President Arif Alvi, a retired dentist from the city of Karachi, said that he disagreed with amendments to acts on the army and official secrets passed by parliament and asked his staff to return the two bills unsigned. He claimed that he subsequently discovered that bureaucrats assigned to his office had “undermined” his “will and command” and failed to return the bills.
Pakistan is now divided over the question of whether these bills are now part of the country’s constitution. How this dispute ends will have grave consequences not just for Pakistan’s fledgling democracy, but also for the imprisoned former Prime Minister Imran Khan and his close allies, who could be punished under these laws.
A Coup By Other Means
In the final weeks of its tenure, the coalition government that had ruled Pakistan till early August rushed through parliament a series of laws that greatly enhance the army’s de jure powers and restrict civil liberties.
This unpopular coalition of parties, known ironically as the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), allied with the Pakistan Army to first oust then-Prime Minister Khan last year in a vote of no confidence and then later to prevent him from returning to power.
Since his ouster, Khan has emerged as Pakistan’s most popular politician. He’s taken on not just the government that replaced his, but also the army that had once backed him, and America, which he alleges was part of the campaign to remove him from power.
Pakistan’s civilian and military rulers have thrown the kitchen sink at Khan. He survived an assassination attempt last November. Khan was violently arrested by paramilitary forces this May from the premises of the Islamabad High Court. His followers came out in protest, some of which included violence targeting military property. Since then, the army has gone into overdrive seeking to dismantle Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI), forcing defections from its senior ranks.
Finally, on August 5th, Khan was convicted and jailed on flimsy charges related to allegations of failing to disclose financial assets.
The Pakistan Army, which has ruled Pakistan for nearly half of its existence and remains powerful even in times of civilian rule, has also used the violence of May 9 to increase its de jure powers.
It has had a willing partner in the PDM coalition government, whose individual members seek to use the army’s support to return to power after the next elections. As part of this grand bargain, the Army Act and Official Secrets Act were amended to expand the scope of punishment for the disclosure of information related to national security or “defamation” of the army. Other laws have also given the army a seat at the table in making economic policy decisions.
But this could end up becoming a Faustian bargain for some or all members of the PDM. Pakistan’s general elections, which must take place by November, might be delayed indefinitely. And the caretaker government led by army-picked ministers, ostensibly to administer the electoral transition period, could rule for much longer.
More than just having a seat at the table, the Pakistan Army is now in the driver’s seat. And the laws that Alvi refused to sign help give its power grab legal cover.
The Stakes for Pakistani Democracy
President Alvi is the last Khan loyalist in a major official civilian position and a barrier to the army’s complete monopolization of power. A longtime member of Khan’s PTI, he says he used his pocket veto power to push the army and official secrets laws back to parliament, but the bureaucracy did not comply.
Given that the lower house has been dissolved, parliament would not be able to attempt to pass the bills again until the next general elections, complicating the army’s ability to rule indefinitely through the caretaker setup using powers given to it by the lame-duck parliament. The president is chosen by an electoral college made up of the country’s legislative assemblies. So Alvi also remains in office until the general elections take place.
The dispute over these laws could now go to the Supreme Court. The military-backed caretaker government acknowledges that Alvi did not sign the laws, but it claims that he did not use his pocket veto powers correctly, and, as a result, his assent was “deemed.”
But leading Pakistani jurists side with Alvi, arguing that the president’s assent can only be deemed after a law reconsidered and passed by parliament comes to the head of state’s desk for a second time.
Conveniently, PDM and army-aligned actors are now calling for Alvi’s resignation. Not only do they want Alvi out of the picture, but they are also intent on using the new, draconian legislation to punish Khan and other senior members of his party for public disclosure of a Pakistani diplomatic cable that the ex-cricketer alleges recounts a U.S. official’s attempts to press for his removal from power.
The cable was made public earlier this month in a report published by The Intercept, which says it received the document from a Pakistani military whistleblower. The Pakistani army is instead trying to pin the document’s leak on Khan and figures close to him.
Now, if Alvi prevails or does not relent, the Pakistan Army could move to forcibly remove him from office. In such a scenario, all eyes would be on the Biden administration.
This month, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the conviction of Russian opposition leader Aleksey Navalny and the removal of Nigerien Mohamed Bazoum. He also announced the imposition of sanctions on Nicaraguan human rights violators.
But Blinken has been silent amid the arrest of thousands of Khan’s supporters and the abduction of politicians, civil society activists, and lawyers in Pakistan.
Continued U.S. silence would not only indicate that the Pakistan Army’s supply of much-needed firepower to Ukraine has given it a Get Out of Jail Free card — but, for the Pakistani public, it would also further validate Khan’s claims that the Biden administration wanted him out of power.
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine. He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.