Even more than in previous instances, the July elections in Pakistan were swayed by the army, a veritable state within the state. The country has experienced three military coups since its independence, which allowed the army to govern the country for some thirty years altogether. Ten years ago, the military vacated centre stage, allowing the formation of civilian governments after elections often tainted by irregularities. The vote in 2008 brought about a two-stage democratic transition. The first phase was when the Pakistan People’s Party won the general elections owing to the wave of sympathy caused by Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. The second phase was in August 2008 when General Musharraf yielded the presidency to Benazir’s widower, Asif Zardari. Five years later, for the first time in its history, Pakistan saw not only a democratically elected government remain in office to the end of its term, but also a transfer of political power, with Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League, or PML(N), taking over from the PPP.
The deepening of the democratic process could not fail to indispose the army, referred to obliquely as “the Establishment.” The entrenchment of a civilian power legitimated by elections not only overshadowed it, some civilian leaders also sought to conduct their own policies, particularly toward India. Zardari, for instance, offered to work with New Delhi in the investigation of the Mumbai attacks in 2008, but soon backpedalled after the army signalled its disapproval. Nawaz Sharif, paradoxically, proved less docile. While the businessman owed his political career to the Establishment, he sought to free himself of its patronage in the late 1990s. As prime minister in 1997–9, he attempted to make peace with India, convinced not only that Pakistan was fighting a losing battle in the arms race but also that the country’s economy stood everything to gain by trading with its neighbour. He revived this strategy on returning to office in 2013, as evidenced by his meetings in 2014 and 2015 with his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi.
Hostile toward normalising relations with India, which would amount to confirming the partition of Kashmir and partly deprive the military of its raison d’être—and hence, of parts of its huge budget—the army has repeatedly managed to derail these so-called peace talks. It also did its best to get rid of Sharif. The Panama Papers, which revealed the existence of eight offshore companies in the name of his family, did much to advance the army’s cause, as the courts not only expedited the case but enlisted the military’s help with the inquiry: the Joint Investigation Team formed at the behest of the Supreme Court included two representatives from the Establishment. On the basis of the JIT’s report, the Supreme Court ruled that Sharif had violated articles 62 and 63 of the constitution, which require officeholders to be “truthful” and “trustworthy.” Sharif was disqualified from holding public office and convicted of corruption. But who was to replace him?
Prima facie, it would have been easier for the army to take control directly, but it has denied itself that possibility for the past ten years. First, military coups are often costly in terms of international sanctions, something the country cannot afford. Pakistan, which goes from one IMF loan to the next, is dependent on external bankrollers. Imran Khan or his finance minister will have to hold out his begging bowl very soon, as Sharif did after he was sworn into office five years ago. Second, the military leadership has drawn a very mixed assessment of General Musharraf’s tenure from 1999 to 2008—governing also involves managing a deficit-bound economy and a society fraught with a host of tensions. Rather than get its hands dirty, the army sought a civilian leader, which would enable it to remain above the fray but in control of the issues it cares most about, such as the country’s policy toward India, Afghanistan and China, with which Pakistan has undertaken a huge 62-billion-dollar infrastructure project, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. The army and civilian rulers both claim the project as their brainchild and want to benefit from it.
The army needed someone who not only shared some of its ideas, but also enjoyed enough popularity to be elected, to please those watching abroad, as well as satisfy the Pakistanis’ own aspirations for political freedom. For over the past seventy years in Pakistan, there has been an underlying tension between a desire for a strong state offering security from the so-called Indian threat, which explains the weight of the army, and a thirst for democracy, which explains why the army has never managed to establish a lasting dictatorship. Imran Khan emerged as the only possible candidate, even if his erratic temperament ensured he did not offer all the necessary safeguards.