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Military further tightens grip over Imran administration

By Chatham House - Imran Khan, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26224243

The military establishment in Pakistan has used the havoc caused by the Covid-19 pandemic to increase its control over the Imran Khan-led Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government. The pandemic has devastated the already stumbling economy of Pakistan. The poor handling of Covid-19 by the PTI government helped the all-powerful military to increase its grip on the civilian administration. In recent months, key positions in the civilian administration have been taken over either by serving officers up to the rank of lieutenant generals or former military officials handpicked by the top brass.

As a direct consequence of the economic slump since the outbreak started in the country, Pakistan is staring at a long-term recession, at a scale which the nation has not been seen in the last 68 years. The army has also separately pressurised the government for a pay hike to the tune of 20 percent.

The increasing direct control gained by the military on the civilian government gives a clear impression that the affairs of the state are managed by the army even without any declaration of martial law or army rule. During last two months, key civilian sectors like the PIA, the country’s power regulator and even the National Institute of Health, which looks after the pandemic response of country, have come to be headed by serving or retired military officials.

Even the Prime Minister’s media management team has been infiltrated by the army with former ISPR official Gen Asim Saleem Bajwa being appointed to ensure that the PMO parrots the army’s intentions and the national media is refrained from writing against the army establishment.

Economy and the army

Since the birth of Pakistan in 1947, the country’s focus has been squarely on capacity building of its military at the cost of primary sectors such as public health, education and industry contributing to increased levels of poverty. The pandemic has only worsened the situation as the country is burdened with increasing international debt problems, domestic economic recession, unemployment and increased vulnerability of its population, especially the poor, to Covid-19.

Under such conditions, a typical democratically elected civilian government budget is bound to focus on the revival of economy, employment generation and strengthening the health sector through economic stimulus and tax rebates. However, given the model of civilian-military relationship in the Pakistan, the army establishment has forced the PTI government to increase the defence budget allocations by 11.9 percent.

The total allocated budget for the FY 2020-21 is to the tune of PKR 1,289 billion, that is 2.82 percent of the GDP. The total allocation becomes even higher if one includes PKR 369 billion set aside for the pension to retired army personal and PKR 324 for the development programme of armed personnel. The defence spending of Pakistan always looks deceptive as most of the military expenditures are kept hidden under different heads like nuclear programme and acquisitions. The dominating role of the military establishment also prevents the parliament from debating defence spending of country.

The army and civilian government have used political gimmicks and its traditional anti-India rhetoric, especially in the wake of the Pulwama terror attack of February 2019, to which India responded with air strikes in Balakote, in the PoK, to snuff out terror training camps. The relationship between the two countries worsened after New Delhi’s decision to scrap Article 370 and 35A of the Constitution of India in August giving a given semi-autonomous status to erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir State. The military establishment and the civilian government have also time and again used the anti-India rhetoric to increase defence allocations.

Begs for debt relief

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, Pakistan stares at a dip in its exports by 40 percent. According to PTI government, foreign remittances are also expected to decrease by 20 to 23 percent. The Economic Survey of Pakistan for 2019-20 has estimated that up to 18.53 million people will face unemployment.

To suffice the parochial needs of the military establishment and save the PTI government from full military coupe, Imran khan has been forced to impose additional taxes to fetch PKR 200 billion to the country’s coffers. The army establishment, which has remained politically dominant and economically affluent not only during the times the country has been pushed under army dictatorship, but even during the occasional periods of civilian rule.

The increasing intrusion by the military in the civilian government after the formation of Imran Khan-led PTI government, and the increasing transfer of control of civilian administration into the hands of the military, has thus kept the army in total command of the affairs of the state.

On the other hand, increased financial demands and unchecked corruption in military establishment has made the PTI-led civilian government a mendicant to the global funding agencies and at the mercy of debt relief measures by developed countries. According to International Monterey Fund (IMF), Pakistan’s external debt repayment obligations stand at $12.73 billionin 2020. The growing demand of the army establishment, worsening economic situation due to ongoing pandemic and increasing corruption has forced Imran Khan to ask rich countries and global financial institutions for debt relief in April 2020. Recently,the Paris Club of creditor nations suspended debt service payments from Pakistan.

Pakistan also needs more debt and finances to kick-start the economy and has been directed by the IMF to “freeze salaries of government employees and adhere to the fiscal consolidation path by showing a nominal primary deficit in the new budget” – the two demands that Islamabad finds hard to digest. Islamabad is keen to restore the IMF programme under Enhanced Fund Facility (EFF) to get support from other global funding agencies like World Bank and Asian Development Bank.

This commentary originally appeared in South Asia Weekly.

Ayjaz Wani (ORF)
26 June 2020

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