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In nuclear-armed Pakistan, its ISI 'Deep State' rules; Actual winner of disputed election sits in jail

Imran Khan supporters at a rally in Karachi before the recent elections.
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By John J. Metzler, February 19, 2024

Pakistan is politically on the brink again in the aftermath of fractious and inconclusive national parliamentary elections which ended with a wavering question mark hanging over this land of 241 million people like a political Damocles sword. Two former prime ministers, both of whom are bitter rivals and equally mired in alleged corruption, were vying for the top spot.

Personality politics and regionalism remains a powerful force in this Muslim land created through the partition of India in 1947; A gaggle of political parties, colorful personalities and scions of family dynasties all compete in a contentious political landscape.

Yet the Pakistan Army remains the ultimate kingmaker. A Pakistani blogger jested:
The Pakistani Army has Never won a war, but Never lost an election.
The quip reflected Pakistan’s three lost conflicts with neighboring India over the disputed Kashmir region.

Imran Khan remains a wildly popular populist whose PTI party or Pakistan Movement for Justice would have likely won the parliamentary elections. Actually, he did, given that his barred candidates running as “independents” scored 93 seats beating the government party.

Pakistan’s military backed the Sharif government in what appeared a slam dunk to win the elections. After all the country’s most popular figure Imran Khan was jailed by the government on a plethora of trumped-up politicized charges and thus barred from running. Khan, a former world-ranked cricketer, and London playboy, turned to politics founding the PTI.

Following the inconclusive election results, Chief of the military General Asim Munir called on all parties to “show maturity and unity,” saying “Elections are not a zero-sum competition of winning and losing but an exercise to determine the mandate of the people.”

The election delivers a major political upset driven by an anti-establishment vote, a younger societal disenchantment, and genuine concerns about vote rigging and government shutdown of phone and internet services on election day. The United States, UK and EU expressed concerns about the election’s fairness.

But now there’s more wrangling as the politicians try to form a coalition government in Islamabad, the capital. Yet the shadows of the men in uniform, who historically ruled this land for nearly half its national existence, are very much in evidence even on the brightest day.

Forming a coalition needs a simple majority of 169 seats in the National Assembly.

Nawaz Sharif, (73) a three time former Prime Minister ousted for corruption in 2018, returned from a four year exile in London and leads the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N); His party only won 75 seats. After the loss, his brother Shehbaz will instead be Prime Minister.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) got 54 seats and will join Sharif in forming a coalition government. Bilawal Bhutto is the son of assassinated Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Imran Khan, (71) the winner of the last national 2018 elections, was forced out of office by a no-confidence vote in 2022. But despite his popularity, he sits in jail. Nonetheless Khan remains the most charismatic politician in Pakistan, as the unrelenting political allegations and a plethora of charges thrown at him have energized his popularity and political support. Among the charges and court cases against him revolve about “leaking classified state documents” gifts his wife received while he was in office, and “corruption” for which he’s serving a jail term.

Khan, a populist politician, is prone to sometimes outrageous antics to get attention. This writer saw him at a UN press conference a few years ago where, as Prime Minister, he railed against India and predicted a major uprising in the contested Kashmir region.

Do these events half a world away echo a strange resonance as the U.S. approaches elections in November?

But beyond chronic political infighting, Pakistan stands on the precipice of economic disaster, entrenched youth unemployment, and violent spillover from neighboring Afghanistan.

Nonetheless Pakistan’s political polestars remain its close ties to China and perpetual hostility towards India.

The army has been described by pundits as “a state within a state,” and it has influenced national politics since Pakistan gained independence from Britain in 1947.

Indeed, within the military there’s the ISI intelligence network which runs a shadow government … the ultimate Deep State, which has played a decidedly double game backing various Taliban factions during and after the Afghan war.

Equally Pakistan remains a nuclear armed state as is India. The long-running confrontation with India concerning Kashmir remains a short fuse leading to a wider conflict.

What does this mean for the United States? So much to anyone paying attention.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]
imran by is licensed under Video Image BBC

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