Pakistan's political crisis is also a dilemma for its top brass – The Economist

DAYS AFTER their leader was injured in an assassination attempt on November 3rd, supporters of Imran Khan, who is now out of hospital, descended on Islamabad. They blocked highways surrounding Pakistan’s federal capital and vowed to bring down the government.
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Since April, when Mr Khan himself was removed from power in a vote of no confidence, the former prime minister has sought to trip up his successor, Shehbaz Sharif. He has made wild accusations that the army conspired with America to depose him in favour of the more biddable Mr Sharif. And he has led a political caravan that trundles through Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, decrying the establishment—he was shot while campaigning on his lorry.
Within hours of the shooting Mr Khan accused Mr Sharif, the interior minister and a general in military intelligence of being behind the attempted assassination. The suspected gunman, overpowered by the crowd, is in custody. He told police that he acted alone. Mr Khan insists multiple gunmen were involved, implying a conspiracy. Civilian and army leaders strongly deny Mr Khan’s allegations, while condemning the attack.
The attempt on his life, Mr Khan repeated this week, only underscores the malignancy of the establishment he sets his face against, and the urgent need for a general election. One is due by next autumn at the latest. Mr Khan has momentum on his side: his party has triumphed in by-election after by-election. Now he vows to rejoin his caravan and bring out more anti-government crowds.
Facts in Pakistan are often hard to come by. Investigations run into the sand and reports get buried. But it is striking that the shooting has not generated more shock. Mr Khan and his allies say they expected such an attempt by his opponents. They, for their part, can readily imagine Mr Khan as a ripe target for any hothead. The mutual insouciance is alarming. Pakistan has a gruesome history of political violence. The first prime minister was killed at a rally in 1951. Fifteen years ago Benazir Bhutto, a former leader and heir to a political dynasty, was assassinated shortly after her return from exile. In an attempt on her life two months earlier, 180 died. Widening political divisions today look ominous.
Mr Khan’s brand of populism plays on those divisions. It requires impressive cognitive dissonance to believe that Pakistan’s economic crisis, with high inflation and crippling external debt, much of it owed to China, is all the fault of Mr Sharif and his “cabal of crooks”. As prime minister, Mr Khan blew up a rescue package from the IMF with ill-considered subsidies. Mr Sharif, too, has struggled to impose fiscal discipline. But he is starting to see some success in filling Pakistan’s financial holes, including by reviving that IMF deal. It is hard to believe that Mr Khan would have handled this summer’s catastrophic flooding any better, either.
It is true that the 70-year-old Mr Khan is a born-again Muslim, which appeals to that redemptive part of followers’ natures. Some of his anti-Americanism is grounded in a reasonable belief that the United States has done more harm than good in Pakistan’s region. It stings, too, that in America’s titanic struggle with China, Pakistan is expected to line up behind India, the eternal enemy. Yet it still requires dissonance to consider Mr Khan as outside the (largely pro-Western) establishment: he is an Oxford-educated former cricketing star.
Running parallel to the political crisis is a military one. The army enforces a long-standing taboo on anyone speaking about its powerful role in politics. Mr Khan, despite coming to power with support from the army, has done more than any politician in memory to shatter this taboo. For though generals smoothed his path to power in 2018, they also hastened his exit after he fell out with the army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, over who should make key military appointments. Mr Khan’s attacks on him now seem outrageous to officers used to deference from mere civilians.
The revival in Mr Khan’s political fortunes unsettles the generals, who hate being dragged publicly into the political turmoil. General Bajwa, whom Mr Khan has encouraged Pakistanis to scorn, is supposed to retire at the end of this month. Yet the political crisis complicates the naming of a successor. Mr Khan’s gamble may be to engender such popular opposition to his despised “establishment” that the generals, wanting an end to big protests, will help him back to power. Yet all sides know how fraught such a bet might prove.
Read more from Banyan, our columnist on Asia:
When a disaster shakes a country, political leaders face peril (Nov 3rd)
A prominent Indian independent news site destroys its own credibility (Oct 27th)
Central Asian countries are subtly distancing themselves from Russia (Oct 20th)
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Caravan of chaos”
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