep division between different political parties in Pakistan has long infected the political system, resulting in a lack of order and consensus in the political and public spheres. The chaos that accompanies this lack of order worsens due to the deep political ties that the military possesses and their power in electing a leader. 

It is speculated by citizens that the prime minister often aids in approving or disapproving an army chief’s term, and contrarily, the army endorses leaders that provide private and public support to the institution. In this case, Khan’s popularity and following have overwhelmed the military channels which usually can control the influence of politicians. Speculations of the army possessing deep ties with the political playground are observed due to a general pattern of exchanges between the military and the government, where a politician’s rise to power is facilitated through a public display of support for the institution.

The army’s fear of a leader elected by popular choice — rather than by some private channels — is due to the threat of a leader challenging their undisputed power. Consequently, the relationship between the military and the Prime Ministerial office has become transactional rather than symbiotic, and this transformation became evident through Imran Khan. Over time, Khan has risen to the political sphere as Pakistan’s anti-establishment saviour and has garnered public support in a campaign to reinstall the democracy that Quaid-e-Azam Ali Jinnah envisioned.

The Rise and Fall of Imran Khan

A former star of Pakistan’s national cricket team, Khan rose to politics in 1996, when he founded a political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), to combat corruption and anti-transparency in Pakistan. Coming from a humble background with a degree from Oxford, Khan continued to gain support from the masses as the perfect picture of an anti-nepotism political candidate as he had established himself as the captain of Pakistan’s cricket team. During his sports career and political career, Khan was an avid patriot. Khan’s nationalist rhetoric calmed PTI supporters as it preached Pakistan as a self-sufficient and peaceful country on the road to achieving its true potential, previously bogged down by domestic and international puppeteers. 

Khan’s power grew until his party secured a majority in the 2018 general election, after which his party was met with distaste by members of the opposition party and the military due to his mismanagement of economic policy  Tensions between Khan, the military and opposition members peaked in April 2022 when Khan was removed from office following a no-confidence vote in Pakistan’s National Assembly. Khan’s rise to power, his four-year term in office and his subsequent ouster and present-day arrest have sent the country into a state of panic.

Since his removal, a temporary coalition government was formed, which brought the leader of the opposition — Shehbaz Sharif — as the interim Prime Minister of Pakistan. Additionally, Khan received corruption and terrorism cases against him in an attempt to permanently bar him from politics and, eventually, restrict him from challenging the power of the army. Given that Khan possesses a mighty foothold in the middle-class youth of Pakistan, his removal and arrest have prompted protests and riots across the country. Particularly, rioters have also attacked military compounds as a symbol of their loyalty towards Khan and defiance towards the military.

Chaos Unfolding

What has unfolded after April of 2022 is what Brookings categorizes as a battle between the country’s “most popular politician” and its “most powerful institution.” Khan’s removal was followed by his arbitrary arrest during his court appearance, battling one of the many cases against him for corruption, terrorism and blasphemy. Khan denied these allegations and cited the opposition party and the army conspiring to keep him out of office in what he called the “London Plan,” further encouraging his supporters to take to the streets in protest.

Khan continued to publicly call out the coalition government headed by his rival Shehbaz Sharif and his brother, ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who purchased property

in foreign land from taxpayer money. Khan continues to portray the Sharif brothers as the anti-solution to Pakistan’s lack of democracy and himself as the perfect solution who did not receive any foreign property or benefit from the power granted unto him. 

Khan’s arrest in May of 2023 was later deemed unconstitutional by Pakistan’s Supreme Court due to the arbitrariness and unlawfulness of how paramilitary troops detained him. After his release, Khan continued to expose the forces detaining him and encouraged his supporters to take to the streets in the name of freedom and justice. BBC News stated that “at least 10 people [were] killed and 2,000 [were] arrested” while protests spread nationwide. Protestors were confronted with tear gas and violence by police and paramilitary forces; many protestors are being tried in military courts rather than civilian courts due to the damage inflicted on military compounds during the protests. 

Under normal circumstances, trying a civilian in military courts, unless deemed a terrorist or threat to national security, “violates Pakistan’s obligation to  international human rights law.” However, the military being backed by Pakistan’s National Security Council exposes the lack of precedence that international human rights law takes in cases where the power of the military is disputed. The civilian population is currently at a crossroads carved out by Imran Khan’s legacy. Supporters can either risk their safety and continue to protest in favour of the PTI movement or accept the country’s fate under the coalition government and the military establishment.

The Fate of Future Elections

While Khan was released after his previous detainment in May 2023, he was arrested once again on the 5th of August “after [a] court [found] him guilty of selling state gifts.” Under the protocol, he is supposed to be placed in the state’s safe house rather than sold for personal profit. Instead, he is in Attock jail following a three-year sentence and a five-year ban on involvement in politics. While the conviction was appealed by Khan’s lawyers and Khan continues to deny the verdict, it is unclear whether Khan will receive the opportunity to go to trial and an early release.

Pakistan’s federal elections will be happening this October; whether the outcome will be free and fair has already been challenged due to the coalition government and the army’s mutual desire to bar Khan from politics. Results of previous by-elections and general election poll predictions had shown that if free and fair elections happen, Imran Khan’s party, PTI, could secure a majority and put Khan back in office. However, Khan’s current present-day arrest, along with most of his party leadership resigning or fleeing the country out of fear, has left the future fate of elections in slippery hands. 

Whether Khan’s party will fall under the leadership of another or the current atmosphere has discouraged politicians from reviving Khan’s party is yet to be determined. Either way, Khan’s reelection seems just as far as it was a decade ago, making his efforts to instill a democratic government void and the hopes for a new Pakistan.

Going Forward

What is deduced from Pakistan’s shaky path to establishing a democratic government is that the military possesses deep ties which determine the parties that come in and out of power. While Imran Khan’s rise to power is a testament to how the military’s power can be challenged, it has also reaffirmed that another authoritative body cannot replace the all-powerful institution. 

Hard power used by the military silenced mass protestors who attempted to remove their involvement in creating a puppet regime. Since the protests that followed Imran Khan’s arrest, the fear of being confronted by violent forces became effective in curbing further mass protests. Ultimately, this exposes how hard power trumps other forms of expression in countries where governing institutions struggle to control key institutions such as the military. 

What Pakistan needs to move forward as a democracy is a clear distinction between the duties of the military to security and the duties of the government to those who elect them.

Edited by Hamad Abdullah