A crucial set of by-elections for 20 vacant seats in the Assembly of Pakistan’s Punjab province will be held on 17 July. Its results will have a critical bearing on the continuance of the government of Chief Minister Hamza Sharif. As Punjab is the country’s most important province by far, including politically, a fall of Hamza’s government will have a direct bearing on the medium-term prospects of the position of Hamza’s father, Shehbaz Sharif, as prime minister.
Hamza was sworn in as the province’s chief minister on 30 April 2022 in the wake of prime minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan-Tehreek-Insaf (PTI) government’s departure earlier in April. That occurred because a number of his alliance partners shifted their support to the Opposition alliance consisting of the country’s principal parties — the Pakistan Muslim League (N), the Pakistan Peoples Party and Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F). After weeks of political drama, often reduced to a farce, and with the direct intervention of the country’s judiciary, and behind the scenes activity of the army — which it continues to deny — Imran Khan had to go and Shehbaz Sharif, president of the PML (N), took over as prime minister.
The fall of the Imran Khan government precipitated the defection of 25 PTI members of the Punjab Assembly. That destabilised the PTI-led coalition Punjab government. Despite Khan’s manoeuvrings and violence in the Assembly which necessitated an unprecedented entry of the police into the Assembly building, the government fell. Hamza was elected chief minister with the support of the PTI defectors. However, the Pakistan Supreme Court later declared that the votes of the defected members would not be counted and the Pakistan Election Commission unseated them for defying the party whip. Of the 25 there were 5 who were nominated; hence, elections are being held for 20 seats. The PML (N) needs to win around 15 of these seats to go through the trial.
Imran Khan has not gone into the shadows after his ouster. He has continued to call the Shehbaz Sharif government an imported one, though his attacks on the US have softened. While he has professed faith in the army as an institution, his followers are busy levelling charges of its continued interference in politics. Other observers too in Pakistan are doing the same. In this context, Ayaz Amir, a veteran journalist, created strong ripples while addressing a symposium on 1 July on the issue of regime change.
In the presence of Imran Khan, Ayaz Amir, who is a retired army officer and has also been both a member of the National and the Punjab Provincial Assemblies, trained his guns on his former institution as well as Khan. He said that the April regime change was not engineered by foreign powers nor by Opposition leaders, though they were willing accomplices. It was the handiwork of a few generals. He was also very critical of the army’s involvement in land deals and implied that it had really become a property dealer.
The fact is that the Pakistan Army’s involvement in the economic life of Pakistan, including in land for building housing for its officers and men, has always generated enormous unhappiness about the force. However, the people tolerate it because of their belief that the army is needed to defend the country from India, the perpetual enemy. That is a message which the army constantly reinforces in popular perception.
Significantly, Ayaz Amir also criticised Khan’s decision to extend Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. He said that it was the vain belief of the prime ministers that if the army chief and they were in accord they would be politically safe. It is true that Imran Khan went about claiming that the army and he were on the same page. It is also true that the army propped up Khan and ensured that he succeeded in the 2018 elections against Sharif. However, last year Bajwa and Khan fell out over the appointment of the Director-General of the ISI. Since then it became increasingly clear that the army would not allow Khan to be prime minister when the appointment of the next chief is to be decided. That will be due in November this year, when Bajwa’s extended term ends. He has said that he will retire then. The army simply does not trust Khan.
For its part the army is presently trying its best to show that it is “apolitical” and not intervening in the political process. It has also appealed to the media and the political class not to project that it is involved in politics. The army has also signalled that it will not take any sides in the Punjab Assembly by-elections. This is obviously in response to PTI charges that the army is trying to ensure the defeat of PTI candidates in the 17 July by-elections. The fact is that the army’s decades long track record of intervening in the political process makes it impossible for anyone in Pakistan or outside to believe that it has changed its spots. A sign of this was seen when Ayaz Amir was attacked by unrecognised persons a day after his remarks at the symposium. In the past journalists who made anti-army comments have been threatened and assaulted. So, it is obvious that an enraged institution sent a message to one who was once their own.
If PML (N) succeeds in getting a sufficient number of provincial Assembly seats on 17 July so that Hamza wins the chief ministerial re-election now slated for 22 July, Shehbaz Sharif would get somewhat stabilised. There are already strains emerging in the coalition he leads. The current Pakistani government is also facing public unhappiness because of the tough economic decisions it has had to take under IMF pressures. Fuel prices have gone up very substantially because Shehbaz has had to do away with the subsidies that Khan had imprudently put in place.
In addition, the Pakistani rupee has greatly weakened and food inflation has also sharply gone up. All this has meant that Khan continues to be in the game and commentators like Ayaz Amir are hailing him for showing grit. Khan is going on a week-long tour of the Punjab to gain support for the by-elections. Khan’s core support base also remains largely intact. PML (N) has a job on hand. Whatever it may claim, suspicions of the Army helping the party from behind the scenes will continue.
Much rides on the 17 July by-election. If the PTI succeeds in ousting Hamza, the army will have to actively try to keep Shehbaz afloat for the next four to five months so that he appoints Bajwa’s successor. In truth, the Pakistan Army cannot shed its political role. It is more likely that it really does not want to.
The writer is a former Indian diplomat who served as India’s Ambassador to Afghanistan and Myanmar, and as secretary, the Ministry of External Affairs. Views expressed are personal.