Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, right. with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman after his arrival in Islamabad last year. Pakistani-Saudi relations have since deteriorated. Photo: AFP / Pakistan PM's House handout

A controlled democracy where almost every single institution works at the behest of the government of the day and where the press is muzzled or under invisible and visible pressures would seem to be an ideal scenario for an authoritarian person or party to tighten their grip on the country.

However, this has not been the case with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and his backers in the military establishment. Despite getting former prime minister Nawaz Sharif out of the electoral battle of 2018 and then humiliating him through vague judicial decisions, the province of Punjab remains Sharif’s political fortress.

A few days ago everyone witnessed how his daughter Maryam Nawaz showed the street power she enjoys when she arrived at the National Accountability Bureau for a hearing. And this was just a glimpse of her power, and she tactfully sent a message not only to the government led by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) but also to its backers that the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is ready to take on the current government if and when it thinks it’s suitable.

It is pertinent to note that it was only Maryam, not Sharif himself – who still without any call to his vote bank can attract thousands of people in a few minutes anywhere in Punjab – who accomplished this.

Khan and his cohorts have a strong electronic-print and digital-media team who could even outdo Joseph Goebbels or Edward Bernays with their skills of maligning any dissenting person with strong propaganda within a span of a few hours. But even they could not solve the recent diplomatic spat with Saudi Arabia, and Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Qamar Javed Bajwa’s unsuccessful visit to Riyadh has put the PTI government under more pressure.

This is the reason that the government’s spin wizards and Imran Khan himself are once again attacking Sharif and have initiated a move to bring him back to Pakistan and put him behind bars.

Given the current situation when the economy is in shambles and its old ally Riyadh has ditched it, any sane government would not have provoked a dangerous political opponent like Sharif, who still could sweep the next general elections with ease if given a fair playing field.

The PTI claim that it will arrest Sharif on his arrival if he decides to come back is as absurd as its entire campaign of smearing its political opponents.

Right now Sharif’s sentence on the Avenfield House case stands suspended and his appeal against his conviction in the Alzizia flagship reference will be heard by the Islamabad High Court on September 1. The Toshakhana case in which another former prime minister, Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari, has also been charged is the only case that PTI can use to arrest Sharif. But if Zardari has not been arrested in the same case, how can Sharif be?

It’s all hypothesis at the moment as the PTI government clearly cannot bring Sharif back to Pakistan unless he himself decides that the time has come to take on the regime and its backers.

Contrary to the claims of many political pundits and journalists that all is smooth sailing for Khan and that he will become the first-ever Pakistani prime minister to complete his five-year tenure, the situation is entirely different in the power corridors. Many journalists and analysts believe that Pakistan’s mighty military elite will not find a substitute for Khan, who is more than happy to take dictation from the establishment and serves its interests.

However, in reality, the embarrassment Khan and his team have brought for his backers in the form of unnecessary political victimization, bad governance, failure to address the economy issue, the fiasco over the extension of General Bajwa’s tenure as COAS, inability to defend its surrender on Kashmir and the corruption scandals like wheat and flour overpricing and hoarding, everything has only added more liabilities for the establishment.

It is the establishment after all who brought Khan into power. For argument’s sake, one can agree that the fates of General Bajwa and Imran Khan are linked, but the entire establishment will not put all its eggs in Khan’s basket and it will be very difficult for the military to back him when he is losing popularity and is causing embarrassment on the foreign front through his miscalculated statements.

With a large section of controlled media at its disposal, it is very easy for PTI to create a perception that the establishment will not ditch Khan and that it enjoys the full backing of the powers that be, but if that were really the case Khan could have been concentrating more on tackling inflation, the deteriorating economy, and the lost cause of Kashmir.

In fact, Maryam showing a glimpse of her street power and defiance on the occasion of her appearance before the NAB would never have been possible if the entire establishment was standing behind Khan. The case of Justice Qazi Faez Isa also is hanging around the necks of Khan and his remaining backers.

Imagine a lawyers’ movement backed by any of the main opposition parties such as PML-N or PPP or Jamiat-Ulma-e-Islam of Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman taking to the streets with lawyers or even without them, and instead of Isa they protested against inflation or other governance issues. For sure this government will not be able to sustain another long march instituted by Fazal or even by the PML-N if it decides to launch a massive protest movement in Punjab.

According to reports, Sharif has advised his party to adopt an aggressive stance against the government and try to persuade Fazal to stage another sit-in. This time Sharif will guarantee him that at least PML-N will not ditch him at the last moment as it did last year.

In a bid to avoid blacklisting by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the hybrid Pakistani regime has put sanctions on the Afghan Taliban. As the Taliban are in talks with Washington, this means that as with the Saudis, there will be no secure diplomatic relations with the US for now either, and this surely will have its own ramifications on Khan and his backers.

The FATF’s decision on whether to keep Pakistan on the gray list or to put it on the blacklist is also going to impact the Khan and Bajwa duo, whereas the US presidential election in November could also have grave consequences on the future of the current hybrid regime in Pakistan.

So there is no smooth sailing for Khan and his backers in the near future. The question is not how long Khan will stay in power, as everyone is dispensable; the question is how Pakistan can get out of this quagmire and how long the opposition will only play the game for its own share of the cake in power.

Unless the political role of the establishment is finished and the main opposition parties learn the art of raising their voices on human-rights violations and crackdowns on the free press and civil liberties, nothing will change. The problem remains a system where the establishment enjoys unaccountable authority and hegemony over state affairs and resources.

Perhaps it is time for Sharif to think about whether his political heir Maryam can survive in this system and whether this system without meaningful reforms will ever tilt the balance of power toward elected representatives.

This time, Sharif and Maryam both need to lift the heaviest of weights by not only vying for electoral victory but by first bringing every stakeholder to the table to form a consensus that only the constitution will be held supreme and only the people, not any other force, will elect the future representatives of the country. Whether they will be able to do so remains to be seen.

Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.