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Historically Troubled Civil-Military Relations Hang Over Khan’s Ambitions

Imran Khan
Imran Khan

Imran Khan, leader of the majority Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) political party, is cobbling together a ruling coalition after securing a plurality of seats in an election that most opposition parties claim was rigged.

One of his major challenges, however, is beyond parliamentary politics. As a populist leader promising reform, prosperity, and greater transparency, he will need to exercise authority and assume overall charge of what direction his country of more than 200 million people will take after he assumes the prime minister's office.

Just like his numerous predecessors over the past seven decades, Khan eventually must grapple with the fundamental question of who wields the real power in Pakistan. While the current constitution recognizes the prime minister as chief executive and his administration leading the executive branch of the government, successive military generals have overthrown, jailed, and exiled previous civilian heads of government.

The power the generals exercise has been bolstered by a pliant judiciary and a vast civilian bureaucracy that often validates military dictatorships and plays outsize roles in toppling civilian governments. Many Pakistanis consider them the permanent establishment distinct from anemic elected governments.

Since his party began attracting popular support seven years ago, Khan’s rivals have called him the military’s new favorite. Such criticism rose to a crescendo after most opposition politicians accused the military of rigging the election to orchestrate Khan’s win.

“This entire election looks like an arranged marriage for Imran Khan,” Khurshid Shah, a leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, told journalists. “To ensure a win for Imran Khan, not one but lots of punctures were made in the general elections.”

Mohammad Ilyas Khan, a senior Pakistani journalist, says Khan’s first challenge will be to overcome such criticism.

“His initial challenge as prime minister will be to gain legitimacy,” he said. “He [Khan] is seen by critics and rivals as a proxy of the country's powerful military establishment, which they say manipulated the electoral process to propel him to power.”

Pakistani author and military affairs expert Ayesha Siddiqa says Khan’s perceived closeness with the military will work to his advantage so long as he doesn’t tread on their toes. “Khan is a leader who does not have roots deep enough in the polity to trouble the generals,” she said.

Journalist Najam Sethi says that unlike former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who took years to turn against his military sponsors in the 1980s and 1990s, Khan will soon confront the military.

“He [Khan] may have embraced the Miltablishment (military establishment) as a tactical move, but sooner rather than later he will begin to challenge the conventional wisdom of the national security state handed down to him,” Sethi said. “That’s when all bets will be off.”

The PTI says it was elected by Pakistani voters and was not propelled to power by the military. In his victory speech last week, Khan termed the vote “the cleanest election in Pakistan's history" and offered help in investigating irregularities. The Election Commission of Pakistan, too, has dismissed rigging claims.

The Pakistani military has repeatedly denied harboring favorites among the country’s numerous political parties. Pakistani army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa thanked his forces for supporting the elections on August 1.

He and fellow senior generals also “thanked [the] brave people of Pakistan for their participation and wholehearted support for the armed forces during the performance of their duty toward a national cause [election],” read a statement by the military.

With Khan’s victory on thin ice, he will be looking to consolidate power, which might prove difficult if he attempts to reorient the country’s longstanding approaches to domestic and foreign policy.

Talat Masood, a former general turned military analyst, says Khan has better prospects of reclaiming foreign policy if “he consolidates his power and convinces the armed forces that Pakistan’s future and stability lie in developing a functional relationship with India, gaining the confidence of Afghanistan, building trust with the U.S., and deepening ties with China,” he said.

Pakistanis will be watching whether Khan can charm the generals into changing their worldview and approaches that politicians and critics say have undermined the country’s stability, economy, and international standing.