Where Next For Pakistan?


Whilst a few other things have been going on in the world, Pakistan has been going through political turmoil which shows little sign of abating soon. This has been little noticed however, because Pakistan has dropped off the radar, and yet more instability there is hardly news.

Prime Minister Imran Khan, the playboy sportsman turned statesman who is Pakistan’s equivalent of a “trendy leftie”, has been turfed out following a vote of no confidence. This is the first time such a thing has happened in Pakistan, and even then only after various legal manoeuvres by Khan loyalists in various state institutions to keep him in power, which could have gone either way.

Instead Pakistan has installed Muslim League leader Shahbaz Sharif, scion of the political old guard Khan vowed to sweep away. This represents a change to a more conservative mode of government, which replaces Khan’s attempt to build a state which liberates the less fortunate with one which reflects the actual views of those less fortunate. But the dispute goes a lot deeper than that.

Khan attracted a broad coalition around him, which has largely ebbed away in recent months. As in any coalition, its members were motivated by how their own party and personal interests would best be served.

In a context in which a popular outsider was trying to drain the swamp, few wanted their feet in that swamp. But as time has gone on, Khan’s radicalism, though it has produced some impressive results, has created its own swamp, not through any failure of Khan’s, but because this is Pakistan.

Bad Cop, Bad Cop

Like India, Pakistan has always wanted to play both ends against the middle. Its main geopolitical purpose has been to imply a regional threat – if the dictated balance is upset, the West will set the Pakistanis on you, and you will have an Islamic state under foreign domination.

India has benefited more from this than Pakistan – its politicians have got away with a lot on the basis that Indians are the good guys, so they can cosy up to the Russians and Chinese for practical reasons and remain the good guys because they are not Pakistanis. But Pakistan has gained from not allowing any other possible ally get too mighty, even though much of that gain has come in the form of dubious loans and defence pacts, and being made into a nuclear nation to cement its useful bad guy image.

Now there are bigger and badder actors out there, Pakistan is trying to reinvent itself as a reasonable, democratic state where serious people want to stay. But there is only one way it can do that – by running even more into the arms of the same powers who have used it for their own purposes, but see the point no more.

Imran Khan straddled the Pakistani and Western worlds. Now he has been removed for biting the hand which fed him, when he couldn’t do anything else if he was running an independent state.

Pakistan may ultimately be better off without Imran Khan. But it is opting to exchange a crisis of confidence for a crisis of principle, and it is unlikely to find that this changes the things it is designed to.

Whose Country Is It Anyway?

Imran Khan maintains that he has been removed by a “foreign conspiracy” against his government. He has not provided what is regarded as evidence by those who have looked at it, but it all depends on what you choose to look at.

Khan has made an anti-corruption drive a central plank of his policy. However he is dealing with the notorious Pakistani deep state known as “The Establishment”.

No one makes a secret of this existence of this body, and its composition is broadly known. It is an alliance of the military, the intelligence services and senior public officials, none of whom actually work for the government, as they are pledged to do, but for the highest bidder.

You don’t get to be part of The Establishment by being a loyal Pakistani. The qualification is being willing to serve the foreign masters who created and bankroll the Pakistani state structure, principally the US. The people who will still be around, pursuing long term policy from afar, when the politicians of any era have been and gone, often at their behest.

Such a system is inherently corrupt. There is no public accountability, because either the country is run directly by the military or is a democracy in which such a deep state should not exist, and therefore cannot be incorporated into the democratic system.

Nor does anyone pretend that membership of The Establishment means serving your country. It is about being important and having an advantage over the next guy because you have foreign friends who will protect you, much as Soviet-era prisoners of conscience were treated better rather than worse when they had friends in other countries.

The more corrupt you are, the more readily you will stab others in the back to save your own share. The Establishment supported Khan because certain members wanted to wage war on others. Being part of the anti-corruption drive helped those individuals maintain their own gravy trains and attack those of others, as they were then making the rules.

That same Establishment has removed Khan by offering sweeteners to his allies in parliament. Those attacked for corruption, who now want a way back, have been granted this on terms laid down by the rest of the Establishment. Seeing which way the wind is blowing, many of Khan’s political allies feel that joining the rehabilitated crooks is better than trying to maintain high standards themselves, when they were only doing that for other personal gain.

Who benefits from this? Whoever is most threatened by the anti-corruption drive. The higher standards a country has, the less it can be blackmailed and pushed around.

The holders of the purse strings, the US, are still haunted by defeats in Vietnam, Iran, Afghanistan and even China in 1949, where they likewise held the purse strings. Those who calculate their own interests above all, because they don’t have Khan’s wealth and prestige to fall back on, will naturally conclude that those interests are better served by making everyone guilty than trying to change the deep state and those who run it.

Substance Without Form

As ever, those who are taking Pakistan back to the old values have no respect for the same institutions they claim they want to protect. There were other ways of getting Imran Khan out if they wanted. Instead the vote of no confidence has been used to create a veneer of legitimacy for what is in effect just another coup.

Under the Pakistani Constitution, if there is a change of Prime Minister the previous Prime Minister remains in place as an interim until the new one is formally appointed. However new nominee Shahbaz Sharif took control as soon as he was elected unopposed following a mass walkout by Khan’s supporters.

The Prime Minister can only act as such after being sworn in by the President of Pakistan. President Alvi did not swear him in, so technically Sharif is merely a de facto Prime Minister, not a legal one.

This is the same Sharif who led the coalition which cried foul after Khan dissolved the National Assembly to prevent a previous no confidence vote, citing respect for the Constitution.

What Sharif and his supporters mean by “the Constitution” is the Pakistan everyone remembers and understands, rather than the new humanitarian state, behaving properly and independently, envisaged by Khan. Cleaning up the country hasn’t benefited the old political class, mired in guilt by association, so the old world has to be restored so a new way can be found.

That new way is not likely to be much different to the old however. The coalition which removed Khan consists of the Muslim League and the People’s Party, the same parties which ran things in the old days. Their only point of agreement was removing Khan and bringing back the old corrupt system, having failed to use the old playboy to cleanse themselves of their past.

Like any such coalition, it is not interested in new policy. The point is just to restore the system, regardless of what it actually does.

Everything so far has been based around doing the opposite of what they accused Khan of, not because this is a new policy, but because they have to be the opposite to justify being there. Khan was accused of poor economic performance, so Sharif goes running to the IMF to try and get a new loan. It’s harder than he suggests, but the point is to hold the talks, not achieve anything or do anything constructive with the funds obtained.

Sharif has a little brother complex, a dangerous thing to have when you are one of a privileged elite. Big brother is Nawaz Sharif, once Prime Minister himself, who was jailed for corruption and subsequently exiled himself in London after being released for medical treatment. This is Sharif’s chance to show that if big brother can get away with it for so long, so can he.

The US denies involvement in Khan’s removal, and this may strictly speaking be correct. But although it no longer needs the old, nasty Pakistan it insisted on creating, it doesn’t want a better version coming along either.

Pakistani politicians have lost faith in their country and are now trying to build a new Special Relationship. But as their only plan is being in power for the sake of it, all they are offering the US is blind alliance, not something useful in a region where everyone is so devoted to buying everyone else off.

Something For Nothing?

It remains to be seen whether Khan will mobilise his supporters in a new mass movement to regain power. They may feel they have nothing to lose now, but for that very reason they are equally likely to put up with what has been done, as fading into the background may be a more effective long term strategy.

Imran Khan’s problem is the one former British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan hit on when he told his Labour opponents that “people don’t like being called the proletariat”. His approach inevitably involves categorising people and deciding what he thinks is in their best interest. In a country where people respect their elders and their faith, this is often resisted by the very individuals Khan thinks he is trying to help, and he knows that.

But whatever the faults of the arbitrary and outspoken Khan administration, it had a vision for the country which would have improved its international standing, and thus its economic viability longer term, if he had been able to follow it through. Now all it has is the same discredited bunch who are not of any use to anyone else, who can’t be nice without ruining themselves and can’t be nasty because others have taken that segment.

One of Khan’s old rivals on the cricket field, and in the law courts, was England all-rounder Ian Botham, who once got into trouble for declaring that Pakistan was a place you would send your mother-in-law. That’s the sort of thing a Brexit-supporting resident of Spain would say, but it does reflect a common complaint amongst cricketers who are touring the country, better expressed in the notion that there are only so many times you can visit the carpet shops of Lahore.

This didn’t used to matter when Pakistan was the implied threat with a nuclear bomb. Now the US doesn’t need it for that purpose, it does matter. The country needs to become more attractive in every way to have any future, and you don’t do that by simply being the opposite of what went before.

Botham later made his peace with Pakistan, at least for a while, praising new facilities which were developed largely in response to his insult. But how can it change the general opinion of it now, with the same old politicians in power just for the sake of being there?

It doesn’t really matter whether Imran Khan was removed by a foreign conspiracy or his own failures. What matters is that his country now has no direction worth the name, no new height it can climb, and no way of satisfying the friends it is now trying to impress.

Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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