Post-Imran Pakistan appears headed towards a form of managed democracy

Even as the country prepares for elections, democratic legitimacy is being sapped from its civil-military system

Pakistan's caretaker Prime Minister, Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, is presented with guard of honour in Islamabad last week. AFP
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Pakistan’s 77th independence day celebrations found the country under a caretaker government led by Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, with the national and provincial assemblies dissolved on August 9 at the end of their five-year term. These steps are all part of the constitutionally mandated process ahead of the general elections scheduled for late 2023, although this date could slip to early 2024.

Optimists might point to the regularity of internationally observed elections in Pakistan since 2008, following the triumph of the Lawyers’ Movement over the late Gen Pervez Musharraf. They might argue that parliament, the courts and a civilian executive have remained in place ever since – despite severe economic, political and security crises. These claims looked credible on the eve of the 2013 elections, seemed doubtful before the 2018 vote and are entirely fantastic in 2023.

This period has seen almost every major democratic institution hollowed out to accommodate the so-called “hybrid” civil-military regime, leaving little more than empty procedure in its place. Worse still, it is impossible to cleanly distinguish between the repressed and repressor within the political classes. Most major parties have colluded with the army at some point over the past five years to suppress their rivals.

The crackdown on the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, which included Imran Khan’s arrest, has not provoked the expected explosion on the streets. The military has succeeded in reinforcing internal discipline internally, and it has signalled externally that it will not tolerate opposition to its dismantling of the PTI. For the first time in decades, Pakistani elites (among them a number of senior retired army officers) are facing the kinds of coercive pressures that had been previously reserved for dissidents, ethnic separatists and religious extremists.

The vast ballet being thrown into motion to shape the outcome of the next elections is probably the best illustration of the hybrid regime’s damaging relationship with democracy. The Intercept news website’s publication of a leaked “cypher” from Pakistan’s Foreign Office detailing a meeting between the country’s ambassador in Washington and a senior US State Department official has re-ignited a widely held conviction that Mr Khan was pushed out under American pressure.

Pakistan’s trend-line is moving the country towards a form of managed democracy where multi-party elections are a mix of theatre and ritual

However, the meeting took place long after members of Mr Khan’s coalition had defected to the opposition and the no-confidence vote had been called; it is unclear from the text what, if any, role the US had in any of the events. It provides an inside peek into the extent of the disconnection between the elected government and other layers of the state.

Mr Khan’s conviction this month for corruption may have rested on compelling evidence, but it was certainly unusually speedy. Even more significant than the three-year prison sentence was the five-year ban from elected office. Of course, nothing in Pakistan’s politics is final. Several former prime ministers and presidents have seen full legal rehabilitation with charges withdrawn and convictions overturned as part of a broader political deal with the system’s masters.

But for now, the courts and prison system are doubling down by cancelling Mr Khan’s bail, and restricting access to his lawyers, while other members of the PTI have been treated more leniently. This suggests the intention here is to ensure that the charismatic Mr Khan is unable to participate in his party’s election campaign.

But the measures taken extend far beyond Mr Khan’s legal issues. A census has been ordered ahead of the elections (a similar exercise was carried out in 2017 ahead of polls), and now, after the lengthy tabulation of results, constituency boundaries will have to be redrawn in light of this new snapshot of the country’s population distribution. This is likely to push back the elections from the last quarter of 2023 to the first quarter of 2024.

It is suspected that the army wants the delay to allow the benefits of the IMF’s latest bailout to be felt in the economy, easing the public’s discontent ahead of the vote. Much of the military’s confidence in its ability to manage the challenges stems from the nature of the caretaker government, which has been granted expanded economic powers by the outgoing parliament. The idea is that technocrats, free from populist pressures, will be able to manage in a way that improves macro-economic stability, as well as lenders’ confidence.

Mr Kakar’s selection as caretaker Prime Minister caught many by surprise because of the degree to which it departs from precedent. Pakistan’s seven interim administrations have been led either by very senior politicians recognised for their independence, or by members of the senior judiciary. Mr Kakar is neither.

He is a junior senator from Balochistan who has developed a reputation over the past five years as a willing and enthusiastic representative of the security state’s interests in his province’s political scene. Most strikingly, Mr Kakar does not appear to have been proposed for the job by either the outgoing prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, or the leader of the opposition, Raja Riaz Khan, as is the norm.

This lack of consensus behind the choice of prime minister is especially noteworthy, given what we have seen elsewhere. The Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provinces have been under caretaker governments since early 2023 when their PTI governments dissolved the assemblies in a failed attempt to trigger early elections. These interim administrations have been exceptionally responsive to military interests, and Sindh and Balochistan are likely to be no different now that they are under caretaker administrations as well.

Pakistan’s trend-line is moving the country towards a form of managed democracy where multi-party elections are a mix of theatre and ritual, and where elected office is a mix of ceremony and profit.

If democratic legitimacy continues to be sapped from the system, the results are likely to be ever greater unpredictability and ungovernability as the general public increasingly chooses to act on its own, unconstrained by systemic norms.

Published: August 21, 2023, 5:00 AM