A five-year parliamentary term just concluded in Pakistan, marking the third such term since the country's 2008 transition from military rule. These past five years were marred by domestic political tumult and an outsized — at times decisive — military role in politics. During this period, Pakistan witnessed two ruling coalitions with different prime ministers: the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and allied parties from August 2018 to April 2022, followed by the Shehbaz Sharif-led Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) and allies from April 2022 until this week. Top political leaders also faced legal issues — most recently, Khan was convicted for improper disclosure of selling state gifts and disqualified from contesting the election. These years of turbulent domestic politics significantly affected Pakistan's foreign relations while adversely impacting the country’s economy and security.

Security forces outside Parliament in Islamabad, Pakistan ahead of a no-confidence vote against Prime Minister Imran Khan, on Saturday, April 9, 2022. (Saiyna Bashir/The New York Times)
Security forces outside Parliament in Islamabad, Pakistan ahead of a no-confidence vote against Prime Minister Imran Khan, on Saturday, April 9, 2022. (Saiyna Bashir/The New York Times)

A Legitimacy Crisis, Complex Civilian-Military Relations and Political Turmoil

The entire 2018-2023 parliamentary term was marked by questions of domestic political legitimacy and near-constant reports of the military’s behind-the-scenes meddling in political affairs and governance, leading many analysts to label the political order in the country as a hybrid regime. The 2018 elections — marred by complaints of the military tilting the electoral playing field in favor of the PTI — cast a shadow over the first three years creating a crisis of legitimacy for the PTI coalition government. After the election, the military threw its weight behind Khan — in what many in Pakistan referred to as the “same page” era between the military and civilian leadership.

Yet halfway through the parliamentary term, the country landed in a consequential civilian-military drama due to a falling out between Khan and then Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa over the appointment of the chief of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI). Khan wanted incumbent Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed to continue while Bajwa wanted him replaced. After the standoff was resolved, the military began to pull back its behind-the-scenes support. This allowed the opposition to coalesce and strike against Khan through a vote of no-confidence leading to his removal as prime minister in April 2022.

After Khan was removed, he launched a nationwide protest movement, accusing Bajwa of removing his government in a regime change conspiracy with the United States government. Khan demanded an election while also pushing for the elevation of former ISI chief Hameed to replace Bawja as the army chief after his retirement. This brought the most significant challenge to Pakistani military cohesion in its modern history. In late 2022, when the incumbent government passed over Hameed in favor of General Asim Munir, Khan trained his guns on Munir, attempting to discredit him as beholden to the ruling PML-N in a bid to pressure him to push out the ruling coalition and force a swift election.

Amid Khan’s demands, rumors abounded that some in the military and its networks — including senior generals — were, in fact, siding with Khan. These concerns came to a head on May 9 when Khan was arrested by Pakistani paramilitary forces on charges issued by Pakistan’s anti-corruption body. PTI activists and supporters responded by attacking military installations across the country. Outgoing Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif alleged that attack was a pre-planned conspiracy involving serving military officers to trigger a revolt from within. The military also announced punishments for a few dozen military officers, including senior generals.

Ultimately, as the parliamentary term drew to a close, Munir appeared to have averted a breakdown in military cohesion. He not only consolidated control over the army, but also signaled that the PTI would be held accountable for the violence carried out on May 9. Munir also maintained the military’s various prerogatives on policy issues, emerging as the most powerful political player in the country.

Foreign Relations Amid Domestic Political Tumult

Pakistan’s turbulent domestic politics has complicated its relationship with China, the United States and its neighbors.

Relations with China were strained at the start of the parliamentary period. Prior to the 2018 election, Khan and the PTI were critical of projects in the Pakistan portion of the Belt and Road Initiative, called the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). After the election, a senior PTI minister publicly complained about the preferential treatment given to China by the previous government and announced intentions to renegotiate CPEC projects. Beijing also indicated a preference for the PML-N over Khan. This lack of trust hindered the progress of CPEC projects. The change in government in 2022 somewhat alleviated Chinese concerns, leading Beijing to provide critical financing to the Sharif-led government. However, persistent domestic political tensions in Pakistan continued to worry the Chinese government toward the end of the parliamentary term. During his visit to Pakistan in May, former Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang publicly expressed concern over Pakistan’s domestic political situation and urged Pakistani leadership to set aside their political differences for the sake of economic progress.

With the United States, Pakistan’s military retained its pivotal role in the relationship. But from Washington’s standpoint, bilateral ties were deteriorating due to Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban, deepening alignment with China and concerns about its support for various terrorist groups. But Pakistan’s domestic politics also put pressure on the relationship. As the United States approached its withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, Khan alleged that he had said “absolutely not” to an American demand for drone bases in Pakistan, an assertion that was refuted by the U.S. government and the Pakistani military. Khan’s assertion that the Biden administration had collaborated with Bajwa to bring about a regime change — based on an alleged diplomatic cable to Islamabad from Pakistan’s ambassador to United States summarizing a meeting with a senior State Department official, which was leaked to The Intercept — as punishment for his trip to Moscow on the eve of Ukraine’s invasion did not help matters.

Tensions in the U.S-Pakistan relationship eased when the Sharif government took over. However, skepticism of Washington and anti-American sentiment remained a powerful tool for Pakistani politicians. For example, in a deadlock during IMF negotiations in 2023, Pakistan's finance minister, Ishaq Dar, suggested that the United States was obstructing the IMF to punish Islamabad for relations with China and to coerce Pakistan into abandoning its long-range missile program.

During the last parliamentary term, contrary to Pakistani history of the military blocking rapprochement with rival India, the army wanted a thaw in ties with India, but political leaders appeared reluctant to move forward. Initially Khan and Bajwa aligned in their approach toward India. When a terrorist attack in Indian-administered Kashmir’s Pulwama region occurred, India conducted cross-border airstrikes into Pakistan. Khan and Bajwa sanctioned a military show of force in retaliation — driven partly by a shared desire to signal resolve.

During the ensuing conflict, Pakistan shot down an Indian fighter jet and captured its pilot, which caused a nuclear scare between the two nations, but Khan and Bajwa quickly moved to diffuse tensions by releasing the captured pilot. That year, after India revoked the autonomy of the erstwhile Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir, Khan embarked on an international diplomatic campaign to pressure India to reverse its decision. He also adopted strong public stances against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, personally attacking him on Twitter. Yet when Bajwa pushed for the opening of a corridor of access for Sikh pilgrims to a temple in Pakistan in 2019 and revived a cease-fire with India along the Line of Control in early 2021, Khan appeared to back both initiatives.

Later in Khan’s term, concerns about domestic political backlash hindered a fleeting opportunity for reconciliation with India, which damaged civilian-military relations. In 2021, Bajwa aimed to normalize relations through a backchannel with the Indian government by inviting Modi to visit Pakistan and revive trade, but Khan scuttled the planned trip and trade reopening, demanding that India first take steps to reverse the revoking of Kashmir’s autonomy. Reportedly Khan and his advisors worried that reconciliation with India without reversing the move on Kashmir would lead to accusations of betrayal of Pakistan’s Kashmir cause. Concerns about appearing weak on India persisted during the Sharif government's short tenure and its fragile political standing, including in the eyes of New Delhi, prevented substantial initiatives.

How Domestic Politics Undermined the Economy and Security

Pakistan experienced a major economic downturn in the last five years: its GDP per capita stunted around $1600; unemployment increased from around 4% in 2018 to nearly 8% in 2023; inflation hit a 50-year high; and the country’s foreign exchange reserves also dropped precipitously.

This deterioration had multiple causes, but domestic politics played a major role. For example, after assuming office, Khan refused to seek an IMF assistance program despite a spiraling balance of payments problem because he had campaigned against going to the IMF in the election. When he finally agreed to enter an IMF program in 2019, he evaded critical reforms — such as expanding the country’s woefully narrow tax base — and pursued populist measures, including a large oil subsidy program that drained Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves and stalled the IMF program.

The change of government in 2022 raised expectations that Islamabad might adopt more prudent economic policies. However, the Sharif government dragged its feet — struggling to reverse Khan’s populist measures and revive a much-needed IMF program. Costly indecision and half-hearted economic measures accelerated the deterioration, bringing Pakistan to the cusp of default in the first half of 2023 before a last-minute deal with the IMF for a short-term program was struck in June 2023.

Pakistan’s security situation — particularly in regions along the country’s western border — deteriorated steadily over the course of the parliamentary term, yet internal security policy issues remained largely disconnected from domestic politics. A major contributor to the deterioration was the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan — and Pakistan’s policy on the Taliban was largely handled by the military.

However, on one issue, Khan offered broad domestic political cover to the military: Negotiating with the anti-Pakistan insurgent group the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Khan threw his political weight behind negotiating with the TTP and even expressed a willingness to accept the return of thousands of TTP fighters and families in Afghanistan. But that negotiation lapsed with the TTP demanding a set of constitutional changes to and a massive reduction in security forces in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Soon after the Sharif-led government was sworn in, Pakistan carried out cross-border airstrikes in Afghanistan and the incoming government appeared to largely defer to the military.

Where Will Pakistan Go from Here?

At the conclusion of the parliamentary term, it appears hybrid politics will persist for the foreseeable future in Pakistan: Political parties will be important, there will be elections, but the military will retain what political scientists call high-authoritarian prerogatives in the country’s politics. Yet in the near term there is significant uncertainty regarding three interconnected issues: the timing of the upcoming elections; the future of Khan and his party; and Pakistan’s ability to navigate the economic challenges it faces until a new elected government emerges.

While Pakistan is scheduled to hold elections in October or November, indications from Islamabad suggest a delay in the election until early next year. The government’s last-minute decision to announce the latest census, conducted in early 2023, has triggered a constitutional obligation to redraw electoral districts in line with the new census results, requiring additional months of election preparation. Despite appearing as a technical move, politics seem to have influenced this decision. The government and the military seemingly desire more time before the election — perhaps to ensure that Khan can be prosecuted in the cases he is implicated in and isn’t released prematurely and for the caretaker government to make the challenging economic decisions stipulated by the ongoing IMF program.

As for Khan, who is currently incarcerated, there are several cases against him including graft cases and one on mishandling the classified diplomatic cable by Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, which could keep Khan in and out of prison for some time. Whether this will result in the complete elimination of the PTI from the upcoming election is not clear. However, the military's stance that Khan and the PTI bear responsibility for the May 9th violence will continue to impact his ability to mobilize support. Nevertheless, Khan maintains a large, albeit increasingly passive, support base nationwide. If he can find temporary relief between the numerous cases he is implicated in and the likely convictions he will face, he might manage to keep his party relevant for the next elections and beyond.

Pakistan's economy will remain under substantial strain and appears to be a top concern for General Asim Munir. He is taking the lead on an “economic revival plan” by seeking aid and investments from Middle Eastern partners. China also appears to be extending support to Pakistan. Additionally, Pakistan is likely to require another IMF program early next year, and it remains to be seen if a caretaker government can put in place the necessary reform measures to complete the ongoing IMF program and reach an agreement for a new one. While the risk of default has significantly decreased with the July revival of the IMF program, it could rise again if the economic revival plan struggles to secure additional inflows or if IMF negotiations encounter further obstacles. That will constrain Pakistan’s options to deal with the terrorism threat of the TTP, which will continue to rise. Over the next year, it will also become clear what Middle Eastern countries and China have extracted from Pakistan in exchange for the aid and investment they are providing.

What Does this all Mean for the United States?

While Pakistan has been a declining priority for U.S. policymakers, they still want to see stability in the country and broader region and continue to worry about Pakistan’s political, economic and security challenges. U.S. policymakers are likely to look back on the past few months as having avoided several paths of deeper turmoil, but the election delay will keep concerns about political instability high. One theory of stability was that an election held on schedule would reduce political discord in the country and usher in a government less preoccupied with its performance at the polls; it will also create political space to make the tough choices required to stabilize Pakistan’s economy and security.

However, the prospect of a delay in election makes the path Pakistan will pursue in the coming months uncertain. It also complicates engagement on top U.S. policy concerns related to Pakistan’s alignment with China and nuclear weapons program. Policymakers will be right to wonder whether the Pakistani military is angling to delay the election and keep the caretaker government beyond early next year. In the case of prolonged election delay, there will be challenging policy questions about Pakistan's weak democracy, including whether to exert diplomatic pressure to hold elections.

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