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Explained: How Pakistan's election results are a major setback for the all-powerful military?

Despite an Army-backed crackdown, Imran Khan's PTI-backed candidates won 93 seats in the elections marred by allegations of rigging and violence. Astonishingly, the PML-N was expected to win outrightly with the support of the military but lagged far behind the independents.

Aveek Banerjee Written By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Islamabad Updated on: February 22, 2024 22:31 IST
Pakistan military, pakistan elections, Imran Khan
Image Source : AP (FILE) The results show Imran Khan enjoys wide popularity in Pakistan.

Pakistan's election results are out, and after weeks of political wrangling, it seems that the country is heading for another coalition government between Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). The elections witnessed high-level drama, with a military-backed crackdown on a party, an internet shutdown and widespread protests over alleged rigging - nothing that has not been seen in Pakistan before.

It is widely known that Pakistan's all-powerful Army "calls the shots" on the country's politics, and current Army chief General Asim Munir pulled all levers to crush former Prime Minister Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), as the cricketer-turned-politician was imprisoned and convicted in back-to-back cases and his party banned from directly contesting the elections.

However, the recent election results have dealt a blow to the dominant role played by the military in Pakistan's politics, as the PTI-backed candidates ensured a resounding victory in the maximum number of seats in the National Assembly - even though it fell short of the majority mark - even more than the PML-N, which was believed to have been backed by the military this year given Nawaz's return to Pakistan and his prior convictions removed.

It is unlikely that PTI will form the next government as the newly-formed coalition struck a power-sharing deal. The Imran-led party insists that it won 180 out of the 266 seats in the National Assembly and mockingly referred to the PML-N-PPP coalition as 'PDM 2.0' - a reference to the Pakistan Democratic Movement that ousted Imran in 2022. 

Whoever becomes the PM of the cash-strapped nation, one thing is clear - the people have rejected the giant Army's pressure and pushed it towards a major political humiliation and the only facesaving it has received is through the coalition between PML-N and PPP, who have had their fair share of clashes with military regimes.

The far-reaching influence of Pakistan's military

Pakistan's military is known to have supervised governments - either directly, as seen in the military coups in 1958. 1977 and 1999, or indirectly by supporting one of the major political parties. Through its vast control, Pakistan's Army wields the lion's share of action in several key policy domains, particularly related to defence and foreign affairs. The composition is a mix of authoritarian and democratic elements in their governance but something that has survived for decades in Pakistan till now.

However, the Army maintains that it is neutral and apolitical, despite the country's troubled political history suggesting otherwise, as seen in numerous forced removals and assassinations. The Army's intervention might be another reason why no Prime Minister in Pakistan has been able to complete a full five-year term.

Pakistan saw its first military coup in 1958 when General Ayub Khan seized power from President Iskander Mirza, after the latter appointed him as the chief of army staff. This was one of the first instances of a shift towards military involvement in state affairs before the country headed towards democracy. Ayub Khan imposed martial law and ruled the country till 1969.

After Pakistan lost the 1971 war against India, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto won the country's first general elections in 1970 and became President, and became Prime Minister three years later. Zulfikar won the elections again in 1977 but was deposed by General Zia-ul-Haq in the same year. Zia imposed martial law, dissolved the National and all provincial Assemblies and suspended the Constitution, while Zulfikar was imprisoned and executed.

After Zia died in a plane crash in 1988, the PPP came back to power under Benazir Bhutto and a tussle of power was seen between the PML-N and PPP till 1999, with none of them finishing a full constitutional term and Pakistan being wracked by economic and political misery. Nawaz Sharif was ousted and exiled by General Pervez Musharraf in a bloodless coup in 1999.

While there were no further coups, the Pakistan Army had focused on indirectly supervising the governments, such as when Musharraf banned the PML-N and PPP in trying to create a military-sponsored government. Despite resistance from these political parties towards the Army, Pakistan's own weak record of governance, its frail economic situation and lack of consensus has been unable to prevent the military's efforts.

Imran Khan: From a blue-eyed boy to a nemesis

It was in 2018 when Imran Khan, a legendary figure in the world of cricket, made history by defeating both the PML-N and the PPP and formed a coalition government with smaller parties and formed the government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab. Imran was believed to have garnered the support of the military established - called as 'laadla' by Nawaz Sharif - and secured the Army's support in forming the government.

After a few years of warmer ties, things went on a downward spiral when the military became frustrated with the failure of Imran's promises to bring decent governance in the country and a rift developed between the two sides when Imran wanted Lieutenant General Nadeem Arjun was appointed as the new Director General (DG) of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Khan resisted as he wanted Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, who was seen to become the next Army Chief, as the next DG. Imran also removed Army Chief Munir as ISI DG. 

Imran's troubled relationship with former Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa turned to full hostility when the former's government wanted a bigger say in foreign policy matters - such as when Bajwa openly condemned the Russia-Ukraine war when Imran refused. The cracks in their relationship ultimately led to Imran's ouster in 2022 through a no-confidence motion. Imran since then called Bajwa a "traitor" and blamed the ISI for an assassination attempt on him.

To make matters worse, Bajwa appointed Asim Munir as the next Army chief in November 2022, in a move that many perceived to push the ex-PM in a corner. He was about to retire when the Shehbaz Sharif-led government changed the rules to extend the service

Imran Khan vs Asim Munir: A deja vu moment

The Army refused to intervene in Imran's ouster and Asim Munir, after initially refraining from involvement in domestic affairs, went after Imran and his party after the latter embarked on a relentless campaign of allegations against the military, including their role behind his assassination bid. Things escalated when PTI supporters attacked military installations on May 9, after Imran was arrested by dozens of security forces in the Islamabad High Court (IHC).

While people and political parties have resisted the Army, the sight of military installations, including the official residence of the Corps Commander and the General Headquarters, vandalised was highly uncommon in the country. This triggered a full-blown crackdown on the party, with dozens of party leaders and thousands of supporters behind bars.

What happened next was a deja vu moment for observers of Pakistan politics. A beleaguered PTI saw 100 of its leaders quit the party, including Imran's close aides. Imran himself has been behind bars since August in connection with a corruption case and as soon as the sentence was suspended, he was 're-arrested' in the cipher case, linked to when he alleged US involvement in his ouster. On the other hand, Nawaz Sharif returned from exile and secured acquittals in all his prior convictions, even managing to reverse his lifetime ban on holding office.

The party was stripped of its electoral symbol, which forced its members to contest as independents and denied them the authority to form the government. PTI leaders also faced bans on rallies and public gatherings and the Army denying it a level-playing field in the February 8 elections. Despite the Army's best efforts to present Imran and his party as unpatriotic to Pakistan, it was clear that the people did not buy this rhetoric.

The extraordinary performance of Imran's PTI underscores the fact that despite the full support of the Pakistani Army, the PML-N failed not only to get a majority, but lagged far behind the support enjoyed by the party-backed independent candidates. It is not just a setback for the military, but a reverse of fortune for Nawaz Sharif, who pledged to become the PM again and lead PML-N to victory and likely made extensive arrangements for his comeback. The military's role in Pakistan's politics is expected to continue, but this is without a doubt a major rebuttal.

ALSO READ | Pakistan's next coalition government: The ups and downs of Sharif-Bhutto ties | EXPLAINED

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