Analyst Michael Kugelman tells DW that while the Pakistani military does not want former PM Nawaz Sharif’s party to win another term, it is also not very comfortable with the other possible post-election scenarios.
DW: How do you see the role of Pakistan’s military establishment ahead of the July 25 general elections?
Michael Kugelman: The military is not at all comfortable with the prospect of the PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League of former PM Nawaz Sharif) winning another term. It clashed repeatedly with the PML-N over the last five years, so the military will have a strong motivation to use its influence behind the scenes to undercut the PML-N’s electoral prospects.
This narrative is not as clear-cut as it may seem, however. Sharif’s party has already benefited, in a way, from perceptions of military meddling. Top PML-N leaders have indirectly blamed the military for the party’s legal travails. In other words, the PML-N has used a victimization narrative to garner sympathy.
Additionally, while the military certainly has its concerns about the PML-N returning to power, personalities matter. If the PML-N leads the next government, Shahbaz Sharif would likely be premier. Shahbaz Sharif has a much better relationship with the military than does his elder brother Nawaz.
The bottom line is that there are plenty of reasons for the military to be doing things behind the scenes to hurt the PML-N’s electoral chances. But at the same time, the political context is complicated, and we should be cautious in our speculations.
Is a military takeover a possibility?
This is unlikely. The only scenario I can think of under which the military could step in is if the various parties are unable to form a government, and you start having an extended period of paralysis with no end in sight. In that case, the military could conceivably seize power and claim it was doing so for the good of the country.
Another potential problematic scenario would be if the PML-N wins another simple majority, and the PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, headed by Imran Khan) lambasts the outcome as a huge electoral fraud, and then its members take to the streets in mass numbers and the protests lead to violence over an extended period of time. In this case, the military may step in.
I do think, however, that both outcomes are unlikely. Democratization in Pakistan has progressed to the point where it would take a really serious and unlikely trigger for the army to step in. And given how democracy, on procedural levels, has been relatively smooth in Pakistan over the last decade, I’m fairly optimistic that we won’t have to worry about a military takeover anytime in the foreseeable future.
Can a military-backed government be stable?
It’s true that a civilian administration that doesn’t pick fights with the military will have fewer internal challenges to deal with than would a government that resists the military. Indeed, perhaps one reason why Asif Ali Zardari (co-chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party)—no close friend of the army—was able to serve out his entire term as Pakistani president from 2008 to 2013 is that he didn’t try to pick major fights with the military.
This suggests that if the election produces a new government led by the PTI, which enjoys more cordial ties to the military than does the PML-N, then the civilian administration won’t have to worry about efforts to undercut it. And yet, the story isn’t as simple as it may seem.
While the PTI has good relations with the establishment, I’m not so sure the establishment would be fully comfortable about the idea of a Prime Minister Imran Khan. In fact, given some of Khan’s actions over recent years—from his bizarre and rambling speeches during an anti-government protest in 2014 to his stubborn insistence on holding peace talks with Pakistani Taliban terrorists even as they were butchering children—the establishment may view him more as an unpredictable loose cannon than as a pliable ally.
Who would India and Afghanistan prefer to see as Pakistan’s next prime minister?
New Delhi and Kabul were sympathetic to Sharif’s government, which in its earlier days in power in 2013 and 2014, before the military began undercutting it, demonstrated a clear intention to improve Pakistan’s relations with its two neighbors. However, both India and Afghanistan—like the United States and all of Pakistan’s other key interlocutors—recognize that the military, not the civilian leadership, calls the shots on foreign policy. So in this regard, Pakistan’s neighbors will likely be nervous no matter what the next government looks like, given that the military—which over the years has provided support to terrorists that attack both India and Afghanistan—will remain powerful and still ascendant.
For New Delhi and Kabul, the key thing to watch will be the messaging coming from the military about how it views relations with its neighbors. If recent weeks are any indication, then there’s reason to hope that relations with Kabul—where Pakistan’s army chief recently paid a visit—could experience some improvements, while relations with New Delhi will remain in a stalemate. Additionally, both India and Afghanistan are scheduled to have their own elections in the next year, and the composition of their new governments could have some influence on the thinking of the Pakistani military.
What are the major US apprehensions about Pakistan’s post-election political setup?
For the US and other Western powers, the chief concerns in Pakistan are stability and a government that they can work with. There are tradeoffs here. While a PML-N-led government would be easier to work with than would be a PTI-led government, which has taken more stridently anti-US and anti-West positions, a PML-N-led government would also likely be less stable internally because of expected spats with the military. At the same time, regardless of the future political set up, the military will remain the most powerful actor, and it is the military’s destabilizing policies—including its continued support for militant groups that stage attacks in India and Afghanistan—that worry the West the most.
In the end, the US and the rest of the West will be able to live with whatever Pakistan’s next government turns out to be, but their longstanding concerns about stability in a nation as volatile as Pakistan will remain firmly in place.
Michael Kugelman is a senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.