In Pakistan, the country's top opposition leader is serving a prison sentence for corruption and the authorities are cracking down on his party and supporters, sending many to military courts for trial.
The national parliament and provincial legislatures have been dissolved, with caretaker administrations now in place at both levels. According to the country's constitution, new elections should be held by November, but this looks unlikely as the Election Commission said last week that redrawn constituency boundaries will not be published until December.
Meantime, shortly before Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif dissolved the National Assembly earlier this month, parliament passed two bills that together represent the biggest grant of power to the military in many years.
The Pakistan Army (Amendment) Bill 2023 gives full legal status to the military's sprawling business empire, criminalizes criticism of the armed forces and authorizes them to "carry out activities related to national development and advancement of national or strategic interests."
The Official Secrets (Amendment) Bill 2023 gives security agencies unlimited discretionary powers to arrest any individual that they deem to pose a threat. "Approaches" to military installations and offices, not to mention intrusions and attacks, are prohibited. Suspects can be tried in military courts.
This amendment seems intended to punish the kind of mob attacks on military facilities and personnel that erupted on May 9 when opposition leader Imran Khan was first arrested. But read together, the two laws are further militarizing the politics, economy and justice system of Pakistan. They can be seen to legalize enforced disappearances of political dissidents and the neutralization of fundamental rights and freedoms. In sum, their passage has put the nation's democracy in serious peril.
Making it worse is the fact that these bills were put through by a parliament dominated by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan People's Party (PPP). Both signed the 2006 Charter of Democracy in which they vowed to never rely on the military establishment for political support and to establish civilian supremacy over the military.
The new bills contradict both promises.
The reason that the PPP and the PML-N voted through the bills relates to the upcoming election and their worries about defeating Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).
The PML-N and the PPP are not just seeking to appease the military and keep it on their side through the campaign, but are also giving the army tools to minimize the threat that Khan's populism will continue to pose to their political fortunes.
The parties have reason to be concerned about their electoral chances given the performance of their coalition government that came to power in April 2022 after a no-confidence vote against Khan.
Over the 12 months to June 30, the Pakistani rupee depreciated more than 30% against the dollar. Inflation reached a record 38%, with fuel prices nearly doubling. Unpopular terms in the government's loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund have added to the discontent.
The combination of the country's dire economic position and Khan's popularity has led the vulnerable ruling parties to pessimistically conclude that the only way for them to stay in power is a de facto alliance with a military establishment with the capability and resources to manipulate elections, as occurred in 2018 when the army wanted to bring Khan to power.
The level of militarization of power that these new laws will bring means that whichever parties form the next government will play second fiddle to the army establishment. With the Official Secrets Act amendments, the military will be able to legitimately act against any party seen as a threat.
Already strange machinations are in play. This week, President Arif Alvi, who belongs to the PTI, denied signing the two bills passed by parliament and claimed to have sent them back for reconsideration with his objections. In such a case, parliament could have overridden his objections by passing the bills again.
But since the National Assembly had been dissolved, there was no way for the bills to be reconsidered so they should have become ineffective immediately. But it appears the president's staff mysteriously did not deliver the bills back to parliament. Thus, according to the government, in the absence of the president's signing the bills or sending them back, they automatically became law 10 days after passage.
This episode suggests Khan has a point in saying that Pakistan is now in a state of "undeclared martial law." Civilians are still nominally running the country, but it is clear the military now has full freedom of action to do whatever it wants. (Asia Nikkei)