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EFSAS Commentary

The Pakistani opposition needs to carry through its movement against the military establishment if it wants real democracy


The major opposition political parties of Pakistan on 20 September held a marathon meeting in which they decided collectively to form a new united front with the aim of restoring what they termed a “genuine and undiluted” democracy in Pakistan. While the case for placing curbs on the unbridled powers enjoyed by the military establishment, something that is jarringly out of character in a country that calls itself a democracy, without doubt does exist, what is actually relevant in the present context is the reasons why each of the opposition parties has deigned it necessary to confabulate, and in the process dilute their own individual aims and aspirations, in the interest of a larger united front. Whether these parties have actually come to the table with the primary and firm resolve to put the military establishment and its excesses firmly back to its rightful place, the barracks, or whether they will succumb as easily as they have done on past occasions when confronted with intimidation and pressures, as well as coaxing with sweet inducements, will tell the final tale of what this united front was all about.

The leaders of 11 Pakistani opposition parties, prominent among which were the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Awami National Party (ANP), and Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Islam (JUI), at the conclusion of the All Parties Conference (APC) on 20 September announced the formation of a joint platform, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM). This platform, its constituents emphasized, would work towards ending the culture of “political engineering” by the military establishment and the scourge of a “State above the State” in the country. The 26-point resolution adopted by the APC pledged to ensure that all organs of the State are run strictly as mandated under law. It called for the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission to probe abuses against the people since Pakistan’s independence in 1947. Such an investigation cannot but reveal a long, sordid history of military abuses. It also demanded that Prime Minister Imran Khan and his ruling Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) party step down and announce fresh nationwide elections.

The PDM proposes to launch a mass protest campaign comprising public gatherings, political rallies, no-confidence motions, en masse resignations from assemblies and, finally, a long march in January that will culminate in a sit-in in the capital Islamabad until their demands are met. If the protest programme proceeds on the planned lines, it has the potential to present major challenges to Pakistan’s stability in the months ahead. The military establishment finds itself directly in the firing line of the opposition this time around, unlike other recent protests in Pakistan that targeted the Prime Minister and his government. It is a rare and courageous step by the united opposition to train its untested weapons against the heavily empowered and fortified military, one that has had no qualms in the past in sending its political challengers to the gallows. The coming together of the disparate and ideologically varied parties that constitute the opposition, as also the fact that when combined these parties command the support of the vast majority of Pakistanis, is what has clearly rattled the military.

The statements specifically made against the military establishment at the APC were several, and they were unprecedently direct and hard-hitting. JUI Chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman, for example, said that “The (military) establishment should desist from interfering in politics and stop supporting a ‘selected government’ that has miserably failed to deliver on good governance, economy and foreign policy”. Among the leaders that spoke at the APC were political heavyweights such as PPP leaders Asif Ali Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, and PML-N President Shahbaz Sharif.

The most stringent criticism of the military establishment, however, came from PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif. Addressing the APC via video link from London, Nawaz thundered that the fight of the opposition was “against those who rigged the 2018 elections and installed a selected government”, and that “Those who manipulated elections and destroyed the country by installing incompetent and inexperienced government under Imran Khan should be looked square in the eyes”. Nawaz cautioned the armed forces “to abstain from politics and adhere to the role defined in the constitution”, and warned that if “corrective measures are not taken and the situation is allowed to continue, the country will suffer an irreversible loss”.

A frontal attack of this nature and magnitude was something that the military establishment was ill-prepared for. Its first knee-jerk response was to release to the media the already stale news that Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa had a few days ago met with PML-N President Shahbaz Sharif, PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, JUI leader Maulana Asad Mehmood and other leaders from both the opposition and the treasury benches, and that Bajwa had urged the political leaders not to drag the army into ongoing political rivalries. That the meeting the army was referring to pertained to making Gilgit Baltistan the fifth province of Pakistan, and not to the demands made of the military establishment at the APC, mattered little to the establishment.

In a further attempt to undermine the newly formed PDM’s credibility, the military establishment claimed that opposition politicians, while being part of the PDM, were simultaneously pursuing their personal interests clandestinely with the army. Major General Babar Iftikhar, the head of Inter-Services Public Relation (ISPR), in a TV talk show claimed that Mohammad Zubair, a PML-N leader and the former Governor of Sindh province, had met the Army Chief twice in recent weeks to discuss the corruption cases being pursued against Nawaz and his daughter and political heir, Maryam Nawaz. Responding to this allegation, Maryam Nawaz said, “I respect DG ISPR but he should not have painted a private meeting as a political one”. Implying that it was actually the ISPR chief who had made some unsavoury demands from Zubair during the meeting, she added, “If I had shared all the contents of the meeting things would have got ugly”.

The extent of the discomfiture that the formation of the PDM and radical nature of its stated aspirations generated in the establishment can be gauged from the fact that within days, PML-N President Shahbaz Sharif, who otherwise was known to be in the good books of the establishment, was arrested on corruption and money-laundering charges. Shahbaz, just like his older sibling Nawaz and niece Maryam before him, described these charges as politically motivated. Shortly thereafter, an Islamabad accountability court also indicted former Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari and his sister Faryal Talpur in a money laundering case.

The arrest of Shahbaz and the indictment of Zardari appears to have energized the PDM, rather than deflate it as the military establishment would have envisioned. Nawaz tweeted from London that “The puppet regime has endorsed the APC’s resolution by arresting Shahbaz. Shahbaz Sharif had told the APC that whether he would be in jail or not all decisions taken in APC would be implemented. I want to say… make no mistake, we can never be silenced through coercive tactics”. He further told reporters that his brother’s arrest was “unjustifiable and unacceptable”. When asked whether Shahbaz’s arrest was expected after his fiery APC speech, Nawaz said, “The nation was expecting Asim Bajwa to be arrested and was waiting for him to be asked to show how a serving officer amassed so many assets in 15-20 years. He should have been arrested but instead they arrested Shahbaz Sharif”. As brought in the EFSAS Commentary of 25-09-2020, Lieutenant General (retired) Asim Saleem Bajwa, the Chairman of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Authority, has emerged as the epitome of the massive corruption that is rampant in the Pakistani military establishment. This corruption is never even talked about, let alone persecuted, whereas political leaders who become disinclined towards the establishment have been hounded endlessly.

This sentiment of the Pakistani political leadership was forcefully enunciated by Maryam Nawaz at a press conference in Lahore in which she questioned, “Has anybody any courage to summon Asim Bajwa for having huge assets? Despite having a business empire of 99 companies, Asim Saleem Bajwa is roaming free and no institution is ready to investigate him. The children of Nawaz and Shahbaz were tagged as dependents of their fathers only to institute false cases against them, while the children of Asim Bajwa are accepted as independent with their own businesses”. Expressing incredulity over how a salaried person could make billions of rupees, she asserted that if the courts did not take up Asim Bajwa’s case, the matter would be put before the PDM to decide on how to proceed further. Maryam separately also tweeted, “Shahbaz Sharif has been arrested only because he refused to play in the hands of those who wanted to use him against his brother. He preferred standing behind prison bars than to stand against his brother”. Describing the Imran Khan regime as “fascist”, she further said, “The institutions that imposed an immature, incompetent, corrupt and inexperienced person like Imran Khan should think that he has landed the country in disaster. From the fall of Kashmir to the fall of the economy, this government has done blunders unprecedented in the history of the country”.

An indication that the PDM was a more serious grouping than earlier such alignments came from the fact that in the immediate aftermath of Shahbaz’s arrest, the PDM called a meeting on 29 September to review the situation after the arrest, chalk out possible responses to the anticipated detention of other leaders, guard against the PTI government’s alleged plan to rig the Gilgit Baltistan and the local bodies elections, and, importantly, to give a final shape to the decisions taken at the APC. It was also a positive sign for the prospects of lasting opposition unity that PPP Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari denounced Shahbaz’s arrest and demanded his immediate release. He claimed that the government was resorting to “dirty tactics” after the opposition launched the PDM. The PPP and the PML-N have erstwhile been bitter opponents on the Pakistani political stage.

In the backdrop of these positive indications, the opposition will need to stick together if it really intends to loosen the stranglehold that the military establishment has had over governance, and indeed the economy, of the country ever since its inception in 1947. Efforts towards opposition unity in recent years have not yielded encouraging results, and have hence failed to inspire confidence in the masses. In May 2019, the PPP and the PML-N had announced the launch of anti-government protests citing spiraling inflation as the key reason. No such protests were, however, launched, and the two parties then decided to bring a motion to remove the Chairman of the Senate, the upper house of the Pakistani Parliament, who belonged to the ruling PTI. The combined strength of the two parties gave them the required numbers to affect the removal, but the motion nevertheless failed. As it later came to light, PPP leader Zardari had used the pressure created by the deal with the PML-N to extract political concessions from the military establishment in Sindh province, where the provincial government is controlled by the PPP.

More recently, in October 2019 the JUI-F, the PML-N and the PPP had agreed to coordinate a public mobilization programme against the government that would culminate in a sit-in in Islamabad that would continue till such time as Prime Minister Imran Khan tendered his resignation. Lack of enthusiasm on the part of the PPP and PML-N after the programme got underway meant that the JUI-F leaders and workers were left alone in Islamabad, and the protest consequently fizzled out.

This time around the opposition is much more inclusive. With the greater number of parties involved, and the wide range of ideologies that these parties subscribe to, the scope for disagreements is more. Trust issues and conflicting personal and party interests also abound. However, what is very different with the currently planned movement is that the target is not limited to the proxy ruling party, but extends to the real rulers of Pakistan, the military establishment. The stakes, therefore, are infinitely higher. The extent to which the opposition parties and their supporters, the people of Pakistan, are willing to fight on for real democracy in the face of hostile intimidation will become clearer in the weeks and months to come.

That said, if it is indeed the genuine intention of the PDM to reclaim the political turf that is rightfully its, the only way it can do so is by standing up firmly to the military establishment that  has been the usurper of its workspace and the pillager of its country’s abundant resources.