Pakistan’s Crisis Is the Result of a Failed System With a Dysfunctional Ruling Class
Party Politics and Political Economy in Modern Pakistan
DANIEL FINN: What was the political situation in Pakistan at the beginning of this century when the United States launched its “war on terror” after the 9/11 attacks?
AYYAZ MALLICK: We can disaggregate the situation into three aspects: political, economic, and ideological. On the political level, at the start of the century, we had the military dictatorship of General Pervez Musharraf, which came into power through a coup in 1999 on the back of a decade of seesawing between different civilian parties, with the military acting in the background.
The Musharraf directorship didn’t have a lot of legitimacy, whether nationally or from the usual imperial patrons for the ruling classes in Pakistan. For example, when Bill Clinton came to South Asia in 2000, the express condition he had for visiting Pakistan was that he would not be photographed shaking Musharraf’s hand.
At the economic level, Pakistan was facing a long period of stagnation due to the debt burden and repeated balance-of-payment crises. A crucial factor in this respect was the sanctions that the United States placed on Pakistan after it tested nuclear weapons in the late 1990s. There had been repeated instances of Pakistan going to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and a stop-start process of neoliberalization, which involved policies of demand compression, cutting development expenditure, and privatization — for example, in the energy sector, which laid the basis for the energy crisis in Pakistan today.
Coming to the ideological level, in the two decades leading up to 2000, we saw the development of an Islamist, praetorian ideological common sense, which was a legacy of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan during the 1980s under the previous US-backed dictatorship of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. The most obvious culmination of this was the installation by the Pakistani military of the Taliban government next door in Afghanistan.
DANIEL FINN: How did the US occupation of Afghanistan after 9/11 affect Pakistani politics
AYYAZ MALLICK: The occupation of Afghanistan by the United States and its allies was a very lucky break for the Pakistani ruling bloc, which had been facing long-term stagnation, especially over the previous ten years. When the United States invaded Afghanistan, Musharraf’s government signed up wholesale to the US-led war on terror. The ruling bloc, which had the military at its center at the time, was shored up politically and economically through American aid and concessions.
For example, during the Musharraf years, the United States and its allies sent Pakistan about $12 billion in military aid alone. There was also a deferment of debt payments for about twenty years. In addition, there were increased remittances from the Pakistani diaspora as Washington cracked down on informal ways of transferring money internationally.
This inflow of aid and cash fed into further restructuring of the Pakistani economy, along the lines of what we would call import-based consumption. Most of this investment came through the services sector and was put into speculative areas such as real estate and financial instruments. Almost none of the money went into productive sectors like industry and agriculture. The Musharraf administration did claim that industry saw a lot of investment in this period, but that relied on fudging the figures. At the same time, there was a full-blown privatization program, selling off assets from commercial banks to state-owned enterprises and the telecom and power sectors. This included many state enterprises that were actually turning a profit for the state. The IMF and the World Bank became increasingly hegemonic in economic policymaking. Key people in Musharraf’s government were basically imported from international financial institutions.
The military itself grew increasingly dominant within the economy. This was part of a longer process that was turbocharged under Musharraf. There was a widening program of dispossession and expropriation in various parts of Pakistan, both urban and rural, core and periphery. This led to a peasant movement against dispossession in central Punjab, for example, and there was a military operation in Baluchistan.
Linked to the war on terror, a huge war economy developed in Pakistan, building on the legacy of the 1980s, as Pakistan once again became the central node in Washington’s regional war machine. There was a huge black market in weapons, which fed into militancy and so-called terrorism. For example, in a Pakistan Supreme Court hearing in 2012 about targeted killings in Karachi, the country’s biggest city, the police chief proclaimed that over the last ten years, fifteen thousand NATO tankers with their sophisticated weaponry had disappeared en route to Afghanistan.
The government undertook military operations to tackle militancy in the tribal and peripheral areas of Pakistan. Baluchistan is the biggest Pakistani province, but also the most underdeveloped one, and it has a long-running insurgency for autonomy/independence. The latest round of insurgency and military operation in Baluchistan was triggered by the rape of a female doctor by an army officer, and also by the killing of one of the local tribal leaders, who ironically had been one of the most pro-military and pro-state leaders.
As a result of this operation, the military government abducted and disappeared hundreds, if not thousands of people. Many were literally sold to the United States for dollars, as Musharraf proudly boasted in his autobiography, ending up in Bagram Air Base or Guantanamo. Most of them disappeared into the dungeons of the Pakistani state.
The Pakistani ruling bloc and the military government undertook a U-turn when it came to patronage of Islamist militant groups in the region. This resulted in immense blowback, as the groups that the Pakistani security establishment had patronized and promoted for the past twenty to thirty years in Afghanistan and Kashmir now started attacking first the military and then public places. More than sixty thousand people, both civilians and soldiers, were killed in various attacks by so-called militants. There was also a state of complete ideological confusion in the polity with regard to the role of Islam in Pakistan itself.
DANIEL FINN: When and why did the period of military rule come to an end?
AYYAZ MALLICK: During the period of military rule, there was a rising wave of movements. I already mentioned the peasant movement against corporate encroachment on agricultural lands in central Punjab, and the movement for autonomy or independence in Baluchistan. From 2005 onward, there was an economic slowdown because of the worldwide rise in commodity prices. You had rising inflation, and the consumption-based boom was running out of steam.
Slowly, there was an assertion within the state apparatus itself centered on the judiciary, which took up cases of missing persons and irregularities in privatization. In 2007, Musharraf tried to dismiss Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the chief justice at the time, along with a batch of judges who were allied to him. That triggered a movement for the restoration of the dismissed judges known as the Lawyers’ Movement, which first engulfed the judicial fraternity before becoming a much wider movement.
People from the middle class as well as the popular classes, including a new generation of political activists, fed into an anti-dictatorship movement. This eventually prompted Musharraf to impose martial law for a second time in late 2007, after the first time he had done so in 1999.
However, he was ultimately forced out of power. Benazir Bhutto, a heroine of Pakistan’s last anti-dictatorship struggle, the former prime minister, and daughter of Zulfikar Bhutto, came back to Pakistan and was murdered. Her party, the People’s Party, came into power as part of a coalition on the back of this movement against Musharraf.
DANIEL FINN: Before the rise of Imran Khan’s movement, civilian politics in Pakistan had been dominated for a long period of time by two organizations, the People’s Party on the one hand and the Muslim League on the other. How would you characterize those parties and their leadership teams in social and political terms?
AYYAZ MALLICK: I’ll go through the parties one by one. The People’s Party originates in the labor and peasant upsurge in Pakistan during the late 1960s against the military dictator, Muhammad Ayub Khan. This was part of the wider anti-colonial current that was Marxist or broadly leftist throughout the Third World at the time. The People’s Party was a product of this insurgency, and it initially had a left-nationalist program under the leadership of Zulfikar Bhutto, based on calls for land reform, workers’ rights, nationalization of key sectors, and so on.
However, the People’s Party was always an uneasy alliance of different class fractions. One fraction consisted of the progressive sections of the middle class. The second contained large sections of the insurgent working class and peasantry. The third, which was very important, was composed of big landlords. Zulfiqar Bhutto, the founder of the party, was from a big landlord family himself.
Over the years, starting from early on during Bhutto’s leadership, the Left was purged from within the party, which became more and more representative of big landlords. That being said, the party did lead a valiant struggle against the Zia dictatorship in the 1980s. But in time, it followed the same path as a lot of center-left, social democratic parties around the world — what Tariq Ali calls the “extreme center” — by compromising with US imperialism and reconciling itself to neoliberal globalization throughout the 1980s, ’90s, and beyond.
Today, the People’s Party is basically a party of the big landlords, confined mainly to the Sindh province in the south, where the biggest city is Karachi. Many of those landlords have now diversified into other sectors such as real estate and agro-processing, with a big helping hand from the state apparatus and its fire-sale privatization of assets. In concrete terms, it has become a very narrow party in terms of the regional and class interests it represents.
However, it is also a very clever party, which has used the legacy of left-wing and anti-dictatorship struggles to attract liberal intellectuals who act as its conduits of hegemony, directly or indirectly, especially among progressive urban middle-class sections. There is a parallel here with Antonio Gramsci’s discussion of Italy’s southern intellectuals and their alliance with southern landowners and the northern bourgeoisie.
We can see a limited absorption of the Sindh-speaking middle class by the People’s Party, which has been helped by moves toward provincial autonomy and decentralization over the last decade. The People’s Party therefore almost has a Janus-faced character. On the one hand, it promotes the interests of landlords and rapacious crony capitalism in Sindh, but then it also maintains a so-called liberal face with material and ideological concessions to keep certain middle-class sections and intellectuals tied to it.
The second party that you mentioned is the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) or PMLN. It has its historical base in the petty bourgeois fractions that emerged in the wake of the 1960s Green Revolution and the Gulf migration from Pakistan, which began during the 1970s, followed by the increasing denationalization of the economy under the dictatorship in the 1980s. You had an emergent petty and big bourgeoisie, which was based in agro-processing, services, and retail, with an increasing share in the Pakistani economy, spanning the divides between urban-rural and formal-informal sectors, especially in the largest province, Punjab.
This emergent bourgeoisie grew more and more integrated into the lower rungs of the Pakistani state bureaucracy through the Zia dictatorship. Nawaz Sharif and his family were handpicked favorites of one of the dictatorship’s main generals. During the 1990s, they gained the position of being the main rivals of the People’s Party in civilian and electoral politics.
Over the years, the PMLN has retained this petty bourgeois base, and it has also fashioned itself as the party of big business and development, in the conventional sense of the term. Both parties have a very narrow class basis, but they operate mechanisms of hegemony through ideological and material means, such as the state bureaucratic apparatus.
It’s important to say that both parties have been fundamentally coopted into the neoliberal order. They are in broad agreement about macroeconomic policy and the political and economic structures of Pakistan. The People’s Party has always formed the “liberal” flank of this hegemony, while the PMLN has been more conservative and aligned with mainstream religious nationalism.
Both parties also operate in an extremely narrow manner. They are dominated by major political families; official positions, whether in or out of government, circulate among sons, nephews, in-laws, and other loyalists. Their model of “development” is very narrow as well, based on the cultivation of clientelist networks and high-profile, glitzy projects with their networks of contractors and beneficiaries, as opposed to any kind of broad-based, inclusive program based on universal entitlements.
In terms of engagement with the military, both parties play a game of hide and seek. During their various tenures in office, they have fallen afoul of the military, which is the biggest and best-organized economic and political player in the country. It is the limited class base and narrow modus operandi of these parties that conditions their repeated compromises with the military establishment and their acquiescence to military encroachment into what would conventionally be considered civilian domains.
For example, under the rule of these parties, there have been repeated, unaccountable military operations in the peripheral areas of Pakistan. They have ratified and justified the use of military courts, and they have allied themselves periodically with the military to bring down each other’s governments at a provincial level and in the federal Senate as well.
What I’ve been saying is in contrast to much of the liberal discourse in Pakistan, which sees the tendency to compromise with the military as a subjective failure to follow the norms of liberal democracy and the institutional separation of powers, rather than as being rooted in the limited social basis of these parties. In spite of the formal continuity of liberal democracy in Pakistan, we have not seen a growth in substantive democracy but rather a concomitant rise in military authoritarianism, which has been the trend for the last ten to fifteen years. The secret of this paradoxical continuity of liberal democracy combined with a rise in military authoritarianism lies in Pakistan’s political-economic structure and the narrow modus operandi of the mainstream parties.
DANIEL FINN: You’ve obviously touched upon this point in relation to the social base and orientation of the political parties, but perhaps we could address this question in its own right. What would you say are the main features of Pakistan’s present-day economic model, as it has taken shape over the last decade and more, and what social outcomes has it generated for the people of Pakistan?
AYYAZ MALLICK: Pakistan has a classic peripheralized political economy. The economy is structured around extraversion toward the imperial world system, and it is narrowly concentrated in a few economic sectors. However, there is one twist here, which is the historical role of imperial patronage, especially with the Pakistani ruling bloc selling its military services to imperialism, which has then shaped the political terrain in a certain manner.
Exports of primary and low-value products such as cotton, textiles, and rice make up two-thirds of Pakistani exports. On the other hand, there is the export of labor for remittances, mainly to the Gulf countries but also to Western states. Over the last twenty to thirty years, there has been a secular decline in agriculture and manufacturing, with services and retail increasingly dominating. For example, the retail and services sector accounted for 25 percent of GDP in the 1950s, but 60 percent today. That shift to services as the main source of labor absorption comes with highly insecure forms of employment.
Overall, the trend has been for the state to pull back from ensuring investment in productive sectors and employment generation. Investment has gone into nonproductive and speculative sectors such as real estate and financialization. There is a very low tax-to-GDP ratio, because the Pakistani elite doesn’t want to tax itself. Sixty percent of state revenue comes through indirect or regressive taxation.
The investment-to-GDP ratio is about 15 percent, which is roughly half the regional average. If you look at Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and India, even with all of their problems, the investment-to-GDP ratio is around 30 percent for all of them. Half the Pakistani budget goes toward debt repayments — more than the amount spent on public health — while about a quarter goes toward defense. According to a recent United Nations Development Programme report, the government subsidies that elites get in Pakistan — including the corporate sector, big landlords, the military, and so on — amount to nearly $18 billion per year.
There is a huge concentration of rural and urban landownership. One percent of the population in rural areas control 20 percent of the land. In Karachi, where I come from, 2 percent of houses are built on 23 percent of residential land, and the bottom 50 to 60 percent are built on 8 percent.
Looking at the social outcomes, there is massive underinvestment in public welfare and development. Almost 30 percent of children under the age of five are underweight, while 40 percent suffer from stunted growth, according to UNICEF figures. Almost one-quarter of the population is exposed to arsenic-contaminated water. In Karachi, 86 percent of water has high levels of lead.
There is no expansive productive base, and very low mobilization of internal savings, for example, via taxation for investment in productive sectors and welfare. There is heavy reliance on the export of labor and military services as well as imperial aid. This is the concrete basis of Pakistan’s dependency and insertion into an unequal world system.
As a result of the system’s low capacity for absorption of the popular classes, it is a very unstable base for any kind of sustainable hegemonic project of the ruling bloc. This narrow political economy and specific insertion into the imperial world system conditions the polity in certain ways — for example, by tending toward the use of coercion to keep the social formation together. Who carries out this coercion? The military.
Imperial patronage has historically underpinned the role of the military as the biggest political and economic player in the country. The system’s low absorptive capacity makes it always susceptible to populist insurgency and challenges. This is what we saw with the emergence of the Imran Khan project.
The Rise of Imran Khan
DANIEL FINN: What role have the Pakistani army and intelligence services played since the restoration of civilian rule?
AYYAZ MALLICK: In 2008, with the fall of Musharraf, you had the restoration of formal democracy on the back of a popular movement. This was a momentary step back taken by the military from formal politics. Even then, however, the economic interests of the military were not touched, and those interests have kept increasing over the years, with the military diversifying into more and more sectors.
This economic empire, which Ayesha Siddiqa has called Military Inc., already stood at $20 billion at the end of the 2000s. I’m sure its size is much greater now. The military budget also kept increasing by an average of 10 to 15 percent each year, and that does not account for unaccounted military expenses, pensions, etc.
While the military took a step back in terms of formal governance, it retained its role as ultimate guarantor and arbitrator in the polity. It kept key areas of state policy in its own hands, including internal security and foreign policy, especially relations with important countries like India, Afghanistan, and the United States.
Similarly, the military operations begun during the Musharraf years in peripheral areas of Pakistan were even intensified after the restoration of formal democracy on the pretext of fighting terrorism and separatist movements. All of this, of course, was generously funded by the United States via coalition support funds, with a total of $14 billion since 2002 — part of the $33 billion in aid that Pakistan received from the United States during that period.
The momentary step back of the military after 2008 was very important in another respect, which was the passing of the eighteenth amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan in 2010. This amendment substantially increased provincial autonomy over matters such as education and health. But it also increased resources for the provinces from state revenues that were already meager. As the decade progressed, in a context of economic stagnation, this amendment and its fiscal federalism became a major point of contention between the military and civilian governments.
Overall, however, we saw the Pakistan military retaining its articulatory role in the country’s polity and its social formation. It is the social force that mediates the complex unity between different fractions of the ruling bloc through its central role in the state and economy, and through its linkages to imperial and subimperial powers such as the US and the Gulf dictatorships.
DANIEL FINN: When Imran Khan organized his movement and began launching a bid for power at the national level, what was the basis of his political platform, and what social groups went on to give their support to Khan?
AYYAZ MALLICK: Imran Khan, for those who don’t know, is Pakistan’s most famous cricketer. He’s a World Cup–winning captain, and arguably the third-greatest cricketer of all time, after Don Bradman and Gary Sobers. He retired after the winning the World Cup for Pakistan in 1992, and went on to do philanthropic work, mainly on his cancer hospital in Lahore, which was inspired by his late mother. In 1997, amid the game of musical chairs between the two mainstream parties, with the military in the background, he formed a political party, the Pakistan Movement for Justice (PTI), with promises to cleanse Pakistan of corruption.
Even from the time, there are testimonies by very reliable people, including Pakistan’s most respected philanthropist, Abdul Sattar Edhi, that Khan had some kind of support from extremely reactionary segments of the Pakistani military and intelligence apparatus, such as the retired general Hamid Gul, who was one of the architects of the so-called Afghan jihad in the 1980s. However, despite his immense celebrity, Khan didn’t get much traction electorally at first. For a time, he even supported Musharraf’s coup government in 1999 and beyond. But he then turned against Musharraf when he couldn’t get any kind of real political muscle with the military.
Khan’s fortunes really changed from 2011 onward, on the back of an emergent professional and managerial middle-class fraction, which was based mostly in urban and urbanizing areas of the core Punjab province, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, and the biggest city, Karachi. This fraction was itself the product of the previous rounds of economic liberalization and consumption-centered economic growth based on the services sector that Pakistan had seen over the previous two decades.
At the time, this middle-class fraction was estimated to comprise about forty million people out of a population of two hundred million. Historically in Pakistan, such professional middle-class fractions had found their political articulation and representation through the state bureaucratic apparatus, including the military. Therefore, they were very close to the military, in both sociological and ideological terms, subscribing to a mainstream form of Islam- and military-centered Pakistani nationalism.
In the context of the late 2000s, with recurrent economic troubles and the narrowness of existing political formations that I discussed earlier, there was a growing incoherence of the existing complex of Islam and praetorianism under pressure from the war on terror, resulting in a crisis of the military-centered order. This new middle-class fraction found its articulation in the form of Khan.
That articulation came via his celebrity and his rediscovery of Islam, after previously leading a playboy lifestyle. He expressed a form of cultural nationalism and a highly technocratic discourse on corruption, which saw it as a problem of morally compromised, Westernized elites, and as a problem of market distortion and the violation of meritocracy. This technocratic understanding of corruption as being not a structural issue, but one rooted in personalities, was very much in line with the good-governance prescriptions of the IMF and the World Bank.
This burgeoning middle-class sentiment developed behind Khan and the PTI as we moved into the 2010s. Of course, no middle class on its own is strong enough numerically or sociologically to take power without allied classes. This is especially true in Pakistan’s first-past-the-post parliamentary system. In these terms, there are really only two choices available: you can either have an alliance with the classes that are above the middle class, or with the classes that are below it.
The middle-class insurgency represented by the PTI ultimately failed to win the 2013 elections, except in one province. However, antagonisms emerged between Nawaz Sharif’s government and the military, creating an opening for the PTI, which began to receive active support from the military. The falling out between Sharif and the army came over issues of foreign policy and internal security, as well as the division of spoils from incoming Chinese investment to the tune of $50 billion.
The Sharif government was ousted in 2017 through military and judicial maneuvers on charges of corruption. Political brokers, consisting of big and medium landlords, contractors, and political entrepreneurs, were increasingly cajoled by the military and its agencies to join the PTI. The party then came into power in the 2018 elections based on two important factors.
One was the genuine popularity of Khan and the PTI among the middle classes, and especially young people. For example, the PTI increased its aggregate vote between 2013 and 2018 by 9.2 million, which is almost exactly the same figure as the young people who were added to the electoral rolls in the meantime. The second factor was the influx of political brokers with direct and indirect support from the Pakistani military apparatus.
In a sense, the PTI and its core hegemonic middle class had made its choice. Instead of allying with subordinate classes, this was a form of populism with a middle-class fraction at its core, but ultimately predicated on Pakistan’s rapacious praetorian guard and its usual networks of big business, landowners, petty contractors, and brokers. For example, the PTI’s vice president to this day is Shah Mahmood Qureshi, one of Pakistan’s biggest landlords. His family received huge land grants because of their obsequiousness and loyalty to the British Raj in colonial times.
This uneasy alliance between middle classes, upper classes, and the military was centered around the personality of Khan and mediated through the organizational muscle of Pakistan’s military and intelligence apparatus. In ideological terms, it was based on a right-wing cultural complex, with a moralistic, market-centric understanding of corruption. You also had the shifting linkage between militarism and Islam. It was a highly unstable alliance that came to power.
DANIEL FINN: What was the track record of Khan’s government in office?
AYYAZ MALLICK: Once in power, like all preceding governments in Pakistan over the last two decades, the PTI inherited a very serious fiscal and balance-of-payments crisis. In its initial months, the Khan government dithered over going to the IMF before eventually doing so. This resulted in a program of structural adjustment and austerity, which caused huge inflation and unemployment, with economic growth contracting by 3 percent of the GDP. Again, this has been a typical experience for almost all incoming governments in Pakistan.
In almost all spheres, the Khan government continued the same policies of liberalization, austerity, and stealth privatization, mixed with limited forms of welfarism through cash grant schemes. For example, it instituted a state-sponsored health insurance scheme, which basically incentivizes private, for-profit hospitals at the expense of universal public health care, in partial imitation of the US health care system.
Bureaucrats from the IMF were imported to serve in key ministries. The State Bank of Pakistan itself was “autonomized” under IMF dictates, ostensibly to free it from “political interference,” in accordance with the neoclassical mantra. This was intended to make it an independent regulator of the money supply as opposed to being a state bank serving public developmental needs, even theoretically (which would require a different class coalition to become a reality).
On top of this, you have the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which in its initial stages saw a drastic slowdown of economic activity and massive layoffs in Pakistan’s already anemic industrial sector. In this case, however, Pakistan was lucky, because it managed to avoid disaster with COVID-19, mainly because of its young population and some other unexplained reasons. In fact, it ended up being something of a blessing for the PTI government, as debt and interest payments were deferred by the international financial institutions at the time.
This opened up fiscal space for the government to institute some limited forms of welfare. But even here, the bulk of the so-called relief packages went into the pockets of real estate and construction cartels, dressed up as employment generation and relief. While ten million people in Pakistan were pushed below the poverty line, profits for the corporate sector rose by 69 percent in a year, as PTI ministers proudly boasted.
There was further encroachment by the military in the Pakistani economy, with serving and retired officers now taking up all kinds of positions — in ambassadorial roles, in state enterprises, overseeing Chinese investment, or even being hired by factory owners as muscle to keep their workers in check. Meanwhile, the injections of foreign currency coming from the United States for “anti-terror” operations and from China for the Belt and Road Initiative were slowing down. This was due to a shift in geopolitical focus in the case of the United States and because of blockages in the utilization of investment in the case of China.
While this was happening, opposition politicians from the other parties were hounded and often jailed, as were critical journalists and even media magnates linked to the opposition. Disappearances and abductions of activists by the military even reached the core province of Punjab. There was wider use of colonial-era treason and sedition laws — for example, against students demanding the restoration of student unions on campus. This was close to being a martial-law government, but with a twist in the sense that there was a popular civilian prime minister at the front of it.
Within the government itself, the alliance was always going to be uneasy. In Punjab province alone, which is centrally important to any stable rule in Pakistan, the PTI government was riven by at least four distinct factions. One of the main features of the Khan-military regime therefore was its incoherence — what I would call an aborted populism. It was a grotesque dance of appeasing first one faction, then another, while the usual coterie made off with billions.
As part of this incoherence and flailing about, we heard loud calls from governmental circles for the institution of a presidential system in Pakistan and the abolition of fiscal federalism. This demand emanated from the military’s aim of perpetuating its own political and economic stakes via this government.
On the ideological front, Khan came out with proclamations and posturing on the international stage about Islamophobia and leadership of the so-called Muslim world. This was rooted in a form of turbocharged cultural nationalism, with all its gendered oppressions. For example, Khan regularly held audiences with media personnel, social media influencers, and the like, proclaiming Bollywood and “Western values” to be the root of Pakistan’s various social ills, including highly publicized cases of rape and murder of women.
As Samir Amin once put it, imperialist globalization today stands on two legs: geopolitical and economic. Thus, resorting merely to geopolitical rhetoric is of limited use in the absence of an alternative socioeconomic program. In Khan’s case, ideological overdrive and narrow cultural nationalism served as compensation for the lack of an integral hegemonic project. It was a means of dissimulation rather than organization and preparation of the masses for a serious assault on the entrenched structures of power in Pakistan. Of course, such an assault would have required a very different coalition of class forces.
Imran Khan’s Downfall and Political Crisis
DANIEL FINN: Why was Khan ousted as prime minister last year, and how has he responded to that setback for his political project?
AYYAZ MALLICK: Things had really come to a head by the second half of 2021. There was restlessness among the opposition parties that were cornered and excluded from the corridors of power, as well as brewing popular resentment due to backbreaking austerity and inflation. You also had discontent and often open infighting among government factions in Punjab.
This was all translating directly or indirectly into a rethink among the army’s top brass about its active support for the PTI-led coalition. In October 2021, the army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, transferred Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed from his position as head of the intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The prime minister has to formally approve such decisions, but the army expects to have its way.
Khan, to the displeasure of Bajwa, dithered over the transfer, because Hameed was effectively the PTI government’s chief whip, keeping both its allies and the opposition forces in order. Eventually, the army prevailed over the transfer and a new ISI chief came in. With Hameed gone and the army-PTI alliance unraveling, the opposition sensed an opening, and the allies of the PTI jumped ship in a vote of no confidence against Khan.
Khan resisted, but he was ultimately forced out of office, having fallen victim to the same political brokers and military strongmen who had ensured his rise to power. To Khan and his core middle-class base, this withdrawal of support from the military came as a complete shock. They were almost like jilted lovers, going on the charge, whether on the streets or hyperactive internet forums, presenting Khan as the victim of a US-sponsored conspiracy and then accusing Bajwa directly of being a traitor to the country.
The army has responded with a measure of the same repression and then some against PTI notables and supporters that it previously meted out to their opponents. Khan himself at first attempted to have a favorite general appointed as the next army chief after Bajwa’s retirement. When that did not happen, the PTI dissolved its own governments and the assemblies in Punjab and KP province in a bid to force early national elections, which were scheduled to be held in late 2023 but have now been delayed.
This open dissent against the army in core areas of Pakistan is unprecedented since at least the last round of anti-dictatorship struggles in 2007–08. However, neither Khan nor his base have the will or the structural capacity to carry out a sustained campaign against the military. He has been arrested recently, and if he becomes too much of a nuisance to the military, the threat of elimination is always there. Khan received what I believe was a warning shot in early November 2022 with a failed assassination attempt.
However, what does increase Khan’s nuisance value is the wider crisis that Pakistan finds itself embroiled in. The succeeding government was the usual mélange of has-beens: sons, nephews, and loyalists from assorted parties and regions. They also set about appeasing the military in various ways, by not touching its budget, and proposing laws — just as the PTI did — to institute harsh punishments for any public criticism of state institutions.
Like previous governments, they implemented punishing austerity to overcome a crippling balance-of-payment crisis. The days of the Pakistani ruling bloc playing the role of regional gendarme for US imperialism are in decline. Even then, the military has attempted to renew such a role by selling weapons to Ukraine in exchange for the United States brokering an IMF bailout. However, there is no prospect of concerted American patronage as in previous rounds of imperial warfare; nor are there going to be unconditional bailouts forthcoming from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, or China.
In this context, the IMF and international finance capital behind it are looking for their full pound of flesh. As well as free currency flotation and tighter monetary policy, the IMF demanded cancelation of energy subsidies, even for the lowest — that is, the poorest — unit consumers. The issues are therefore much wider than Khan himself. Populist upsurges in Pakistan, including that of Khan, are merely a symptom of the long-term organic crisis of Pakistan’s ruling bloc, which is rooted concretely in the lack of an integral and expansive economic project.
DANIEL FINN: The Pakistani authorities have now imprisoned Khan on charges of corruption and banned him from taking part in politics. What is the significance of the legal moves against Khan, and what should we expect from the election that is due to be held in the first month of next year?
AYYAZ MALLICK: A caretaker government has been in power since August that was supposed to hold elections in November, but these elections are now being delayed at least until early next year. Ostensibly, the reason for the delay is to carry out fresh delimitations of parliamentary constituencies. But substantively, the military is using the interregnum to neutralize Khan and his party, while maneuvering for some kind of economic stability.
On one hand, a Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC) has been set up, with the army accorded a central role within it. The SIFC (and the army chief) is aiming to attract between $70 to $100 billion of investment from the Gulf dictatorships into mainly primary sectors. The increasing penetration and legitimation of the military’s role in the economy continues a trend from previous governments, with each successive administration perched on a narrower social basis and thus even more reliant on the military. As mentioned previously, there are also attempts to renew the military’s historical role as regional gendarme for US imperialism.
On the other hand, the delay is being used to dismantle Khan’s party, with thousands of arrests and even military courts being deployed against civilian party workers. In effect, a clearing of the deck is being attempted again before the elections, to make the political and economic terrain favorable for the ruling bloc.
Here, the personalized character of Khan’s party and support base is both a strength and a weakness. The assault on party workers reduces its ability to mobilize when the elections do happen. However, Khan remains the single most popular politician in the country, and as I have said, he is not the cause of the crisis itself but merely a symptom of the crisis. Wider conditions of deprivation and a generational shift mean that his appeal will not diminish as a result of such coercive measures.
The terrain of politics in Pakistan has shifted decisively. The long-term lack of economic coherence, combined with the absence of imperial and subimperial patronage, leaves that terrain in a state of constant flux. In the short and medium term, politics will remain structured around the nodes of Khan and the military. This would be similar to the situation after Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s judicial murder in 1979, when the next two to three decades of politics in Pakistan became organized around pro-Bhutto and anti-Bhutto nodes.
DANIEL FINN: In the light of all the factors that you’ve discussed so far, how do you think the political crisis in Pakistan is likely to develop over the coming months and years?
AYYAZ MALLICK: In the short term, the situation is very bad. The rate of inflation is at its highest level since 1975, with essential food items doubling in price over the last year alone. Development expenditure that was already anemic has been cut drastically.
Sixty percent of the population is under thirty. The Pakistani economy needs to create about 1.5 million jobs each year to absorb this growing youth bulge. There is huge youth unrest and unemployment. Even among degree-holding young people, 33 percent are unemployed.
I’m not in the business of making predictions, as the direction of events depends ultimately on the balance of forces and strategies which come to prevail at any moment. But there is a certain structuring of the terrain that points toward possible scenarios.
The first scenario is the favored course of Pakistan’s ruling class, that of muddling through. This would involve getting support from the IMF and loans from friendly countries so they can survive the latest round of adjustment, hold elections, and then go into another looming IMF program. Ultimately, however, they will arrive at the same crisis involving the balance of payments, fiscal shortfall, and debt, repeating the cycle once again. The favored course of the ruling class is to survive and live to see another day.
Because of the recurring crisis and the lack of prospective imperial patronage, the ruling bloc is also desperately exploring other options. The SIFC’s maneuverings and courting of Gulf investment are part of this search for coherence. In view of the economic dead-end that Pakistan has reached, however, I think there are only two ways out of this situation over the medium to long term.
The first would be a deep-rooted program of structural change. This would not follow the IMF’s mantra of export-oriented growth and integration into global markets. Indeed, it is the insertion of Pakistan into the world system that has led to the present crisis. This alternative scenario would entail a program of what Samir Amin called “delinking.”
It would involve internally focused development based on increasing productive investment through state intervention or nationalization of key sectors and building linkages between industry and agriculture, with broad-based, labor-absorbing forms of industrialization and increased agricultural productivity, as opposed to enclave forms of capitalist globalization. All of these steps are predicated on raising effective demand at home, which would entail a minimum program of land reforms in both urban and rural areas. Obviously, such a basic program of internally focused development and getting out of the grips of imperialist dependency would require a very different coalition of class forces.
The other scenario, which is possible, would see the Pakistani ruling bloc deciding to go full tilt on IMF-style structural adjustment, liberalization, privatization, and austerity. This would mean a further round of dispossession and extraction from the subordinate classes and from Pakistan’s many peripheries.
This would be sure to generate social and political unrest among the popular classes and sections of the elite that stand to lose out from wholesale restructuring. Such widespread unrest could only be quelled through a ferocious program of coercion, akin to a Pinochet or Zia-type dictatorship. This would discipline the popular classes, of course, but also parts of the dominant bloc to ensure integration into the imperial world system on terms that are still unequal, but differently so.
There is only one actor in the Pakistani polity that can carry out such a program. This is a scenario to be feared, but one that the structural incapacity of the Pakistani ruling classes is bringing more and more into the realm of possibility every day.