PTI-Judiciary vs govt-establishment | By Naveed Aman Khan


PTI-Judiciary vs govt-establishment

POLITICS will consume much of Pakistan’s time and attention in 2023, as it did in 2022. The country’s turn to political instability last spring did not end with a dramatic no-confidence vote in parliament last April that ousted Imran Khan from office. Instability and polarization have only heightened since then: Imran has led a violent opposition movement against the incumbent coalition government and the military, staging a series of large rallies across the country through the year. The struggle for power in Pakistan continues into 2023. While the incumbent government has not ceded to Imran’s demand for early elections, country-wide elections are constitutionally mandated to be held by October this year. It benefits the government politically to hold them off as long as it possibly can as it tries to dig itself out of Pakistan’s urgent economic crisis and its lacklustre domestic performance.

PTI still controls government in Gilgit Baltistan. The year 2023 is on to a dramatic continuation, with Imran’s party initiating the process to dissolve the Punjab and KP assemblies to pressurize the federal government into early elections. For politics-obsessed Pakistan, the biggest question remains who will win the next general election. Will former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif return to Pakistan to run as the head of his party, the PML-N? Can Imran Khan win on the strength and support from bench, despite his serious confrontation with the military? Regardless of the outcome, we can say this much given the history of the main contenders: The direction of the country is unlikely to change. A precarious economic situation is terrifying.

Pakistan may end up avoiding default for the time being with IMF help and loans from friendly countries, especially Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations. None of Pakistan’s political parties seem to have the political will or ability to bring about such a change. Pakistan must pay back $73 billion by 2025; it won’t be able to do so without debt restructuring. The TTP, the terrorist group responsible for killing tens of thousands of Pakistanis from 2007 to date, have been emboldened – predictably so – by a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, and once again pose a threat to Pakistan, albeit in a geographically limited region. The group engaged in at least 150 attacks in Pakistan last year, mostly in the northwest.

The TTP have sanctuary in Afghanistan, the Pakistani state increasingly finds itself out of options when it comes to dealing effectively with the group. The state’s negotiations with the TTP have failed, as they are bound to, because the group is fundamentally opposed to the notion of the Pakistani state and constitution as it exists today. The Afghan Taliban have, unsurprisingly, also not proved to be of help in dealing with the TTP – and Pakistan’s relations with the Afghan Taliban have deteriorated significantly at the same time over other issues, including the border dividing the two countries.

Pakistan’s first preference will be to strike kinetically at TTP targets within its borders, but that will be limited by TTP movement across the border into Afghanistan. That movement is what leaves Pakistan with the difficult-to-resolve TTP issue and complicates things beyond the military operation it launched against the group in 2014. Still, the Pakistani Taliban at this point is not the biggest threat Pakistan faces, given the country’s major political and economic challenges — but left unchecked, it could morph into a significant crisis.

Pakistan has a new chief of army staff as of November 29 last year. General Asim Munir replaced General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who had held the all-powerful post for six years due to a three-year extension. The appointment of the army chief was a subject of considerable political contention last year; a major part of the reason Imran was ousted from power was his falling out with the military on questions over the appointments of top army officials including that of ISI Chief General Nadeem Anjum.

All eyes are now on how govt-military relations and PTI – judiciary shape up under General Asim Munir and Chief Justice Bandial ahead. Earlier under Bajwa, the military solidified its control over all manner of policy behind the scenes. Bajwa presided over a close “same-page” relationship with Imran; when that frayed, the PML-N was eager to take Imran’s place as the military’s ally and head of the civilian government. Bajwa left office saying the army would no longer be involved in political matters; few in Pakistan believe him.

Bajwa announced that military establishment will remain neutral ahead but judiciary didn’t announce that it would be neutral onwards. Will not the judiciary go neutral? With politics set to dominate the agenda this year and an election imminent, General Asim Munir has a chance to show the country whether he will follow in his predecessor’s footsteps, or chart a new course for civil-military and civil -judiciary relations in Pakistan. Pakistan’s history indicates the former.

—The writer is editor, book ambassador, political analyst and author of several books based in Islamabad.

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