Islamabad (Imran Y. CHOUDHRY) :- Former Press Secretary to the President, Former Press Minister to the Embassy of Pakistan to France, Former MD, SRBC Mr. Qamar Bashir analysis :
In the context of PTI’s relevance to the elections and to the politics of the country, the challenge lies in PTI’s current confrontational stance towards the powerful Army, which plays a significant role in Pakistan’s politics. PTI is perceived as actively seeking favor from the public and institutions to establish its superiority over army and its leadership by cultivating its retired and serving officers and by maligning, weakening and discrediting the army as an institution and its leaders. Whereas, the army as an institution has decided to vehemently frustrate all such efforts by all means at its disposal and at all costs.
The ongoing struggle between PTI and the Army became evident through a PTI-sponsored survey indicating strong public support for Imran Khan, with a 61% positive opinion. Regionally, 29% from Punjab, 28% from Sindh, and 14% from KP had a favorable view of Imran Khan. However, 37% expressed a negative opinion. Notably, Nawaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto also garnered far less public support, with 36% having a positive opinion of both. Shehbaz Sharif, on the other hand, faced a 65% negative rating, with only 32% expressing a positive opinion.
In my official capacity, I had close associations with both PTI and PML(N) leadership during their respective times in government. It’s common for the party in power to conduct surveys to boost their ratings, often through friendly agencies. As a counter strategy, the parties in opposition conduct counter surveys to validate their higher rating and prove the earlier survey as biased. However, this time around neither the PML(N) nor PPP conducted the counter surveys, but intriguingly the army did.
The Army conducted its own survey, titled “National Public Opinion Poll Report,” which received an impressive 88% rating. This survey, conducted between June 10 and June 30, gathered responses from 3,500 participants across all four provinces of Pakistan.
Some critics argued that assessing the Army’s popularity was unnecessary, as such surveys traditionally focus on public figures rather than the military. However, it’s worth noting that similar surveys are commonplace in advanced democracies, including the UK and the USA.
For instance, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey in 2018, revealing that the military is the most trusted institution in the United States, with 72% of Americans expressing a great deal of trust and confidence in it. Similarly, a 2022 YouGov Survey found that 62% of Britons have a favorable view of the British Army, while only 16% held an unfavorable view.
The significance of the two surveys conducted in Pakistan lies in their timing, reflecting a prevailing perception that PTI and the Army were engaged in a contest for gaining popularity against each other. This perception, whether rightly or wrongly held, carries profound and far-reaching consequences. In national discourse, it’s not uncommon for political parties to compete with each other. However, when the perception arises that a political party is competing for popularity against the country’s most sensitive and critical institution, and vice versa, it raises serious and troubling concerns.
The stark reality is that the Army, as the most powerful institution, has historically held control over political, economic, and financial discipline in Pakistan. It often remains neutral while vigilantly monitoring the direction each aspect of discipline takes. It has established upper and lower limits of tolerance or acceptable behavior, and when any of these boundaries are breached, it intervenes to bring them back within acceptable bounds. Seasoned and traditional political parties have learned these limits and, no matter the circumstances, strive to operate within them, fully aware of the consequences of deviating from the established norms.
However, PTI, being relatively new to the political landscape and facing the formidable influence of the establishment for the first time, miscalculated the extent of support it could muster through street protests and massive public backing to challenge the Army’s overarching role in national politics. If the PTI had previously encountered the establishment’s “smart power” with full force, it might have refrained from exceeding the established limits of tolerance.
PTI, along with its public supporters and alleged involvement of retired and serving army officers, had underestimated the extent to which the Army would take action against them, particularly after the disturbing, violent, and unlawful events of May 9.
The Army employed a meticulously coordinated combination of kinetic and soft power to effectively remove PTI from the national discourse. It utilized its coercive power to silence PTI’s chairman and leaders, preventing them from conveying the party’s perspective through national media. High-profile PTI figures and supporters were apprehended, effectively muting their presence in national discussions. It employed fear mongering tactics to dissuade public support for Khan and PTI. This included arbitrary arrests and detentions, often incommunicado for extended periods. Detainees suspected of involvement in attacks faced alleged torture and ill-treatment. Allegedly, families of detainees were threatened with reprisals if they didn’t confess to their alleged involvement.
Concurrently, a highly successful strategic communication campaign was launched to undermine PTI and its leadership. It leaked stories to the media while disseminating propaganda and information about Imran Khan and PTI. Released footage showcasing violence involving PTI workers clashing with the police and damaging property was employed to shape public opinion. Journalists were briefed on the violence, and provided with its own version of events to sway the narrative. Engaged with political parties, civil society, and community leaders to discourage support for mass protests, while cautioning the public against participating in protests with threats of consequences.
It employed sophisticated technique of narrative framing consistently negative and unfavorable towards Imran Khan and PTI. For instance, Khan was portrayed as a divisive and dangerous figure. Techniques such as priming were employed, repeatedly accusing Khan of corruption and incompetence. A repetition of negative messages about Khan and PTI was used to create an adverse public image. A bandwagon effect was created, giving the impression that the majority of the public opposed Khan and PTI, with claims that most supported the military establishment and the government.
Most likely the PTI leadership and its advisors did not have any idea to face such a massive, sophisticated combination of hard and soft power. But so far the PTI leadership has not learnt the crucial lesson and is continuing to directly confront the army leadership or the institution itself which is a highly risky and perilous undertaking. It is not ready to learn the bitter lesson that the army had a history of successfully achieving its objectives, often reducing opposing parties to insignificance, regardless of their popularity or public approval ratings.
Despite enduring significant trials and retribution, PTI seemingly failed to grasp this lesson. Recent social media posts from PTI leaders who have evaded the law and their supporters openly challenging the army’s authority are unwise and provocative. Such confrontational behavior provides the army with justification to respond assertively and decisively. This confrontational stance likely accelerates the use of smart power against the PTI, further diminishing its prospects for a fair and equitable contest in the upcoming elections.
PTI should change its posture sooner the better from its belligerent relationship with the powerful armed forces and should actively seek avenues for constructive and open dialogue with the military leadership. This dialogue should aim to understand the concerns and goals of the armed forces. PTI must maintain transparency about its intentions, policies, and objectives, addressing any misconceptions held by the military. Finding common areas of interest and collaboration for the betterment of the nation is crucial.
Respecting the constitutional framework and ensuring that the party’s actions align with the laws governing the military’s role is imperative. In cases of specific grievances or conflicts, engaging in conflict resolution processes such as mediation or negotiation to reach mutually acceptable solutions is a wise approach. Building trust over time through consistent, responsible actions and a commitment to conflict resolution is a fundamental step. Above all, the PTI should avoid any actions or statements that may provoke the armed forces or create unnecessary tensions.
Simultaneously, it should change its posture towards other political parties. Rather condemning them of corruption and refusing to engage with them for national construction efforts, it should work on building a consensus with them through collaboration and dialogue which can lead to a more stable political environment.
It should prioritize good governance, addressing economic and social issues effectively, and plans of action to fundamentally improve the public service delivery to the people in all sectors and disciplines.
It should fundamentally change its narrative from negativity against the army and political parties to positivity through policies and actions that resonate with the population, addressing their concerns and needs while maintaining transparency in its actions and decisions to build trust with the public and institutions. Above all, PTI needs to strike a balance between pursuing its political agenda and collaborating with key institutions to ensure stability and progress in Pakistan’s political landscape.
It’s anticipated that with such concrete, honest, and conviction-driven actions, a change of hearts within the establishment may occur. Deep down, they also recognize that excluding a major political party from participation could significantly compromise the credibility of elections.
In democratic systems, it’s crucial for elections to be inclusive and allow fair competition among various political parties. The exclusion of a major party could be perceived as undemocratic, raising concerns about the legitimacy and fairness of the election. Perhaps the establishment is waiting for the right signals and movements from PTI to allow PTI’s leadership and the party to launch an election campaign against other political parties rather than against the military.