The threat of civil strife looms large

The threat of civil strife looms large

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After escaping an assassination attempt, Imran Khan has resumed what he calls the “freedom march” to Islamabad. The firing incident that wounded the former prime minister has inflamed an already volatile situation and galvanized his supporters. The attacker may have been arrested but the motive behind the shooting is still not clear. The tension has heightened as the former prime minister has blamed the top government leaders and a senior army intelligence official for plotting the attack. 

By nominating a senior on nominating the intel official, along with the prime minister and interior minister, as a suspect in the alleged plot to kill him, Khan has thrown down the gauntlet at the security establishment.  It has brought his confrontation with the generals to a head. In a strong rebuttal, the military’s media wing rejected the accusation as “baseless and irresponsible” and warned that allegations against the senior army officer and the institution are “absolutely unacceptable and uncalled for.” 

These harsh public exchanges clearly show the increasing antagonism between the former prime minister and his erstwhile patrons. The whole episode has further vitiated the political atmosphere. It has sharpened the PTI narrative that questions the establishment’s claim of neutrality. It has now turned into a no-holds-barred attack on the security agencies, bringing the conflict to a head. Khan has weaponized the firing incident by whipping up anti-military sentiments.

Many analysts believe that Khan’s aggression against the military leadership is indicative of a continuing stalemate in ‘back-channel talks’ with the generals. According to some insiders, the demands presented by Khan were believed to be unacceptable to the military. His rising populist support seems to have added to Khan’s growing intransigence.

Political confrontation and polarization have weakened state institutions and created more space for extra-constitutional powers to act.

Zahid Hussain

The battle lines have now been clearly drawn. Khan sees the march as the final assault on the citadel. The public response to the march call has certainly boosted his confidence. It is the PTI’s second attempt to storm the capital after the ouster of its government. The May 25th march had fizzled out because weak public response and a massive crack down of the PML(N)-led government, which then also had control over Punjab. But the power balance has now shifted in the PTI’s favor after its regaining of power in the country’s most powerful province.

It may not be that easy for the government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif which is in a state of paralysis to control the situation. Moreover, it is no longer a power struggle between a fractious dispensation in Islamabad and the PTI, but has turned into a direct confrontation between Pakistan’s powerful security establishment and a rampaging populist force led by the ousted prime minister. 

It is extremely problematic for the military leadership to contain the populist leader whom it once had nurtured. With the PTI controlling the two most powerful provinces- Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhawa- it has worsened the establishment’s predicament. It seems to be a well-calculated move on the part of the former prime minister to step up the pressure on the security establishment on the eve of a critical transition in the army high command. 

The present army chief General Qamar Bajwa is due to retire at the end of the month after serving two terms in office. It seems that the main objective of the march is a show of political strength and to increase pressure on the new military leadership  to agree to Imran Khan’s terms. 

Khan’s recent triumph in by-elections held across the country has strengthened his political position in the ongoing battle. His disqualification by the Election Commission in the ‘misappropriation’ case does not seem to have had any effect on his political support base. 

While Imran Khan has galvanised his support base across the board with his relentless campaign, his opponents seem to be in a state of near paralysis. A deteriorating economic situation, including rising inflation, has fuelled the public’s discontent. All this has given huge momentum to the PTI march. 

There seems to be a complete breakdown of the system with no sign of a political standoff ending. The fear of civil strife looms large as violence spreads to major cities in the country’s most powerful province of Punjab. It may take days for the march to reach Islamabad but the siege of the capital has already begun.

The events of recent weeks have shaken the entire edifice. The political standoff has brought the country closer to anarchy. Political confrontation and polarisation has weakened state institutions and created more space for extra-constitutional powers to act. It’s perhaps one of the most serious crises the country has faced in its turbulent political history.  

- Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson Centre and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with Militant Islam and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan. Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ. His latest book ‘No-Win War’ was published this year. Twitter: @hidhussain

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