Malicious marionettism

Post-election political developments in Pakistan reflect a scenario where the military dispensation controls the making and functioning of the civilian government — presenting an indirect risk of balkanisation

Malicious marionettism

It appears that after two weeks of the general elections in Pakistan, where no single party has won a majority, the political rivals of Pakistan’s imprisoned former Prime Minister Imran Khan announced details of a power-sharing agreement on late Tuesday (February 21). The announcement followed days of talks among the leadership of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and other parties that did not gain enough seats in the February 8 election. Candidates aligned with Imran Khan won the most number of seats (93 out of 265), but it was not enough to form a government. PML and PPP won 75 and 54 seats respectively.

Two old political dynasties of Pakistan — Bhuttos and Sharifs — have agreed to share power to keep Imran Khan, who is not favoured by the army Chief General Asim Munir, out of political power. It is stated that Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party will join in a coalition with the Sharif clan’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. Shehbaz Sharif will be prime minister while Bhutto Zardari’s father, Asif Ali Zardari, will be the president.

PML(N) leader Shehbaz Sharif thanked his allies for agreeing to choose him as their joint candidate for prime minister. Shehbaz Sharif, the younger brother of the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, is himself a former prime minister, who replaced Khan when he was ousted through a no-confidence vote in parliament in 2022. It may be recalled that after that incident, India Today, quoting the Chinese official media Global Times, commented that all-weather ties between China and Pakistan “could be better than under Khan”, following the increased prospects of Shehbaz Sharif becoming the new PM after the removal of Imran Khan. Meanwhile, Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party has asked for the resignation of the head of Pakistan’s Election Commission, reports AP News.

Global reaction

The US and European Union issued statements that raised serious concerns over the election process. “These elections included undue restrictions on freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly,” US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said. “We condemn electoral violence, restrictions on the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including attacks on media workers, and restrictions on access to the Internet and telecommunication services.” Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry subsequently said it “took note” of such statements and was “surprised by the negative tone.”

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU’s) Democracy Index 2023 report, has downgraded Pakistan from a “hybrid regime” to an “authoritarian regime”. The report highlighted that along with the intervention in the electoral process and government dysfunction, the independence of the judiciary has been severely curtailed in Pakistan.

However, China has congratulated Pakistan on the smooth and successful holding of the general elections and hoped that all parties concerned in Pakistan would work together to maintain political unity and social stability after the election and make concerted efforts to create the future of national development. In a statement issued on February 19, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson reiterated that China and Pakistan were all-weather strategic cooperative partners. China looked forward to working with the Pakistani side to continue the traditional friendship, deepen practical cooperation in various fields, accelerate building an even closer China-Pakistan community with a shared future in the new era, and better benefit the people of both countries, she said.

Increasing Chinese influence on Pakistani Military establishment

During the last couple of decades, while Pakistan’s old Cold War partner Washington has increasingly turned its focus to cooperation with India, China has leaped in to extend its influence in Pakistan — particularly through giant infrastructure projects, reports Politico. According to India’s External Affairs Minister, “Many Western countries have long preferred to supply Pakistan and not India. But that trend has changed in the past 10 or 15 years with the USA, for example, and our new purchases have diversified with the USA, Russia, France, and Israel, as the main suppliers”.

The Pakistani military, which has influenced power transitions in the country since 1947 enjoys enormous power in Pakistani politics. The Army Generals decide the fate of political leaders. The political history of Pakistan states that no Prime Minister has served for a full five-year term. The generals, who have carried out three coups so far, are the most powerful political players in Pakistan, comments The Indian Express.

The present army chief General Munir is not an exception. Like many of the previous chiefs, General Munir would want to stick around after his retirement in late 2025. According to strategy analyst C Raja Mohan, whoever comes to power, the fact remains that General Munir has put himself fully in charge of Pakistan. Analysts think that it does not really matter who Munir “selects” to run the front office as the prime minister of the government. Nonetheless, he also cautioned that General Munir’s task would be complicated by the multiple crises rocking the nation at home and the incredible dwindling of Pakistan in the region and the world.

China-Pakistan relations got a major boost when the Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Pakistan in April 2015. A few hours ahead of his scheduled touchdown in Islamabad, an op-ed titled ‘Pak-China Dosti Zindabad’ (Long Live the Pakistan-China Friendship), authored by the Chinese president, appeared in Pakistan’s Daily Times, where he described his visit as “I feel as if I am going to visit the home of my own brother”. China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a massive bilateral project to improve infrastructure within Pakistan for better trade with China and to further integrate the countries of South Asia, was launched on April 20, 2015, when Chinese president Xi Jinping and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif signed 51 agreements and memorandums of understanding valued at USD 46 billion. Since then the economic and military relationship between China and Pakistan has strengthened in every sphere.

In May 2023, the Chinese media reported that amid deepening military cooperation between the two nations in one of the world’s most complex geopolitical regions, China has delivered two frigates to Pakistan’s navy, completing a four-warship deal inked in 2018. In March 2022, China delivered the first batch of six J-10 fighter jets to Pakistan. Eight Hangor Class submarines that Pakistan ordered from China are expected to be delivered before 2028.

The most recent example of this China-Pakistan all-weather friendship was the largest-ever joint naval exercise between the Chinese and Pakistani navies held in November 2023. The Sea Guardian-3 joint maritime exercise kicked off with an opening ceremony at the Karachi Naval Dock. Participating forces from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy included the Type 052D guided missile destroyer Zibo, the Type 054A guided missile destroyers Jingzhou and Linyi. Under the common aim of jointly responding to maritime security threats, the nine-day exercise in the waters and airspace of the northern Arabian Sea was aimed to organise various naval training courses, reported Global Times.

Significantly, Army Chief General Asim Munir also enjoys full confidence of the Chinese leadership. On April 25, 2023, he arrived in China on a four-day official visit aimed at boosting bilateral defence ties. This was Munir’s fourth overseas visit since he was promoted to Army Chief in November 2022. It was reported that Munir’s visit to China was in the backdrop of mounting pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on cash-strapped Pakistan to arrange at least USD 6 billion. Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif had acknowledged General Asim Munir’s efforts towards securing financial commitments from Pakistan’s friendly countries. Due to Munir’s effort, in addition to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, China has been providing critical support to Pakistan.

Major challenges before the new government

The new government is likely to face three major challenges, namely (a) deteriorating economy and looming debt crisis, (b) Afghan refugee repatriation problem, and (c) Anti-army voters leading to political instability and balkanisation of Pakistan.

a) Deteriorating economy and looming debt crisis: Last week, The Economist published a story on Pakistan with a sensational headline — ‘Pakistan is out of friends and out of money’. On the same day, Reuters carried a story painting a gloomy picture for Pakistan in near future as a USD 3 billion programme from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) would run out next month. It also reported that Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves stood at roughly USD 8 billion which would barely cover two months of essential imports.

Though Pakistan’s debt-to-GDP ratio is around 70 per cent, it is not beyond manageable limits. India’s current debt-GDP ratio is higher than the above figure, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned that India’s debt to GDP could exceed 100 per cent in the coming years, which the Indian Central Bank has refuted.

It may be recalled that similar types of doomsday predictions were made two years ago during the Sri Lankan crisis. Fortunately, those have been proved wrong. The island economy is much more stable now. One has to bear in mind that like Sri Lanka, Pakistan is also strategically very important for China. It would not let these countries sink.

In December 2023, The Dawn reported that Pakis­tan and China have signed several memoranda of understanding (MoUs) for a hefty investment of USD 10 billion in four major export-oriented sectors, signifying a robust commitment to the country’s economic growth. The depth of cooperation between China and Pakistan can be gauged by the fact that Wang Yi, who was China’s erstwhile foreign minister and now director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission (OFAC) of the Communist Party of China (CPC), categorically stated that despite the magnitude of Pakistan’s ongoing domestic crisis, Beijing stands firmly behind Pakistani sovereignty, territorial integrity, stability, and unity.

b) The Afghan refugee repatriation problem: On October 3, 2023, the interim government of Pakistan ordered all undocumented immigrants, nearly 1.73 million Afghan nationals, to voluntarily leave the country or face deportations. As per Pakistan government’s estimate, a total of 4.4 million Afghan refugees lived in Pakistan. The government then extended the deadline of deportation till December 2023. The tension between Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan appears to be boiling over repatriation of refugees. It is reported that the Deputy Foreign Minister of Taliban Afghanistan, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, said Pakistan couldn’t enforce the Durand Line on the Pashtun tribes, and warned it of a 1971-like situation when East Pakistan declared independence. The Durand Line is the 2,640-kilometer (1,640-mile) border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s the result of an agreement between Sir Mortimer Durand, a secretary of the British Indian government, and Abdur Rahman Khan, the emir, or ruler, of Afghanistan. The agreement was signed on November 12, 1893, in Kabul, Afghanistan. It was signed before the formation of Pakistan in 1947.

c) Anti-army democratic movement may lead to political instability and balkanisation of Pakistan: On 8 February 2024, nearly 33 million citizens voted against the country’s military establishment for electing the former Prime Minister Imran Khan, despite his convictions for corruption. In June 2023, following his chaotic removal from power, Imran Khan warned of a turbulent future for Pakistan, talking about a breakup of the country into three parts.

v The Pakistani province most associated with separatism is Balochistan. This province has seen some form of armed insurgency against the Islamabad government since 1948.

v Pakistan’s second most vulnerable region, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, has had its own separatism and militancy issues. It is the Pashtun-dominated province of Pakistan, an ethnicity which also dominates most of Afghanistan.

v In addition to these, the Islamabad capital region is divided between the Punjab Province and Sindh Province.


Pakistan and Myanmar — the two Indian neighbours along the Western and Eastern borders respectively — have a few similarities. Both the countries have pro-Chinese undemocratic political establishments. Army is very powerful and exercises control on political parties. At the same time, democratic environments are almost non-existent in these countries.

More significantly, the political elites of both the nations have marginalised

the ethnic minorities who are now challenging the autocratic rulers. If corrective measures are not initiated immediately, balkanisation of Pakistan and Myanmar is inevitable. Creation of Bangladesh in 1971 is a case in point. Hope, Indian political elites would also learn from the neighbours’ mistakes.

Views expressed are personal

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