Thailand’s implications for Pakistan

There are obviously many massive differences between Thailand and Pakistan, but the recent Thai elections suggest some lessons relevant to the current military/government crackdown on Imran Khan’s PTI in Pakistan. I’m not personally a fan of Khan or his more extremely-online backers, all of whom vehemently swore up and down back in 2018 that he was not backed by the military; the more recent “regime change” stuff was similarly unpersuasive.

But that doesn’t mean a grim wave of state repression is somehow justified, much less that it will “work” as desired. The military going after the PTI – and the government mooting the possibility of banning it – is part of an old playbook in both Pakistan and other military-influenced polities. Dawn summarizes it here:

“Indeed, the government seems to realise its vulnerable position, which is why free rein is being given to the shadow state to deal with the challenge posed by the PTI. These elements have gone about this task with signature, ham-fisted violence.”

That can be effective if you don’t plan to have free-ish and fair-ish future elections or if you think the targeted party is a pure product of patronage and malleable electables. But if those conditions don’t apply, then you “solve” a short-term problem but without an answer to the long-term question of how to build political stability.

The Thai milpritary/monarchy exiled and sidelined various opponents over the last 20 years, but even after years of military rule that sought to lay the basis for a manageable political order (“The 2017 junta-initiated constitution with an appointed Senate was conceived as a tool by political elites to ensure their power, including over the popularly elected lower house”), the elections showed deep support for their opponents (“clear repudiation of the two military-aligned parties of the current government, and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led a coup that ousted an elected government in 2014. The governing coalition won only 15% of the seats”).

As Tamara Loos argues:

“Many new voters who grew up during the tumultuous 2000s and many older voters frustrated with the static invariability of Thai politics cast their ballots in May for orange: the blend of yellow and red adopted by Move Forward in its campaign. . ..

If Move Forward is unable to build a ruling coalition, other major parties could form a government in its stead, a development that would likely trigger protests, which the military could distort into a pretext to stage a coup. If Move Forward’s coalition tries to reform Article 112, the Election Commission could dissolve the party and its partners, which would also catalyze popular dissent, and the military could stage a coup. If a coalition government fails to broach discussion of Article 112, Thais may stage peaceful protests, which could then invite the military to stage a coup.  .. .

This distressing pattern persists in Thai politics: when events or protests threaten the power of the military-monarchical status quo, the military uses the disruption as an excuse to stage a coup, crack down on dissent, and eventually hold elections for a new government, which rules until its power is threatened anew. “

This means it’s not at all obvious to me what the endgame is in Pakistan. The PTI has plenty of peelable-away electables, leaders able to be pressured, and a complex electoral coalition that will prove vulnerable. But it’s also a representative of a meaningful portion of the Pakistani polity. Both things can be true at once. The PPP and PML-N are around even after past military crackdowns, the Awami League was still able to become a major player in Bangladeshi politics even after the 1975-1990 military interregnum, and the Thai opposition has found a new voice despite years of military management. If Myanmar’s military somehow stepped aside tomorrow, the NLD and other pre-2021 coup parties would still be key players.

Mass politics just aren’t easily malleable, which is why military regimes struggle so badly to build and maintain stable rule. The key question is thus whether and how this constituency will be incorporated; there is certainly the possibility that the PTI or something like it sweeps back to power in future elections, heralding another potential crisis.

The unipolarity question

Foreign Affairs did one of its “ask a bunch of people” polls, asking respondents to evaluate the statement “The global distribution of power today is closer to being unipolar than it is to being bipolar or multipolar.”

I came down as a Disagree, Confidence 5. I’m not confident about any predictions or claims about the world above a certain level, but it seems hard to really see the contemporary international system as closer to unipolarity than to something else. I wrote:
“There is no doubt that the United States retains huge power advantages in the international system. But it’s also the case that countries like China and India have dramatically greater power in particular regions and issue areas than 20 or 30 years ago.”

My University of Chicago Political Science colleagues John Mearsheimer and Paul Poast also came in on the Disagree side of things, though in John’s case, perhaps unsurprisingly, with dramatically greater confidence and lack of waffling, for better and worse.

Mir on Pakistan’s political crisis

Asfandyar Mir at USIP summarizes the current state of play:

“Four developments will significantly shape politics in Pakistan and determine the prospects of stability in the near term.

  • Judicial intervention. The Supreme Court’s order to release Khan adds to tensions between the army and the court. The army had signaled its intent to hold the PTI leadership, including Khan, to account for the violence against military installations, so the release order, by offering reprieve to Khan and the PTI, dilutes the army’s plan. The court’s intervention may also shield Khan in future legal proceedings as judges are sensitive to cues from the Supreme Court’s chief justice. That could frustrate military leaders and push them to consider emergency measures, perhaps even direct intervention.
  • Military cohesion. Khan’s future prospects and the government and the military’s ability to counter the PTI also depend, in great measure, on the military establishment’s cohesion. Pakistan’s military establishment, generally composed of senior officers in the army and intelligence services, has shown no overt signs of fracture, but the past year has included signs of its cohesion being under pressure. Khan and his party have significant support in military elite networks; retired military officers have been extremely critical of the establishment’s approach and its decision to distance itself from Khan since last year. Amid the widespread protests and judicial intervention, senior military leadership may be under pressure to de-escalate current tensions and take an off-ramp from the crackdown against the PTI. On the other hand, the sense of embarrassment and breach of honor due to PTI supporters’ attacks against military installations could create a “rally around the flag” effect, and Khan’s support within the military’s elite networks may begin to diminish. The military’s cohesion remains important to watch.
  • Level of violence. An important factor will be the scale of violence. The government, in coordination with the military, has launched a major crackdown against the PTI for inciting and directing violence. While Khan’s release immediately eased popular anger, a re-arrest, which is possible, could revive protests. If protesters target military personnel and installations again, the crackdown could become more severe. Terrorist violence by the Pakistani Taliban, which has been surging, also could add to the instability. In general, more agitation and violence can trigger emergency measures, including countrywide curfews. That will also push the country towards a direct military intervention. But if the protests persist beyond those emergency measures, Khan may prevail, and the government and military could back off.
  • Economic crisis. A wild card is Pakistan’s precarious economic situation. Pakistan has been muddling through a balance of payments crisis, and in the next few months, it has major repayments due to its multilateral, private and bilateral lenders. To manage these repayments and avert a default, Pakistan foremost needs rollover and refinanced loans of a couple of billion dollars from China. Pakistan is also looking to revive a program of loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which remains stalled due to Pakistan not meeting the IMF’s conditions. The crisis will make it harder for Pakistan to convince the IMF — and possibly even Chinese leadership, which publicly called for political stability in the country — to provide the help necessary to avert default and keep the economy afloat. The narrow path for Pakistan to avert economic collapse has narrowed further.”

Uribe on “Coercion, governance, and political behavior in civil war”

An interesting new Journal of Peace Research article by UChicago’s own Andres Uribe:

“How do armed actors affect the outcome of elections? Recent scholarship on electoral violence shows that armed groups use violence against voters to coerce them to abstain or vote for the group’s allies. Yet this strategy is risky: coercion can alienate civilians and trigger state repression. I argue that armed actors have another option. A wide range of armed groups create governance institutions to forge ties of political authority with civilian communities, incorporating local populations into armed groups’ political projects and increasing the credibility of their messaging. The popular support, political mobilization, and social control enabled by governance offer a means to sway voters’ political behavior without resorting to election violence. I assess this argument in the context of the Peruvian civil war, in which Shining Path insurgents leveraged wealth redistribution and political propaganda to influence voting behavior. Archival evidence, time series analysis of micro-level violent event data, and a synthetic control study provide support for these claims. These results have implications for theories of electoral violence, governance by non-state actors, and political behavior in war-torn societies.”