Imran Khan’s ouster as PM is just the latest manifestation of the failure of hybrid regimes in Pakistan (with behind the scenes involvement of the military elite to manage things) but this time it is now being called out like it hasn’t before, suggesting that there may be some tenuous scope for Pakistan’s weak political parties to finally mobilise to gradually allow for relatively more empowered civilian governments.
No prime minister has ever completed an entire five-year parliamentary tenure in Pakistan since its inception in 1947, and generals have ruled the country on several occasions. Even during civilian governments, the axis revolved around the office of the Chief of the Army Staff.
Such formation of the Pakistani state giving birth to hybrid regimes eventually led to civil-military conflicts culminating in the ouster of civilian governments. Imran Khan’s regime was an ideal type in this context, where the military planned to put Imran Khan’s famous face but inducted its people to govern. In a television interview, the speaker of the Provincial Assembly of Punjab, Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, one of Khan’s own allies, blamed the military. He said in an interview in the Urdu language by HUM television Pakistan, which can be paraphrased as “they kept changing Khan’s nappies all the time instead of providing him opportunities to learn politics and the art of governance”.
Previously, the onus for the failure of hybrid regimes fell on civilian governments. The military kept hiding behind the curtains, and the media, including the private channels, were controlled by them. However, this time, the situation was turned against the military establishment.
A defining moment was the open accusation by Nawaz Sharif, the disqualified prime minister who called out the military by name — accusing Army Chief of Staff Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa and the former head of Pakistan’s powerful intelligence service, Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, of engineering Khan’s rise to power.
Since then, people in central Punjab, the prime support base of the military, started accusing the military establishment of Khan’s failures and their role in bringing him to power. Later, Nawaz Sharif’s speeches were banned on electronic media. Still, his and his party’s accusations found their way to people through social media, particularly YouTube channels that are not easy to control.
Consequently, Gen. Bajwa started distancing himself from Imran Khan, creating difficulties for the latter’s govenrment. The tensions between the two bubbled to the surface after reports emerged that Khan refused for weeks to sign off on a transfer for General Faiz Hameed, the intelligence chief, who still favoured Khan in a bid to become the next Chief of Army. Moreover, an important source informed me that in a recent speech to garrison officers in Rawalpindi, General Bajwa revealed that Imran Khan had not been listening to the military establishment for two years now.
The army’s stance appears to have ignited momentum for the three largest opposition parties to try to make a decisive move against Khan and eventually ousted him through a no-confidence motion.
Political parties have been weak right from the outset. The Muslim League that founded Pakistan did not have its party roots in the Muslim-majority areas that became Pakistan. It heavily relied on non-democratic colonial administrative structures based on vice-regal colonial practices. Later, for historical reasons, the weak political parties had to build alliances with the most organised institution, the military-dominated by Punjabi and Pathan ethnic groups. In later years, the military’s dominance further strengthened the early foundations of authoritarianism. In this context, the historian Ayesha Jalal argues that state formation followed the concept of war-making from the outset, leading to a sustained political economy of defence. Therefore, the political economy of defence defined the state’s political and economic priorities and paved the way for the military’s continued role in defending Pakistan’s borders and ideology. To date, the state of Pakistan is defined as a security and not a welfare state.
To conclude, the major takeaway from Imran Khan’s ouster is that it is not merely his failure but another failure of the hybrid regime. History does not seem to be on the side of the establishment, and their undisputed power in politics in Pakistan is likely to diminish in the coming years. In the age of social media the military elite’s involvement in politics is getting exposed. Previously Nawaz Sharif boldly exposed their involvement, this time Khan’s supporters shouted anti-military slogans in their recent protests for ousting Khan as PM. FIA has also made arrests of people involved in social media trolling of the military.
The changing international situation also does not favour Pakistan to receive the millions of American dollars they were getting previously. Such a situation will now compel the state of Pakistan to gradually start delivering to people. If the ruling elites do not learn the lessons of the failures of hybrid regimes in Pakistan and achieve political and economic stability, and political parties do not organise their party base in masses following democratic principles and fighting corruption in state institutions, the ultimate destination could be massive chaos in society.
The author is Director Research at the School of Social and Political Sciences, The University of Melbourne