Pakistan’s hybrid regime is fighting for its life. Will it survive Imran’s onslaught?

We do not yet know whether Khan will win or lose, but what we can say for certain is that significant upheaval is around the corner.
Published March 22, 2023

This has been quite the ride. And it is nowhere close to being over yet.

What Pakistan is going through right now is the collapse of the seventh iteration of regimes that have governed the country since its founding in 1947, and moving towards a possible eighth iteration. These regimes have had varying degrees of balance between the various institutions that govern Pakistan, in particular the civilian and military ruling classes.

The ones that came before

The first iteration was almost wholly civilian in nature but lasted only a few years. The death throes of this iteration unleashed a dictatorial kleptocracy whose shockwaves continue to reverberate across Pakistani society.

The birth of Bangladesh heralded the end of the second regime, which essentially consisted of the Ayub and Yahya dictatorships.

The third iteration was born under the guidance of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the resurrector of a nation-state that became the first to keep its name after the majority had split. This dispensation delivered the 1973 Constitution, attempted land reforms, and nationalised industries.

But the tilt towards civilians did not last and ultimately, this iteration was no match for the empire’s revenge. The fourth iteration tipped the balance of power firmly towards the military, giving us the horrors of Zia.

The 1990s saw a fifth iteration, one where the face was civilian, but the power still lay with the military. A game of musical chairs followed — with Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif and four caretaker prime ministers in the mix — leading to never-ending drama where the establishment seemed unsure how to deal with an unwieldy civilian leadership.

Musharraf’s dictatorship, perceived to be ‘benevolent’ by some to this day, was the sixth attempt. It once again cemented the primacy of the military as the dominant player in Pakistan’s political economy. But this regime collapsed soon after the most powerful man in the country took off his khaki-coloured armour and hybrid democracy followed — the seventh iteration of the governance compact that has continued to this day.

Benazir sacrificed her life for this iteration, it survived Nawaz’s disqualification in 2017, but is collapsing under the assault unleashed by Khan and his party. This seventh era may well have survived Khan’s ouster as well, were it not for the former prime minister’s decision to continue fighting. And it is this ongoing fight between Khan and his former benefactors that has dealt a deadly blow to this seventh iteration of a governance compact in Pakistan.

A new dawn (for the eighth time)

Khan is now seeking to bring forth a new era, which, according to his supporters, will finally deliver the supremacy of the Constitution and rule of law promised to the citizens of the country. The goal, in the words of the PTI leadership and its supporters, is to have real and meaningful civilian supremacy. The status quo is seeking to prevent this outcome, they argue, pointing to nearly a hundred cases against Khan and the assassination attempt that almost ended his life.

Their goal, according to Khan himself, is to kill him, for he has become far too dangerous for his former benefactors. While Khan obfuscates much — like most politicians — here his words are clear.

The fact of the matter is that much is on the line, key among them, the job for the country’s prime minister, de jure the most powerful position in the Republic, and the country’s army chief, de facto the most powerful position in the Republic.

This fight among key actors of the ruling elite is not just about the elite. Khan is raging against the status quo, in particular the machine that has birthed him and many of his predecessors. Those that gave birth to him and nurtured him are vengeful and wield the instruments to achieve their goals. Khan knows this better than almost anybody alive and living in Pakistan, for he himself wielded some of this machine’s power while he was in power.

But what Khan is drawing strength from now is not just his own rage, but the support of millions of citizens who see him as their saviour. For Khan is not the only one who has been hard done by the status quo. Almost every citizen that is not among “them” has a direct or indirect experience of the horror that the status quo power inflicts. This also includes the likes of Nawaz — countless thronged to him and his daughter when he raged against the machine following his ouster.

The key difference now is that unlike his predecessors who have tried to outfox the status quo, Khan is following a direct and confrontational strategy. And while this strategy may have many flaws, its aggression is also perhaps its biggest strength. Around 60 per cent of Pakistan’s population is under 30 and they are angry. A significant portion of this demographic supports Khan. He recognises that, and uses it to his advantage.

But Khan is up against the leadership of the most powerful institution in Pakistan. He appears to have split the establishment itself and has the gavel bending to his power. This in itself is significant and heralds for things to come. We do not yet know whether Khan will win or lose, but what we can say for certain is that significant upheaval is around the corner.

The regime is dead. Long live the regime.