To deal with Imran Khan, Pakistan descends into autocracy
Rising military influence, crackdown on the PTI, and compromised electoral landscape indicate a shift towards autocratic rule
On 19 June, a district and sessions court in Islamabad sent the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) leader and former state interior minister Shehryar Afridi to Rawalpindi's Adiala jail on a 14-day judicial remand in a case related to the 9 May riots. This marks another sobering development in the series of events that have unfolded after supporters of Imran Khan staged riots and unlawfully entered military installations to protest Khan's arrest in May. On 20 June, an anti-terrorism court issued non-bailable arrest warrants against Khan himself and several other PTI leaders on charges related to the rioting.
Many, and especially Khan's supporters, saw the attack on the Corps Commander House (the Jinnah House) in Lahore as a "revolutionary movement." The attack – and the subsequent arrests of the attackers – has now turned into a reason for the military leadership to consolidate its dominant political position, which, before 9 May, seemed under a lot of pressure from Khan's PTI. For the past year, Khan had been directly targeting the military's role in facilitating the end of his government in April 2022 with a vote of no confidence.
On the one hand, the fallout of 9 May has led Khan's PTI to disintegrate from within, with many key leaders opting to either "leave" politics for good or join together to form a new party – the Istehkam-e-Pakistan Party (IPP), led by Khan's former friend Jahangir Tareen, who played a key role in the PTI's victory in the 2018 elections.
Besides, thousands of PTI supporters have been arrested and dozens of them are now being tried in military courts. Khan and some other PTI leaders have said that a lot of the violence was actually planned by the current government, to tighten the legal noose around the PTI and ultimately ban the party. Government officials, on the other hand, contend that Khan is now trying to distance himself from the violence so as to save face. Notwithstanding the controversy, there is little denying that the events of 9 May have spurred the Pakistan Army leadership into action, allowing it to expand its political control.
Many leaders of the present coalition government, headed by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), associate this crackdown with the pressure the military leadership is exerting on the government. On 7 June, the army chief, leading the 81st Formation Commanders Conference at GHQ in Rawalpindi – which was also attacked on 9 May – vowed that the perpetrators of the attacks will "be brought to justice speedily under the Pakistan Army Act." The statement further said that the "noose of law" will also be "tightened around the planners and masterminds who mounted the hate-ripened and politically driven rebellion against the state and state institutions to achieve their nefarious design of creating chaos in the country."
Many understood "planners and masterminds" as a thinly veiled reference to Khan himself, who is already facing serious corruption charges. At the same time, the coalition government is considering banning the PTI. While a ban would mean forcing a very popular political party out of the electoral race for power – and ultimately tilt the field permanently in favour of the incumbents – it would also weaken the overall democratic political process. This is especially so as the most recent point of contention between the PTI and the government (and also the military leadership) has been over the PTI's demand for elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces within 90 days of the dissolution of their assemblies as stipulated in the constitution, but which the government has been stymieing. "With the Constitution not being implemented in letter and spirit, it is now vulnerable to political expediencies, threatening to tear down the entire political landscape," a PTI leader told me.
The possibility of officially banning a political party – which would be in addition to the current de facto ban by the powers that be on so much as airing Imran Khan's name or words in the mainstream media – as well as the ongoing trials of civilians in military courts, have led many in Pakistan to question the state of human rights and the future of democracy in the country. Indeed, another PTI leader told me that the present situation was "purely autocratic", with the civilian leadership unable to fulfil its constitutional obligations of upholding fundamental rights.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has opposed the military trials, saying that the cases must be transferred to civil courts. Amnesty International, too, has criticised the decision to hold military trials, saying that "this is purely an intimidation tactic, designed to crack down on dissent by exercising fear of an institution that has never been held to account for its overreach."
Judiciary and executive
The military's latest overreach adds to its immense political power, which compromises the very idea of democratic rule by people elected in free, fair and competitive elections. With the military increasingly acting as the judiciary, it also compromises the idea of democracy as a system of the rule of law, reinforced by due process.
Qazi Faez Isa, a judge of the Supreme Court of Pakistan who is expected to become the country's next chief justice, wrote in a 2015 judgment that "military personnel who will preside over the trials, are part of the Executive, and it goes without saying that they are not part of the Judiciary. It has been repeatedly held by the superior Courts of Pakistan that the Executive cannot decide cases." He added, "The military, which is a part of the Executive, cannot conduct criminal trials of civilians because judicial power can only be exercised by the Judiciary," and also, "The power vesting in the Federal Government to pick and choose cases for trial by members of the Armed Forces further violates the equality requirement stipulated in Article 25 of the Constitution."
While Qazi Faez Isa's note was written a few years ago, it perfectly explains – and even predicts – the present political situation, where the coalition government, led by elected civilians, is consistently ceding space and authority to the state's coercive apparatuses. This is also weakening the judicial system, which is otherwise responsible for upholding the rule of law and due process.
What is even more troubling is the fact that the government mainly consists of parties – most notably the PML-N and the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) – that signed the Charter of Democracy in 2006. This document was significant for many reasons, but the most relevant today is its emphasis on establishing genuine civilian supremacy in Pakistan, with both the PML-N and the PPP vowing to never use the military's help to achieve power. The document was signed after both parties had suffered from the military's direct and indirect meddling in politics in the 1990s, when Pakistan saw at least four governments (two led by the PML-N and two by the PPP) forced out of power. The 1999 military coup pushed both parties to start a process of bilateral engagement and end their politics of relying on the military for coming into power.
As irony would have it, the present coalition was established after the military leadership decided to withdraw its support for Imran Khan, allowing these parties to oust Khan via a vote of no confidence. Its fifteen months in power have seen growing synergy between the coalition government and the military leadership – most vividly evident in how the government has consistently increased the military budget despite a severe economic crisis that has forced drastic cuts on every other front. The depth of the coalition government's dependence on the military signals the growing irrelevance of the 2006 charter.
Leave alone a substantive democracy, it is very clear that Pakistan is not even a genuine electoral democracy at the moment. If the PTI is banned – getting rid of the most powerful challenger to the present government in Pakistan's looming general election – the electoral landscape will no longer be competitive enough to meet the standard of a democratic system.
Many would argue that Pakistan's electoral landscape has never been fully competitive on democratic grounds, but even so holding the next election without the PTI, knowing that the outcome is a foregone conclusion, would be a blot on the country's record, and the mark in every way of a return to autocracy in all but name.