Pakistan: The Coup That Was Not a Coup

Tensions run high: police fire tear gas to disperse supporters of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan during protests in Lahore on 9 May 2023. Image: Associated Press / Alamy

The army’s crackdown may appear to have been effective in undermining Imran Khan and dismantling his political party, but the long-term consequences could be serious. Too much time has been spent on ugly political manoeuvres, whereas the focus needs to be on the economy. A failure to address Pakistan’s economic woes could lead to popular unrest and present the army with some dangerous dilemmas.

Military coups are usually mounted to remove sitting civilian governments. The events in Pakistan since the violence of 9 May have been designed to prevent former Prime Minister Imran Khan and his opposition party the PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) from contesting the elections due before the end of 2023. The PTI was destined to win a landslide victory in two of Pakistan’s four provinces and to form the next federal government.

The events of 9 May played into the army’s hands, in particular the image of the Corps Commander’s residence in Lahore in flames. Since then, the crackdown on the PTI has been remorseless. Most of Imran’s top team has been pressured into leaving the party. Thousands of party activists have been detained. The press has been told not to mention Imran by name. Even the courts, which hitherto have shown some spirited independence, have realised that now is not the moment to defy Chief of Army Staff General Asim Munir. It is a brave person who defies the army in such a mood.

Imran was able to give an interview to Newsweek the day after the riots, which combined some common sense (about the economy, corruption, the rule of law and democracy) with wild conspiracy theories (about the army and a US plot to oust him). Perhaps surprisingly, no foreign country has expressed serious concern at the army’s actions – probably for three reasons.

Firstly, there is a functioning civilian-led coalition government in Pakistan which is struggling with its economic predicament but handling its foreign affairs with some skill. In formal terms, there has been no coup.

Neither the Pakistan government nor the army is keen to see Pakistan fall completely into China’s political orbit

Secondly, Pakistan is a globally important country of 230 million people in a geographically strategic position and in possession of nuclear weapons. Memories of its recent role in the defeat of the NATO mission in Afghanistan are fading. Neither the Pakistan government nor the army is keen to see Pakistan fall completely into China’s political orbit. Pakistan will retain its close relations with Beijing, but Pakistanis enjoy their multiple connections to the West, and the Pakistan army still values its links with the US. An embryonic thought in Western capitals is that India might not prove to be the reliable long-term strategic partner so recently envisaged. India’s mind is set upon non-alignment (or multi-alignment), as its attitude to Russia following the invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated, and it has no intention of joining a Western military alliance against China. In such circumstances, there is a continuing need for engagement with a stable Pakistan.

And thirdly, Imran was an unpredictable populist prime minister. What he would describe as his open and honest style of speaking was interpreted by others (not just in the West but in the Gulf too) as irritating and sometimes offensive. Imran’s lack of basic diplomatic skills cost him allies overseas as well as at home.

China, too, will shed few tears for Imran, and the same goes for the Gulf states. For Beijing, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, the key player in Pakistan is the army, and none of them cares about Pakistan’s future as a democracy. For China, much of the current focus is on Afghanistan, where events since 2021 have left Beijing with few policy options.

However, Pakistanis do still care about their democracy. Even though the army has ruled for almost half of the country’s history, Pakistan still retains the democratic instincts of its founders, and has usually enjoyed a vigorously independent press.

If Imran Khan and his party are no longer available as a channel for dissent, the people will choose nondemocratic means to express their frustration and fury

Elections will doubtless take place towards the end of the year, and the current coalition government will win. Observers in Pakistan say that Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari (aged 34) is the army’s preferred choice as prime minister. He is the son of the murdered Benazir Bhutto and is seen as inexperienced enough to be malleable. The alternative would be Maryam Nawaz, the 49-year-old daughter of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, but she is viewed as more troublesome. Her name has also been associated with corruption allegations including the Panama Papers scandal. The hope is that this new generation of leaders can be presented to the public as an attractive change.

However, this will not be real democracy, and everybody knows it. Imran is the most popular politician in the country. Bilawal and Maryam may be new faces, but they are part of a semi-feudal political system which dates back to before independence in 1947. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the army’s chosen partner is the veteran Islamist militant Maulana Fazlur Rehman, who would take the province in an obscurantist direction more akin to Afghanistan than modern Pakistan.

Furthermore, the biggest issue in Pakistan at present is not political mischief but the economic crisis. With inflation at 38% and most of the population struggling to make ends meet, there are bound to be political consequences. If Imran and his PTI are no longer available as a channel for dissent, the people will choose nondemocratic means to express their frustration and fury.

Asim Munir’s forceful actions have placed the army in a difficult position. The army has nearly always been popular in Pakistan, particularly in the Punjab. Its present poor reputation will worry both senior and junior officers. It is not just a question of ensuring the loyalty of the soldiers; the current predicament could lead to the military taking violent action against protesters in the Punjab, and thus becoming increasingly antagonistic towards its own population.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Tim Willasey-Wilsey CMG

Senior Associate Fellow

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