Assassination attempts on prime ministers are not new to Pakistan. The recent attempt to kill the 70-year-old former prime minister Imran Khan on 3 November marks a new nadir for Pakistan’s democracy. Khan survived the attack, while one party man was killed. However, Pakistan’s democracy may not be so lucky. Khan joins a long list of  political murders and murderous attempts.

Pakistan’s first prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan was first killed in 1951. Benazir Bhutto was the second, in 2007. Her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was ousted by army man General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq in 1977 and hanged in 1979. Zia himself died in a 1988 plane crash, a conjectured political conspiracy and sabotage. Clear, Pakistan has a notorious history.

At Loggerheads with the Army

Of late, Khan has been hinting at plots being hatched to kill him. A few political observers in Pakistan too have been speculating on a similar plot. True to an extent, these hints and talks are provoked by his regained popularity. After all, Khan may still be right. Despite the theory Khan’s attacker might have been motivated by religious considerations, politicos in Pakistan are not prepared to believe.

The attack on Khan thus portends to the new threats emerging for Pakistan’s democracy. As is his wont, Khan continues to blame his political opponents for the attack. He is accusing incumbent prime minister Shehbaz Sharif, his interior minister Rana Sanaullah and Major General Faisal Naseer of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of plotting to kill him. Khan says he has evidence to justify his finger-pointing and his charges are proving explosive for Pakistan politics. As Khan links the bid on his life with a serving ISI officer, he has pitted himself against the mighty Pakistan army, which has the final say on who rules Pakistan. Khan is at loggerheads with the army now and the attack has fingerprints of the latter.

Keen on Playing the Kingmaker

Khan’s insinuations are thus not new to General Faisal. Khan had dubbed Faisal as ‘Dirty Harry’ and had accused him of torturing two of his army colleagues in custody. Khan went on to charge Faisal later with threatening scribe Arshad Sharif with death, forcing him to leave Pakistan. As Khan stood vindicated later by Arshad Sharif’s mysterious murder in Kenya, Khan could not hide his glee while blaming the army for the murder. Khan is nursing strong grouses against the army now, as he believes the army was behind his unceremonious ouster.

As a politician who has tasted the army’s medicine, Khan knows how powerful the Pakistan army is. He understands prime ministers cannot remain in power in Pakistan without army’s pleasure. This is why Khan is  making the identity of the next army chief central to his ongoing protests. The army alone can end the ongoing political uncertainty and who takes over after the incumbent Qamar Bajwa retires end-November is key to Khan’s political survival. Quite natural, both Sharif and Khan are keen on playing the kingmaker in the appointment of the new army chief. Doesn’t this say a lot on the timing of Khan’s march to Islamabad?

A Trojan Horse in the Province

Khan has vowed to carry on with his march despite the attack on his person. Paradoxical, his vow is giving birth to new fears over democracy in Pakistan. Many more fatal attacks on Khan are feared. Khan’s newfound romance with the Pakistan army does not find favour with many in his own Tehreek-e-Insaf party. Though the dissenters were expelled and Khan is claiming a revolution is in the making, the reality on the ground suggests Khan is lobbying for an army chief who will back him.

Confirming this reality, Khan is training his guns on Sharif, who he says is ‘conspiring’ with the Pakistan army to liquidate him.  This conspiracy theory does not hold, as Khan was attacked in the Wazirabad district in the eastern Punjab province, whose government is controlled by his own party.  Plus, Khan’s attacker has claimed he targeted Khan for religious reasons and was acting alone. Anyway, linking politics to everything that happens to him will not pay Khan immediate dividends. Is there a Trojan horse in his own provincial government in Punjab? Could be, as the attack on him shows.

The Collapsing Moment is Better

Meanwhile, the aftermath of the attack on Khan demonstrates politics and democracy in Pakistan are in the cusp of a major change. The embattled nation is heading towards a political crisis, a civil war perhaps. Considering this is happening when the Pakistan economy is in a terrible shape, serious worries are spreading across the nuclear-armed nation of 231 million. The consequences of the coming political upheaval will be so catastrophic, the Pakistan army is rubbing its hands in uncontrollable glee. What better moment than a collapsing economy to script a comeback!

Evidences galore to show Pakistan economy is indeed collapsing. Recent floods have left Pakistan reeling under an estimated damage of 40 bn USD. Pakistan’s climate-induced losses have climbed to 29 bn USD. Pakistan has requested China to re-schedule its debt of 6.3 bn USD. This debt is maturing in the next eight months as part of its overall plan to arrange 34 bn USD in the current fiscal year to meet its debt and external trade-related obligations. Meanwhile, China has granted nothing more than a mere 70 mn USD for flood relief. Inflation is raging at a dizzying high of 26.6 per cent. Business confidence is dwindling and an energy crisis is at the door.

Mindless Banging of the Head

This double blow of precipitating political crisis and a crumbling economy will have disastrous consequences for Pakistan democracy. As rallies and protests break out after the attack on Khan and as anti-army cries rise in crescendo, law and order are set to deteriorate further in the Pakistan civil society. A threatening civil war is in the offing. Again, it will be a great opportunity for the army to stage a comeback on the pretext of restoring law and order. Clued-in observers have begun whispering of the army usurping power soon. In a nation which has been under military rule for most of its years post-independence, such a scenario is quite possible. Expecting the army not to cash in on this fluid situation is naïve in Pakistan.

The situation is getting further fluid as the protests over Khan’s attack continue meanwhile in Lahore. Khan’s provocative Trump-like cries over his perceived conspiracies by the United States, the Pakistan army, the ISI and Sharif are exercises in banging the head on formidable walls. Sure, Khan has been victorious in many by-elections. This is not enough for Sharif’s coalition government to accept Khan’s demand for early national elections. Sharif, whose prerogative it is to dissolve the house, remains adamant and unmoved. Sharif and his Pakistan Democratic Movement alliance hope to steady the economy before November 2023 and bring it back on the growth track. This will pave way for his re-election. Sharif is expecting assistance from the World Bank to accomplish this. Thus, he is reluctant to dissolve the house.

In Conclusion

These confrontations boil down to a three-way struggle for power, with army strongman General Qamar Javed Bajwa and his ISI protégé, together with prime minister Sharif and challenger Khan, making up the power triangle. An unrelenting Sharif is ruling out early elections. He is determined to hold them as scheduled in November 2023. Making Khan’s job more difficult here are his 5-year disqualification by the election commission for unlawful sale of state gifts and asset concealment as Pakistan’s prime minister. These factors portend dangers to democracy in troubled Pakistan. No democratically-elected prime minister has ever completed the 5-year term  in Pakistan since independence in 1947. As a former cricketer, Khan is playing hard to help Pakistan preserve this record. This is the tragedy of Pakistan’s democracy.