Is Pakistan Army unhappy with PM Imran Khan over limping economy, high consumer prices and corruption? In a report by Bloomberg, the media house claims that Imran Khan is losing influence and popularity as the Pakistan Army looks to tighten control over the country.
The media house writes that experts have long seen Pakistan army backing as significant for Imran Khan’s party, which holds 46% of seats in the parliament, to hold together a government that depends on various smaller coalition political outfits partners to stay in power.
The Pakistan army is the most powerful organisation in the country and has directly or indirectly controlled the Islamic Republic over for most parts of its seven-decade history.
By primarily selecting Pakistan army officials in key posts in the government, Islamabad is ceding what little space civilians had in nations policy building, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said by phone to Bloomberg.
Many in Pakistan can see the transformation during government COVID-19 announcements on state television, in which Pakistan army officers are seen supporting the government’s pandemic response.
Retired lieutenant general Asim Saleem Bajwa is now Imran Khan’s communication adviser and also manages China’s Belt-and-Road Initiative program in the country called China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor.
At least 12 Pakistan army patriots in the cabinet also took part in General Pervez Musharraf’s government. That includes Interior Minister Ijaz Shah and Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, Khan’s finance adviser.
The increasing involvement of army even has the support of civilian government advisers such as Zaigham Rizvi, member of Naya Pakistan Housing Programme taskforce in charge of running Imran Khan’s key economic project of constructing low-cost houses.
“There was a feeling that if we give the bulk leadership to the army, the army has a good system,” said Rizvi, a World Bank housing expert. “They (Pakistan Army) gets things done.”
PM Imran Khan has long rejected assertions that he was too close to Pakistan army, saying in 2017 ahead of his election win that any assumption that he’s an army stooge was a “bizarre conspiracy.” Last year he told local media “the army is standing with me.”
Yet economic crisis from the COVID-19 pandemic is again mounting unease in the country. Pakistan is the most infected nation in Asia after India, with more than 108,000 coronavirus cases and about 2,200 deaths.
The economy is projected to shrink for the first time in 68 years, with the central bank anticipating the economy to contract 1.5 per cent in the year ending June. The Islamic Republic received an emergency loan of $1.4 b from the IMF in April and is among the nations begging for debt relief.
Questions over the Pakistan army’s role in running the government came to the fore when coronavirus started increasing in March. While Imran Khan addressed the nation and recommended people to stay calm, it was the army spokesman who declared the lockdown the next day.
Most of the press statements from the nations’ virus nerve center, chaired by Planning Minister Asad Umar, are provided by the army’s media wing – complete with its byline and logo.
On March 24, Imran Khan was visibly upset when journalists asked him “who is in charge here?” Even though there was no direct reference to the Pakistan army, he threatened to leave the conference.
Imran Khan’s premiership is expected to diminish as Pakistan army officers, as well as army-backed political delegates, assume more control, Bloomberg quoted said Arif Rafiq from a risk advisory firm focused on the Middle East and South Asia. He emphasized that Imran Khan will come under more pressure as Pakistan’s economic crisis mounts.
The Pakistan army has flagged its displeasure with Imran Khan’s handling of the COVID-19 lockdowns – there are also signs that the army has not been satisfied with the handling of the CPEC as well as governance in Punjab,” Rafiq said. We’ve seen the chief military spokesman brazenly advocate for a stringent lockdown and a retired army officer take charge as a government spokesperson and top CPEC official.
The Pakistan army last year had already begun taking a more aggressive role in policymaking beyond with Pakistan army COAS – Chief Bajwa meeting top business leaders privately to explore possibilities of boosting the crumbling economy.
Pakistan’s parliament also approved a law in January giving General Bajwa a three-year extension starting and he was also made a member of a government’s economic board.
While many democratic governments appoint retired military officers, it becomes a problem if the civilian administration is not in control, Bloomberg quoted Michael Kugelman, a Washington, D.C. based South Asia senior associate at The Wilson Centre.
“And herein lies the risk to democracy,” he said. “If retired generals are more influenced by their former bosses than by their current bosses, then democracy is not being properly served.”