A cursory look at the history of Pakistan shows that its Army wields an enormous amount of power. From foreign policy to security strategy, Pakistan’s Army almost always gets its way, at times even superseding the democratically-elected governments.
So, last week when the country’s top 25 business tycoons met with the Army Chief General Qamar Jawed Bajwa at the garrison city of Rawalpindi, it only reaffirmed the grip this all-encompassing institution holds on the country.
In an interactive session, the army chief was flanked by the country’s finance, revenue ministers and the chairman of the country’s tax collection authority. According to news reports from those who were part of this exclusive tete-a-tete, the army chief asked businessmen to share their views on how to improve the economy and urged them to invest more.
The businessmen, however, were primarily interested in resolving their issues with the Khan-led government, who in the process of macro stabilization, has brought the economy to a standstill.
Ever since Imran Khan assumed office, he has undertaken a not so politically savvy macroeconomic adjustment which on the ground has meant no fuel price subsidies, increasing utility – gas and electricity – prices, lay-offs, pay cuts etc. The situation is further complicated by the conditions attached to the International Monetary Fund-led $6 billion bailout which has forced the government to slash spending and increase revenues.
Speaking to the country’s news agencies, businessmen said the discussions with the army chief were held in a cordial environment and that they were given assurances that their grievances will be resolved at the earliest. They said they had been meeting with the country’s civilian leadership but their requests had fallen on deaf ears and they were left with no choice but to meet the army chief.
On the other hand, the army’s official media statement said that the army chief views “National security … intimately linked to economy while prosperity [a] function of balance in security needs and economic growth.” But as some welcome the country’s most-respected institution’s increased interest in the economic affairs, others fear for the future of democratic governments.
However, businessmen’s complaints are not ill-founded, the Khan-led government has introduced a plethora of policies to bring about the much-needed structural reforms to set the economy on a road to recovery. But high interest rates, ambitious tax targets, slashes in development spending have shrunk economic output.
Although, most of the economic problems faced by his team were as a result of last government’s failures, the pace of adjustment has raised fears of political uncertainty as opposition parties have begun to circle around the federal capital. Recently, one of Khan’s leading critic, Mullah Fazlur Rahman – leader of the hardcore party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam – has announced a sit-in at Islamabad and has vowed to overthrow Khan’s government.
Although, there are doubts over Rahman’s political ability and support base to bring down Khan’s government, analysts fear his movement could gain momentum and things could take the turn for worse if other opposition parties join in.
But the statements after the meeting suggest that Khan’s government is going nowhere. It seems as if Pakistan is at a unique point in its history, where the political and military leadership seem to be on the same page. Khan has also repeatedly and openly spoken of his party’s relationship with the army and even gave army chief Bajwa a three-year extension in August.
But as Khan cedes more and more space to the military establishment in running the country’s affairs, his authority as a democratically elected leader of the country will only diminish.