For decades, Pakistan’s powerful military has shaped politics by imposing dictatorships and persecuting politicians. When not ruling directly, it has been frequently accused of manipulating political parties, elections, and civilian governments.
But an ongoing protest led by an Islamist party backed by most opposition groups is testing the limits of the military’s political engineering. While most of the protest’s demands are ostensibly aimed at Prime Minister Imran Khan’s civilian administration in Islamabad, its real audience seems to be the powerful army generals seated in the neighboring city of Rawalpindi.
“Our army will have to decide that they will have nothing to do with the future elections in Pakistan,” Maulana Fazlur Rehman, leader of the Islamist Jamiat Ulma-e Islam (JUI), told the protest late on November 3. “It is making our institutions, particularly the army, controversial, and we don’t want that.”
The military, however, denies interfering in politics and pulling strings to form a government or secure desired election results.
On October 31 and November 1, hundreds of thousands of supporters and leaders of nine opposition parties converged on Islamabad as part of the so-called Freedom March protest. Their primary demand is for Khan to step down. A large number of the protesters, mostly members of JUI, are still camped out in Islamabad.
After losing elections to Khan’s ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) in July 2018, Rehman, 66, has built his case against the military’s interference in politics. He has united secular, conservative, ethno-nationalist, and Islamist political parties to push back against what they see as the military’s stranglehold over politics, governance, and key policies.
“We would need to go back to the constitution, which lays out the function and parameters for all institutions and government departments,” Rehman said. “If they stick to their bounds, we will have no trouble.”
His comments on November 3 were part of a more restrained speech following an ultimatum to Khan to step down within two days on November 1. He also called on the country’s “establishment” – a euphemism for the military -- to not support Khan's administration. Rehman told supporters that “we do not desire a clash with the institutions” and that he expected them to be impartial.
The military swiftly responded. Military spokesman Asif Ghafoor told Rehman to formally lodge complaints with the relevant bodies. “[If Rehman was referring to the army,] the opposition should understand that the army is an impartial organization,” he told the private ARY television. “We believe in the rule of the law and the constitution. Our support is not for one party but for the democratically elected government.”
Critics pointed out that the military did not back the former Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz’s (PML-N) government when it faced sit-in protests in Islamabad in 2014 and 2017. When opposition leader Imran Khan camped out in from of the Pakistani Parliament in August 2014, military spokesman Asim Bajwa appealed for "patience, wisdom, [and] sagacity from all stakeholders through larger national and public interest."
In 2017, the PML-N government faced hordes of Islamist protesters in the capital. Weeks after protesters had paralyzed Islamabad, it sent police to clear out protesters on November 25. But army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa urged Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi “to handle the protest peacefully, avoiding violence from both sides as it is not in the national interest,” according to Ghafoor.
While some opposition leaders and their parties have persistently complained of the military’s political maneuvering, most of their current grievances are rooted in the military’s support for Khan’s PTI since 2011. After a large rally in the eastern city of Lahore in October that year, turncoat politicians flocked to the PTI.
By 2018, the PTI had become the third-largest party set to take power from the PML-N, which faced a decline after leader and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was dismissed by the country's apex court in July 2017.
Sharif and senior party leaders faced graft cases in the run-up to the July 2018 election. He accused the military of manipulating the process before the vote and was arrested on arrival in Pakistan weeks before the July 25 election.
Despite claiming the vote was heavily rigged in favor of the PTI, opposition leaders failed to form a united front. They rejected Rehman's advice that the opposition should stay away from the parliament. Sharif's younger brother Shehbaz Sharif and former President Asif Ali Zardari, leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), favored joining the assemblies. JUI and other smaller parties had no choice but to follow suit.
But the opposition parties gained little from joining the system. The Sharif bothers, Zardari, and many other key PML-N and PPP leaders were imprisoned or investigated in graft cases. The lackluster performance of the PTI marked by a rapid economic decline, poor governance, and foreign policy setbacks encouraged the opposition to mobilize amid growing public resentment.
Zardari’s heir apparent PPP leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari articulated the opposition’s grievances on November 1 by questioning the role of the army in 2018 election. “Selection was carried out in the elections [and] rigging was managed,” he said.
Zardari, whose party rules the southern province of Sindh, alluded that rigging was managed by involving the army in the election process. “The army was deployed inside and outside polling stations. This way an institution only tasked with security was involved in the polling process [as soldiers] checked polling lists,” he said. “Such acts make our great institutions and elections controversial.”
But in Pakistan’s complex political chess game, opposition leaders still appear keen on pursuing personal and party interests over a united front against what they claim is the military’s manipulation of the political system.
Unlike Rehman, whose party has no share in the federal or four provincial administrations, the PPP is in charge in the southern province of Sindh. The party might not be too keen on going back to polls in the region, where it has held the provincial administration since 2008 but Sindh still reels from poverty, poor infrastructure, and services. Its capital, Karachi, Pakistan’s commercial hub and largest city, showcases everything that has gone wrong in the country.
PML-N’s Shehbaz Sharif has consistently avoided criticizing the military despite his now-ailing elder brother’s declared stance that their party demands civilian supremacy to end the military’s interference.
“If the powerful institutions had extended 10 percent of the help and support they extended to Imran Khan, we would have taken Pakistan to greatness with the speed of Sputnik [satellite],” he told the protest gathering on November 1.
While Shehbaz and other PML-N leaders have consistently claimed to support Rehman’s Freedom March, few PML-N supporters have showed up at the Islamabad sit-in. The party has largely failed to mobilize its support base in Pakistan’s most populous eastern province of Punjab to join the protest despite Nawaz Sharif’s all-out support for the protest last month. JUI and Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, a secular ethno-nationalist group of predominantly Pashtun supporters, now form a majority of the sit-in in Islamabad.
Many are watching whether Nawaz Sharif’s obvious successor and daughter Maryam Nawaz will join the protest. On November 4, a court granted her bail in a money-laundering case. Late last month, the Pakistani authorities allowed Maryam to stay with her father after he was rushed to a hospital.
While opposition leaders continue to struggle with projecting a unified front, the military is keen on displaying its unity of command.
Bajwa, the military chief, appears keen on showing he is in charge despite speculations that the protest might seek to oust him before he begins his second term in office this month. Rehman, too, denies seeking his resignation and has refrained from publicly opposing his second term in office.
On November 4, Bajwa presided over a meeting of the country’s top generals. “The Pakistan Army as an organ of the state will continue to support national institutions as and when asked as per the constitution,” read a statement by the military’s publicity wing after the meeting.
In Islamabad, meanwhile, negotiations between the government and opposition politicians reportedly didn’t result in any agreement on November 5.