Since Imran Khan’s dismissal as the Prime Minister in April of last year, PTI has launched an offensive against the country’s military establishment whom they perceive as having conspired with the PDM to remove Khan. This offensive has been marked by a huge shift in public opinion against the establishment. PTI supporters, the vast majority of whom were previously ardent supporters of the men in khaki and their policies, have engaged in a protracted social media war which has also spilled into unforeseen offline events like protests outside Lahore Cantt and Corps Commander House Peshawar. Nevertheless, even after the attempt on the PTI supremo’s life, voices from within the PTI including the PTI chief himself have been insistent on clarifying that their feud is with individuals, not the institution.
Despite Imran Khan’s anti-establishment rhetoric and the widespread appeal of his narrative among his base, he has not called for an end to the military’s interference in politics. The farthest he has gone is saying that the establishment must work “for the rule of law.” Khan’s anti-establishment campaign has been aimed at getting the military to bring him back into power, and at most at removing the individual officers he has named so far out of office. He wants the military to continue interfering in politics, just in his favor.
Even in the face of this reality, some supporters, including well-meaning critics of the military, continue to think of Khan as the revolutionary hero who will finally put the army back in the barracks. However, the people hoping for Khan to advocate for putting the army back in the barracks will be sorely disappointed.
Previously, PML(N) had adopted a fairly harsh anti-establishment stance following Nawaz Sharif’s removal. However, when the opportunity presented itself at the beginning of 2022, they once again danced to the establishment’s tune and entered into a political settlement, creating in the process a new hybrid regime to replace the old one when Khan started acting out of line, abandoning their “Vote ko Izzat Do” narrative that Nawaz Sharif had spent four years building. There seems to be a fundamental unwillingness among the major parties to sustain an anti-establishment position.
The reason these parties will always fail to mount a genuine push to end military intervention in politics lies in their inception and how they attain power. Khan came into the limelight under Musharraf’s tutelage, and it has been alleged by PTI’s former senior leader Javed Hashmi and Khan’s opposition that both his 2011 Lahore jalsa and the 2014 dharna were facilitated by the then ISI Chief General Ahmed Shuja Pasha. Later, Imran Khan came into power in 2018 on the back of alleged support from DG ISI General Faiz and the military establishment.
Mian Nawaz Sharif, similarly, was infamously groomed by Zia-ul-Haq and after Zia’s death, Sharif had an on-and-off relationship with the military, but he was seen as the military’s guy against Benazir Bhutto and her Pakistan Peoples’ Party. At their core, PTI and PML(N) are both the establishment’s creations and will return to the GHQ’s tutelage whenever they start favouring them again.
Secondly, PTI’s primary support base is middle-class white-collar workers whereas PML(N)’s is traders and industrialists. Both parties also draw substantial support from rich businessmen and most of their leadership is drawn from among them. Taking a dangerous stand against the establishment is bad for business, which is why parties with support bases that value profit above principles will never do it. The lack of an ideological foundation for these parties also allows them to adopt and drop narratives at their convenience, based on their and their support base’s interests.
PPP has had more success in maintaining an anti-establishment posture, mainly due to its history of antagonism with the military and ideological basis, and partially because it primarily draws its support from among the intelligentsia, old Bhuttoists, and people with liberal inclinations outside of Sindh. Still, PPP has also failed to mount a meaningful anti-establishment campaign in recent years and does not seem interested in doing so anytime soon. Their feudal power base in Sindh and Asif Ali Zardari’s style of politics ensures that PPP will not engage in any meaningful struggle against the establishment’s interference.
The fact of the matter is, whether their support base and character don’t allow them, or because they are unwilling, Pakistan’s mainstream political parties cannot be relied on to take a stand against the military picking and choosing the government. PTI, PML(N), or PPP supporters holding out hope that it may happen are expecting a bull to start giving out milk. Any genuine resistance can only come from progressive parties who derive their power from the people.
While the Zia generation continues to believe that a dictatorship is the only way Pakistan can be ruled, popular sentiment across the country is extremely anti-establishment at the moment, and you would be hard-pressed to find a single young person with a positive opinion of the military. In this environment, the mainstream parties jockeying to earn the establishment’s support will only perpetuate the crises that grip the nation today.
Any expectation that one of our mainstream parties will seriously challenge the military establishment’s interference is extremely misplaced. Expecting the biggest benefactors of the status quo to change it seems stupid, yet many extremely smart people continue to do that.
For people who want a democratic Pakistan, building and supporting a progressive alternative is the only choice. Only a strong progressive alternative can challenge the military’s attempts at political engineering and take advantage of the anti-establishment sentiment to push back. Building that alternative is the only choice we have for ensuring that our leaders are elected, not selected.