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Crisistan: Pakistan’s three-way political poker game

Supporters of former Pakistani PM Imran Khan's block a Peshawar motorway toll plaza after he was disqualified from holding public office.

Supporters of former Pakistani PM Imran Khan's block a Peshawar motorway toll plaza after he was disqualified from holding public office.

Hussain Ali/Pacific Press/Sipa via Reuters Connect

Always on the brink, Pakistan is in crisis mode. Former PM Imran Khan, the cricket hero-turned-born again Muslim populist firebrand, was disqualified Friday from holding public office. Meanwhile, his deputies are being arrested, recorded conversations are being leaked to damage his credibility, and his supporters are being threatened with legal action.

But nothing’s working to stop the Khan juggernaut. And the country, strapped for cash and still reeling from catastrophic flooding, is headed toward further political turmoil.

As protests spring up in his support, the “Kaptaan” — Captain, as Khan is known for his athletic accolades and lead-from-the-front style of politicking — is threatening to launch a movement of civil disobedience by marching toward the capital of the world’s fifth-most populous nation and only nuclear-armed Islamic republic.

Yes he Khan. The 70-year-old has created a stir since April, when he was ousted from the premiership after falling out with the military, Pakistan’s ultimate arbiter of power. Since his removal through a vote of no-confidence that brought in a military-backed parliamentary coalition made of older, family-run parties with Shehbaz Sharif as PM, Khan’s popularity has been surging.

Alleging without much evidence that he’s the victim of US-backed conspiracy, the ousted former PM has been holding massive rallies, leading his party to sweep by-elections triggered by parliamentary reshuffling, and is pushing back against Pakistan’s traditional power structures — even those controlled by the all-powerful military.

Now, as the economy continues to spiral due to rising inflation, a weakening rupee, a balance of payments crisis and over $30 billion of losses from flooding, Khan’s rising popularity is being challenged through the Election Commission, which has accused him of corruption for not declaring about $100,000 worth of watches, cufflinks, and a ring he received from foreign dignitaries as PM and for selling them for twice as much. While the charges are flimsy, they may stick longer than the terrorism accusations made against him earlier this year.

“The disqualification seems to fit into a pattern of legal harassment by the Sharif government, with the support of the military,” says Eurasia Group analyst Pramit Chaudhury.

To challenge the verdict, Khan’s party wants a petition to be heard on Monday at the Islamabad High Court.

The disqualification verdict, held under wraps for more than a month, was not duly processed and is “suspicious as well as patently illegal," says Khan’s lawyer, Chaudhry Faisal Hussain. What’s more, as far as the merit of the case is concerned, “it’s the unanimous opinion of the legal fraternity across Pakistan that it is naive and weak to the extent of absurdity — there is no legal substance that can help this verdict stand in any court of law.”

Hussain is confident that Khan’s disqualification will be overturned. But in Pakistani politics, the military eats the courts for breakfast.

Will the real leader please stand up. All this unrest might just be theatrics to leverage the backroom politicking underway for the real prize: the appointment of the country’s next army chief —ostensibly the most powerful office in the land — by the end of November.

Here’s how it works in Pakistan's complicated system of a hybrid democracy: While an elected prime minister heads the government, he/she must reckon with the 600,000-strong military and share power with the army chief, who is selected personally by the PM. Given Pakistan’s civil-military imbalance, this arrangement has never gone well — akin to the hen choosing the fox to guard the hen house.

Consequently, army chiefs have usually outlasted and mostly outmaneuvered PMs. In 75 years, Pakistan has had 26 premierships, but only 16 army commanders — even though the latter are supposed to serve for three years, while the former are elected for five.

Fun fact: no Pakistani PM has ever finished a term in office. Every single premier has either been assassinated, executed, ousted, forced to resign or go into exile. Meanwhile, four army chiefs have served as presidents after conducting coups or declaring emergencies, and three of the last four have been granted or given themselves extended tenures.

Political poker. In the three-way struggle between Khan, Sharif, and the military to retain power, everybody has cards to play.

Khan’s ploy is to kick and scream against his disqualification to force an election and/or threaten a “long march” that will undoubtedly paralyze the country, perhaps even trigger violence. He’s actually quite effective at activism and protesting: Back in 2014, as opposition leader he laid the capital under siege for almost six months in his “Azaadi” [Independence] march, similar to the one he’s threatening now. Khan is not only savvy with the politics of unrest — in fact he thrives on it. So, will he be able to muster similar momentum to stage a popular comeback?

“A key test will be the response he gets to his call for mass protests,” says Chaudhury. “While Khan’s ability to hold million-men rallies and tap popular discontent over Pakistan’s present economic malaise is impressive, it is hard to see Sharif conceding his demand for early elections.”

Meanwhile, the incumbent PM is sitting on an even thornier decision: who will be the next army chief. To make the right choice, he must ensure that the military is satisfied and that his own political future is secure.

“Choosing the right candidate,” Chaudhury explains, “will be crucial for Sharif’s political future and potentially for Khan’s as well — if a general who doesn’t like the opposition leader takes the helm.”

But perhaps the most powerful card of all is being held by the current army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, expected to retire in a month. The 62-year old has been here before: early in his tenure in 2017, former PM Nawaz Sharif — the elder brother of Shehbaz and Khan’s nemesis — was also disqualified from office on similarly dubious charges.

The political instability and polarization borne from that tussle helped Bajwa secure what he wanted: an even bigger seat for the army at the table, and then an extension of service for himself.

On Friday, just as protests were swirling in Khan’s support across the country, the general reiterated that he’s going to retire on time. Will this round of civilian political infighting favor the military even more?

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