The first clear signs of the hybrid regime in Pakistan crumbling come from the resounding defeat of the ruling party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) in local elections in party leader Imran Khan’s backyard, Khyber Pakhtunkhawa. This was a defeat which Khan had feared but not expected in KP since his relationship began to sour with the military establishment early this year.
Prime Minister Imran Khan, whose ascendancy to the Islamabad throne was made possible by the army, especially the ISI, had not thought the military would pull the rug under his feet in a critical local election. But the army quietly looked the other way and let the pins falls on the PTI candidates. This is the second round of the battle between partners of the hybrid regime.
In the first, Imran Khan had shown the military down by deliberately delaying the announcement of the appointment of ISI chief. The Army chief wanted a change in who heads the ISI early this year. The army declared Lt Gen Nadeem Ahmed Anjum as the new ISI chief whereas Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, who had helped Imran Khan to win the electoral battles on behalf of the army, was moved out as Peshawar corps commander. Imran Khan sat on the Army chief’s recommendation till rumours and conspiracy theories became thick enough to be cut with a blunt knife. Khan mulled all the options—to reject the army chief’s recommendations or to accept it. He chose the third option—delay the official declaration. It showed he was no longer in the same books as General Javed Bajwa. The army took the insult and kept quiet.
The army played its hand in the KP elections. There could be several reason for the PTI to get such a drubbing on the ground, but one remains the key to the game, the army’s decision to stay off any of the tricks which it deployed in the 2018 elections. This `hands off` policy left PTI candidates to fight on their own and lose badly.
What worries Imran Khan now is the upcoming local elections in Punjab. It is due early next year and results in Punjab will set the ball rolling for the big elections in 2023. The army can play a big role in the Punjab elections, and if it does, the stage is set for a final showdown between the partners. The third round of the tussle will tell who wins in the end.
Imran Khan is not going to give up his position so easily. He has instructed his men and ministers to be in Islamabad for the next three months. He has already declared his bugle over Punjab elections, taking up the charge on his shoulders. He has also pushed the main rival, Nawaz Sharif’s PMLN, to the edge with real and trumped up cases. Now the army is going to keep its hands off –not help the PTI in future elections. Nawaz Sharif in London has already made reconciliatory noises towards the Generals and has reportedly promised not to take up unpalatable subjects like India.
Unless Imran Khan kow-tows to the Generals, the fight within the hybrid regime will continue till it collapses. It is clear the New Year will witness interesting games in Pakistan, starting with the elections in Punjab, even as the country remains on the precipice of drowning in rising radicalism and financial debts.