By bringing the military in as a stakeholder as well as advocating a smart lockdown, Khan’s COVID-19 response has consolidated his hold on power.
Earlier last week, Pakistan decided to reopen all educational institutions in phases starting on September 15. The decision was made a month after the federal government decided to open public places like restaurants, gyms and tourist destinations. That the rate of coronavirus infections has not spiked, even after the resumption of business activities, Eid-ul-Azha and Muharram processions, is an indication that Pakistan is finally getting back to normalcy. Recent reports and analyses have described Pakistan as a COVID-19 bright spot – a sharp turnaround from a few months ago, when it was feared that the country’s inept handling of the crisis would lead to disaster. That Pakistan has turned the tables in a matter of months is a win for its Prime Minister Imran Khan, whose position has now become stronger than ever.
There are three reasons why Pakistan’s fight against COVID-19 has ensconced Khan in a comfortable position vis-à-vis his opponents.
First, Pakistan’s COVID-19 response was channeled through a cooperative mechanism between the government and the military, something that has led to cohesion and institutional harmony. Civil-military cooperation in fighting the pandemic has been visible through the National Coordination Committee (NCC) and its operational arm, the National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC), which include both civilian ministers and military leaders. The NCC, headed by the prime minister, is the apex decision-making body on matters related to COVID-19, and involves the military’s top brass in its deliberations on future courses of action. The workings of the NCOC have likewise amplified how effectively both civil and military officials have worked together to synergize all efforts and implement the decisions made by the NCC. The NCOC is headed by Federal Minister Asad Umar and comprises several high-ranking civil and military officials. Furthermore, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), headed by a serving three-star general, has also been at the forefront of managing this gargantuan crisis.
Pakistan’s model of civil-military cooperation has certainly delivered, indicating that ties between Khan and the military are robust. It also indicates that reports of a possible estrangement between the military and Khan were overblown. Indeed, Pundits who were predicting a doomsday scenario for Khan talked about “in-house change” and the “minus-one” formula, both of which would have involved him being removed from the prime ministership.
However, those possibilities hinged on one eventuality: an unmitigable, COVID-19-induced catastrophe in Pakistan. The military’s successful working relationship with the Khan government has also effectively quashed rumors of a behind-the-scenes deal between the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the military. The ability of the Khan-led government to manage the pandemic has deprived his opponents of a rallying cry against him. Recall that the President of the PML-N, Shahbaz Sharif, had flayed the government for its sheer lack of preparedness to deal with COVID-19-related crises. The government’s adept handling of the pandemic, coupled with the support of the military, has made the political landscape easier to navigate for the Pakistani prime minister.
Second, Pakistan’s COVID-19 countermeasures were in line with Khan’s consistent policy of saving lives and livelihoods. Since the very beginning, Khan, citing Pakistan’s specific circumstances, vehemently opposed a full-scale lockdown. While Khan advocated for and enforced a targeted lockdown in a bid to keep the economy afloat, the Pakistan Peoples Party-led Sindh provincial government foisted a complete lockdown in that province. However, the results were not encouraging, to say the least. Ultimately, the Sindh government had to impose a smart lockdown along the lines Khan had advocated. The smart lockdown approach showed its positive effects in the provinces governed by Khan’s party. Punjab is a perfect example. Once a veritable coronavirus hotspot , the province has been able to avert a major health crisis due to the implementation of a set of smart lockdowns. With the intensity of the crisis fading noticeably, Khan continues to highlight how determined he was to stick to his smart-lockdown policy, despite constant denunciation and resistance.
With Pakistan’s anti-COVID-19 actions and Khan’s smart-lockdown policy being lauded, the country’s prime minister finds himself in a much better position than he was earlier this year. The optics could not be better for him. That he did not wilt under pressure and remained fixed on striking a balance between the economy and public health shows he braved the odds stacked against him. Moreover, the fact that a smart-lockdown route was taken, by and large, vindicates Khan’s position on the state of civil-military relations in the country. Recently, he vociferously stated that the military backs all policies of his government. All this has left little room for the opposition to pose a threat to the Khan government.
Third, Khan’s government has been given some respite due to the encouraging statistics on the state of the economy. Pakistan recently recorded a current account surplus, after running a mammoth deficit for years. Additionally, the country received record remittances in the month of July, giving the prime minister an opportunity to announce the good news on Twitter. With Pakistan expected to witness a GDP growth of 1 percent for the current fiscal year, it could be argued that the economy as a whole has not been crippled as a result of the pandemic. Economic recovery is being anticipated, as evidenced by bullish trends in Pakistani stock markets and an increase in business confidence. The outlook might not be ideal, but is not bad enough for the opposition to berate the government and for the latter to feel enfeebled. Moreover, Pakistan’s exports returned totheir pre-COVID-19 level earlier this year. That Pakistan’s government has managed to mitigate the deleterious effects of COVID-19 on the economy is a sigh of relief for its prime minister. Greater or more lasting damage to the economy would have offered an ideal opportunity for the opposition to pin down Khan.
As Pakistan slowly extricates itself from the shackles of the COVID-19 pandemic, Khan finds himself perched in a stronger position at the helm. This breathing space could be used to further consolidate his hold on power.
Syed Ali Zia Jaffery is a strategic affairs and foreign policy analyst. He tweets at @syedalizia1992.