Imran Khan and the military: Allies today, foes tomorrow?

Pakistan’s military, which helped Khan win the election, could one day pose the most serious threat to his premiership.

Khan election Reuters
Supporters of Imran Khan celebrate near his residence in Bani Gala during the general election, in Islamabad, Pakistan July 25, 2018 [Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters]

Two weeks after claiming victory in Pakistan’s July 25 election, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI) on Monday announced that it secured the necessary majority in parliament to form a coalition government. However, the controversy surrounding the election has not yet subsided, and the legitimacy of any future PTI-led coalition government is still questionable.

Before the election, Pakistan’s powerful security establishment was accused of meddling in politics to pave the way for its favourite candidate, Imran Khan, to win. And events before the poll – arrests of several prominent members of the PML-N on corruption charges; the sentencing of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to prison less than three weeks before the poll and the sentencing of another top PML-N leader, Hanif Abbasi, to life in prison on drug smuggling charges just four days before the election – were seen by many as definitive proof that the establishment was targeting Khan’s opponents.


On Election Day, these accusations escalated from “possible attempts to influence the electoral process” to straightforward allegations of rigging, with at least six political parties alleging their representatives were not allowed to witness the counting process led by military personnel and other election officials, as mandated by law, and that the final counts were not properly documented. Also, there were questions surrounding the Results Transfer System (RTS), which had allegedly collapsed on election night, delaying the announcement of official results. Later, it has been revealed that the system had never collapsed, but the Election Commission simply – and suspiciously – ordered its employees to stop using the system.

Recount battles are still ongoing in several constituencies across Pakistan. The PML-N and other opposition parties already regained several seats as result of these efforts, and they vow to continue fighting until they reclaim all the votes they believe were stolen from them.

An opposition alliance

Moreover, on August 2, prominent opposition parties in Pakistan announced their decision to form a “Grand Alliance” and to protest inside and outside the parliament against the “rigged and manipulated” elections.

The alliance includes Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s PPP, jailed former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, the alliance of religious parties known as the MMA, Awami National Party, Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, National Party Balochistan and Qaumi Watan Party. The alliance also announced that it will attempt to form its own coalition

But despite the opposition’s efforts, Khan’s PTI was first to reach the finish line. It announced that it secured a majority in the parliament and is expected to form a coalition in the coming days. The way it secured a parliamentary majority, however, is also being questioned by many. It has been claimed that members of the security establishment pressured and/or offered serious money to some independent candidates to support the PTI.

Despite serious questions surrounding his electoral victory, it appears Khan is now fully ready to take the wheel of his country. The road ahead, however, remains bumpy and uncertain. 

A fragile coalition

First of all Khan’s PTI will rely on the support of several former foes to form a coalition.

The Karachi based MQM, for example, will be in the ruling coalition, but cracks already started to appear between the two parties.

PTI Karachi head Firdous Shamim Naqvi said: “The alliance with MQM is not our choice, but we have made the alliance because of the compulsion to acquire simple majority in National Assembly to form the government.”

“We have not backtracked from our earlier position,” he added. “MQM has ruined Karachi and it has faced defeat in the general elections because of the poor performance of its mayor in Karachi.”

Khan tried to save the situation by condemning Naqvi’s statement, yet he failed to convince many as he had personally accused MQM leaders of threatening PTI workers and even killing activists only five short years ago.

The PML-Q, another group Khan and his party have a problematic history with, will also be part of the PTI-led coalition. Khan previously called the PML-Q members “murderers” and “the biggest dacoits in Punjab”.

Khan built a political career on viciously attacking his political rivals. Moreover, he has been encouraging his followers to pile vile abuse on anyone who criticized his politics for the last five years. Now he found himself in a grave situation where he needs the support of those he had abused and insulted in the past to rule Pakistan. With a powerful and seasoned coalition on opposition benches, it remains to be seen how long Khan’s unlikely coalition will stand before deep-rooted disagreements between its members start to resurface.

What next for Khan and the military?

The military, which is widely seen as having helped him win the election, will likely pose the biggest threat to Khan’s premiership.

Many expect Khan to assert his authority and start acting independently from the military after officially becoming Pakistan’s prime minister. Of course, such an attempt will land him in trouble with the security establishment, and most certainly bring an early end to his stint as Pakistan’s prime minister. If Khan refuses to toe the line, removing him from office will be no trouble for the military. With a simple nod to the MQM or the PMLQ, the military can easily instigate the collapse of his coalition government. Or he could be disqualified from office on the grounds of dishonesty, corruption or some other real or made up accusation.

Khan may not even need to take a major stand against military strongmen to upset them. The military can decide to topple his government at any minute, even if he follows their instructions to the letter. None of the 17 prime ministers of Pakistan managed to serve a full term – the security establishment found a reason to overthrow even the most pliant, docile prime ministers such as Zafarullah Khan Jamali and Muhammad Khan Junejo in the past. So it is unlikely that Khan’s honeymoon period with the military will last long.

Continuation of pro-military, isolationist stances

In the last five years, Khan ran a divisive and aggressive campaign, adopting pro-military and isolationist stances and pandering to the religious far-right.

He attacked former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for attempting to improve Pakistan’s relations with India, and countered his efforts to reign in on Hafiz Saeed, the alleged mastermind of 2008 Mumbai attacks. He also supported the military throughout the Dawn Leaks scandal, which disclosed that the former PM Sharif had ordered the military to cease its support for hardline groups.

Khan also appears to support the Afghan Taliban. His provincial government, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, granted $300,000 to the madrassa (Islamic religious school) of Sami-ul Haq, who is widely known as “the father of the Taliban” (in return Haq has formed an alliance with the PTI).

Only time will tell whether Khan will abandon these dangerous, isolationist and pro-military stances – as he indicated in his victory speech – and dare take constructive action to help elevate Pakistan’s international standing, improve its relations with its neighbours and save it from financial ruin. Unfortunately what is fairly certain is that if he does, his fate will be the same as all the other prime ministers of Pakistan. And after making bitter enemies of almost all prominent political forces in the parliament, there is scant hope that anyone will come to his help if and when he finds himself in trouble.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.