Amidst unprecedented floods that have pushed a third of Pakistan underwater a debate is underway, not on flood relief or economic stress, but over who should get to appoint the next Chief of the all-powerful army. Ousted in April, former Prime Minister Imran Khan wants a snap poll in October, so that his political opponents, whom he calls ‘thieves’, do not get to select the successor to the incumbent, General Bajwa, who is due to retire in November. Imran assumes that he will win the polls and that will prevent his detractors from appointing a ‘pliable’ Chief who may condone their corruption.
The army says it is ‘aghast’ at what Imran has said. President Arif Alvi, who belongs to Imran’s party, has ‘distanced himself”, media reports say. A prominent serving judge, Justice Athar Minallah, Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court, has expressed dismay at Imran crossing all limits “for the Game of Thrones”. And Imran’s opponents – the Shahbaz Sharif coalition government, in particular – say that this is a direct assault on the army and, in particular, to the top five or six generals who may be considered for the top job. Most significantly, they all agree that the army that makes ‘sacrifices’ and its members “staking their lives for the nation” ought not to be subjected to the ‘insult’ that they say Imran keeps inflicting. Imran is unfazed and insists that his targets are his political opponents, not the army. But a near-consensus is that Imran, acting out of desperation, has “crossed the red line”. His perceived polls timetable cuts too fine. Bajwa’s retirement is barely ten weeks away. The electoral process, when begun, takes at least six weeks and the results, assuming that they would yield a clear-cut popular verdict, would need time for the next government to take office. Imran’s anger and impatience are against the army letting him down after propping him to power in 2018. But his links, evidently, remain firm. He is “in direct touch” with the army, euphemistically called the ‘establishment’, which told Imran that the elections would be held in March next year, four months before schedule. He speculates that a formal announcement of the polls will be in January 2023.
This is a bridge too far for Imran Khan. He was propped by the army when Bajwa was the Chief in 2018. For over three years, he untiringly said, “we are on the same page.” Ironically, he is unhappy with the same person and has not spared him in his public criticism. He uses the pejorative ‘neutrals’, a claim the army makes to distance itself from political ongoings, to pressure the top brass to stay genuinely neutral. His allusion is that the army, that his critics say, tired of his handling of the economy and foreign relations, had tilted against him to cause defections and his ultimately being voted out by the National Assembly. A former star cricketer and a fast bowler, Imran is using that aggression that won him in cricket against his erstwhile benefactors. The strategy has worked well, Pakistan analysts say, in that sections of the senior military brass want to see Imran succeed against the two political dynasties they dislike – the Sharifs and the Bhutto Zardaris – who are politically better entrenched and have a record of defying the army. The perceived division in the senior military brass, or the public notion of it, has helped Imran consolidate his popularity even when out of power. He hopes to use it to his advantage, and an early election can benefit him immensely.
The Shehbaz Sharif government, a coalition in which the Bhutto Zaardaris are partners, has, on the other hand, underperformed in the face of economic distress, and now, the unprecedented floods. Its gambit of getting a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a task Imran messed up earlier, has only partially succeeded. To achieve that, and secure the USD 1.2 billion loan, the government has levied heavy taxes that are the IMF’s ‘preconditions’, causing inflation to rise dramatically. This has added to public anger and Imran Khan hopes to use it to his political advantage. His latest round of attacks on the army and its generals, analysts say, is caused by the anger at its not leaning on the incumbent government to declare an early election. But the consensus is that he has gone too far, annoying not just the army, but causing a wave of disapproval. None knows what the Army’s plan could be to steady a democracy where democrats are falling over each other to praise the military. They are joined by the judiciary that has generally opted for safety and status quo and has endorsed the military seizing power by toppling elected governments in the past.