Pakistan’s 76th Independence Day, on Aug. 14, was marked by an undercurrent of challenges. The 16-month rule of the 13-party Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) coalition government concluded, making way for a new technocratic caretaker administration tasked with overseeing upcoming general elections. However, this power transition is not as straightforward as it seems. The appointment of the new caretaker government has created uncertainty, raising doubts about whether Pakistan will smoothly transition to another democratic government or if the caretaker setup will exceed its constitutional mandate.
There are also concerns that Pakistan might return to a praetorian state, where the political environment of the country, along with its political institutions, is largely controlled and managed by the army. These worries stem from two significant factors. The first pertains to the decline of democratic culture observed during the tenure of the PDM government. The second revolves around the composition of the present caretaker government, which appears to have been installed by the influential military establishment.
Where did the PDM go wrong?
The PDM administration, which displaced Imran Khan’s military-dominated hybrid administration in April 2022, pledged a complete restoration of democracy. Whether they fulfilled this commitment is not difficult to discern, and an evaluation of their achievements exposes multiple deficiencies. To begin with, an admission from Bilawal Bhutto, who serves as the chair of a key allied party within the PDM coalition, provides substantial insight. In his farewell address, he acknowledged that their coalition government failed to uphold institutions within the limits set by the constitution. Although Bilawal avoided providing specific particulars, the remarks suggested why the PDM government had been referred to as “hybrid 2.0.”
In a short span of time, the PDM government swiftly enacted multiple laws and amendments, several of which drew criticism for their anti-democratic nature. For instance, the Army Amendment Bill grants the Army authority to engage in national development and strategic activities without civilian approval and extended the jurisdiction of military courts to prosecute civilians. Other contentious legislation includes the Official Secrets Amendment, which grants extensive powers to intelligence agencies and allows civilian detention without proper legal procedures, as well as the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, which introduced imprisonment for criticizing the Armed Forces. Additionally, the 2023 Election (Amendment) Bill swiftly granted the electoral oversight body more power to disqualify candidates and delay elections, while also extending policy decision-making authority to the interim caretaker government, despite its primary role of ensuring fair elections. Moreover, the PDM government faced criticism for the Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) Bill, which curtails freedom of speech by prohibiting government criticism.
Institutionally, the PDM government took a few similarly criticized steps, such as establishing a Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC). This move shifted significant authority from civilian governance to the military, allowing the latter to play a leading role in steering the country’s declining economy. By entrusting substantial responsibilities to the military establishment, the outgoing PDM government not only curtailed the future privileges of civilian governments but also bestowed legitimacy upon the military to assume significant positions within civilian-run state entities. As a result of this empowerment, the military can autonomously advance its economic and strategic objectives by leveraging critical national sectors, thereby legitimizing its involvement in state governance and its formal role in shaping and executing both domestic and foreign policy decisions.
For these reasons, the PDM has been criticized for displaying insufficient civilian oversight and failing to establish a truly democratic government while in power. The PDM also encountered serious allegations of indulging in extensive political victimization, creating an environment characterized by fear and intimidation. Its contentious relationship with the Supreme Court over multiple rulings further escalated internal conflicts within institutions and led to constitutional turmoil. The PDM government’s efforts to combat terrorism and foster security across a broader spectrum fell short as well. Not only did incidents of terrorist attacks rise during its tenure, but groups like Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP) expanded their operations into regions such as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) and Balochistan.
Daunting challenges ahead for the caretaker government
Against this backdrop, the newly appointed interim Prime Minister Anwar-ul-Haq Kakar inherits a range of political, constitutional, economic, and security challenges from the outgoing PDM government. He is presently grappling with a growing political challenge posed by former Prime Minister Khan, whose popularity remains steadfast even following his conviction. Khan’s arrest has garnered sympathy and fortified his narrative against the military. Consequently, despite significant numbers of expulsions and defections, Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party has managed to evade a ban.
Strategically, the PTI may embark on a new campaign under the slogan “Justice for Imran Khan,” a move that, if successful, could potentially secure a majority of votes in the upcoming elections. The conceivable resurgence of the PTI into a position of power, whether in government or as a formidable opposition with substantial influence, introduces a quandary for both the military establishment and other political factions. Kakar’s primary objective lies in averting such a scenario.
Thus, Kakar finds himself at a critical crossroads, confronted with a risky decision: to accelerate the legal proceedings against PTI members in an attempt to permanently ban the party or to seek a mutually advantageous agreement with PTI leadership that permits their participation in the upcoming elections. Both alternatives entail significant risks and have wide-ranging implications for Pakistan's political landscape.
Amidst the surge of political polarization that has eroded the democratic fabric of Pakistan, Kakar’s interim administration is confronted with an acute constitutional crisis arising from a direct clash between parliamentary supremacy and judicial independence. In recent months, the Supreme Court not only invalidated various parliamentary acts deemed to curtail judicial authority but also initiated suo moto proceedings against the government, holding it accountable for undermining the rule of law. The Supreme Court’s intrusion into political matters has sown internal discord among judges taking disparate stances.
Two unresolved cases before the Supreme Court highlight this tension. In the first case, the PTI has accused the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) of violating its constitutional duty by not holding timely elections after Imran Khan dissolved his government in Pakistan’s two major provinces early this year. The PTI argues that the ECP’s failure to hold elections has undermined the democratic process and paved the way for the military to intervene in politics. The second case involves the PTI’s challenge to the legitimacy of trials of civilians in military courts. The PTI argues that the military courts are being used to target opponents of the government.
Pakistan’s Chief Justice Umar Bandial has been trying to fix the cases favoring the PTI over the state institutions. However, he has faced resistance from dissenting judges who have challenged his authority and decisions. As a result, the legal battle within the top judiciary is likely to continue even after Bandial’s retirement on Sept. 17.
Furthermore, a potential new constitutional crisis looms on the horizon, triggered by a recent case filed by the Supreme Court Bar Association in collaboration with the PTI. This case urges the ECP to conduct general elections within the specified 90-day timeframe following the dissolution of the PDM government on Aug. 9. This legal action was prompted by the ECP’s decision to schedule elections based on the recently conducted digital census of 2023, a move endorsed by the Council of Common Interests (CCI).
The CCI, a federal body comprised of elected chief ministers from all four provinces and the prime minister, holds authority over significant matters such as the population census. After the CCI gives its approval for elections based on the latest census data, the ECP requires a period of four months to complete the process of delineating constituencies, also referred to as delimitation. Once the new constituencies are established, political parties are granted an additional 54-day window to engage in election campaigns. However, the filed petition seeks to halt the implementation of the CCI’s decision, contending that the Council’s composition during the census approval was flawed. The Supreme Court Bar Association and the PTI assert that due to the absence of elected governments in two provinces, namely Punjab and the KPK, the interim caretaker chief ministers lacked the necessary statutory and constitutional authority to participate in the Council’s deliberations, let alone make decisions.
Potential harmful scenarios
Should the Court suspend the CCI decision, the census validity would be compromised, casting doubt on the ECP’s credibility and the interim government’s legitimacy beyond 90 days. Such a move could thrust Kakar’s interim government into a significant constitutional crisis. Conversely, if the Court sides with the ECP, elections would be mandated to occur in the first half of 2024. Yet considering the ECP’s history of election delays, concerns persist that the interim government might persist beyond March 2024, citing a “doctrine of necessity” due to perceived crises.
Given the mainstream parties’ waning popularity and inability to secure a substantial majority, post-election prospects could include another coalition government. Establishing a strong hybrid setup with a democratically elected but factionally divided government, particularly if the PTI remains influential, would challenge the military establishment. Alternatively, maintaining influence through a united technocratic caretaker arrangement might seem more pragmatic for the military.
The latter scenario could foment significant political opposition, potentially escalating into civil conflict. Kakar is tasked with navigating a landscape shaped by military-political rivalries. His choices will profoundly affect Pakistan’s political trajectory, impacting governance. To sustain the democratic process, Kakar must earn the trust of political parties, assuring them of his commitment to impartial elections and non-interference in the political sphere.
Compounding economic challenges
Kakar is equally confronted with the urgent task of addressing Pakistan’s economic challenges. The country grapples with a soaring external debt of $124.3 billion, an expanding current account deficit, record-breaking inflation, a slowing economy, and the looming specter of a significant energy crisis. Kakar’s unique non-elite background provides a potential advantage in attracting foreign investment. Hailing from Balochistan, a province rich in minerals yet beset by underdevelopment, his familiarity with the region’s geographical and geostrategic significance could position him to present compelling investment opportunities to foreigners.
While the SIFC, a civil-military hybrid forum aimed at drawing foreign investment and invigorating economic growth, may offer temporary relief for these economic woes, Kakar’s most pressing challenge is to prevent Pakistan from becoming a rentier state. He must ensure that foreign investments remain shielded from the deeply ingrained practice of elite capture in Pakistan. Kakar’s geographical background further introduces intricate considerations. On the one hand, he is anticipated to safeguard the interests of both the military establishment and foreign investors, such as China, in his native Balochistan region. On the other hand, he must also address the grievances of the marginalized Baloch populace, beset by poverty, exclusion, and the unchecked exploitation of indigenous resources.
Security concerns and potential conflict
In addition, Kakar faces the challenge of countering the surging terrorism within Pakistan. This task is compounded by the lack of a consistent policy toward Afghanistan, as terrorists exploit Afghan territory to launch their attacks, a claim disputed by the Afghan Taliban. Over the past year, the TTP has escalated its activities, carrying out more than 123 attacks, nearly double the count from the previous year. Complicating matters further, reports highlight an influx of young Taliban fighters into Pakistan, driven by a desire to revive the thrill of warfare after growing disenchanted during peacetime. They seek to engage in jihad alongside their Pakistani counterparts. Simultaneously, the ISKP, composed in part of former TTP militants, is rapidly expanding its influence within Pakistan.
In the midst of heightened hostility between the Pakistani Army and the Afghan Taliban, the potential execution of the Pakistan army chief’s warning of a robust military response against the Taliban regime could escalate into a full-scale conventional war between the two countries. Such a conflict would not only involve significant loss of life, financial costs, and the potential to trigger economic upheaval and a refugee crisis but also necessitate Kakar to be well prepared to avert such an occurrence or at least effectively manage its aftermath.
Kakar’s limited experience as an administrator and statesman could pose a challenge in his new role as prime minister. He will need to swiftly grasp the intricacies of governance and awaken to the reality that being Pakistan’s head of government is an exceedingly demanding role. While Kakar acknowledges the magnitude of challenges he is bound to confront and is dedicated to realizing his vision of a stable, secure, and democratic Pakistan, the true extent of his success in transforming this aspiration into reality will only become clear over time.
At present, it is premature to predict whether Prime Minister Kakar and his federal cabinet, comprising 24 members largely affiliated with the Pakistan Muslim League-N and the Pakistan People’s Party and having close ties to the military establishment, will replicate the practices of the preceding PDM government. Pakistan’s historical governance patterns, however, reveal a tendency to defer or postpone addressing crises, leaving them unresolved for the next administration. The question remains whether Kakar can disrupt this cycle of crisis postponement in Pakistan.
Naad-e-Ali Sulehria has over five years of involvement working with international organizations and think tanks in different capacities as a political researcher, policy advisor, peace strategist, and human rights practitioner. He currently serves as a Research Assistant to Dr. Marvin G. Weinbaum, Director for Pakistan and Afghanistan Studies at the Middle East Institute.
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