As Pakistan continues to deal with COVID-19 — with more than 280,000 cases to date and over 6,000 dead — in the face of a struggling economy, the pandemic is dealing a blow to its fledgling democracy. While Pakistan has brought new coronavirus cases and deaths under control in the past month, the pandemic’s aftershocks have weakened the country’s current civilian government, further emboldened its military, and brought about a broader crackdown on dissent.

The military steps into the “gap”

I, along with other analysts as well as public health experts, criticized Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s initial response to the coronavirus for being weak and indecisive. He refused to implement a nationwide lockdown, letting Pakistan’s four provinces implement their own lockdowns. The provincial actions limited the initial spread of the virus. Khan focused instead on a gimmicky coronavirus youth “Tiger Force” that would help the government disseminate its message. His government first caved in to the religious right to keep mosques open during Ramadan and then allowed markets to reopen too quickly toward the end of Ramadan in May, resulting in a spike of cases across the country in June, stretching its hospitals and doctors to the limit. Khan’s messaging during this time was muddled.

The country’s powerful military, reportedly unhappy both with Khan’s response and that it drew criticism, had publicly backed a tougher lockdown at the same time that Khan opposed it in March. It then started taking a more visible role in the coronavirus response. When the virus seemed to be spiraling out of control in June, the National Command and Operation Center (NCOC) — the joint civilian-military body created to coordinate the national COVID response, in which high-ranking military officers play increasingly visible roles, enforced “smart” lockdowns in hundreds of COVID hotspots across the country. The military’s intelligence agencies led in surveillance and contact tracing efforts. (Khan still chairs meetings of the National Coordination Committee, the decisionmaking arm of the NCOC, but the army chief General Qamar Bajwa also attends many of those meetings.)

As the military’s involvement has grown, the pandemic has been brought under control in the country — at least for now, with Pakistan on the other side of its first wave (see graphs below). The communications aspect of the pandemic response is certainly being managed better. Critics contend that the government is under-testing, thus making the picture appear rosier than it is, but case positivity rates in Pakistan — the proportion of positive cases among those who are tested — have also declined, suggesting that the situation really is improving. Though the causes behind the declining cases and deaths aren’t completely clear — even Khan acknowledged he was surprised by the speed of the decline — nor is it clear how long the decline will last, it seems the government’s strategy of “smart” hotspot lockdowns across the country, combined with keeping restaurants and large indoor venues (e.g. marriage halls) closed, has worked. (Khan has argued that this validates his approach against a blanket lockdown.)

Graph showing COVID-19 cases in Pakistan.Graph showing COVID-19 deaths in Pakistan.

Beyond former and current military men being highly visible on the COVID response — the executive director of Pakistan’s National Institute of Health is also a major general — Khan’s cabinet is increasingly populated by former military men. Retired Lieutenant General Asim Bajwa, a former head of the Inter Services Public Relations (the military’s public relations arm) and the current head of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor Authority, was appointed the prime minister’s new special assistant on information and broadcasting in April. There are other ways the military’s growing role in civilian affairs is visible: In June, it was Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa, not Khan, who took a trip to Kabul and met with President Ashraf Ghani and chief negotiator Abdullah Abdullah on the Afghan peace process. General Qamar Bajwa is also U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s main Pakistani interlocutor on the peace process.

The military’s increasing control seems to be a response to the initial performance by Khan and his government on COVID. As a retired general told the Financial Times: “The government left a big gap in its handling of the coronavirus. The army has tried to fill that gap, there was no choice.” There were also several other factors at play: Khan’s apparent decline in popularity with the public, an exposé of a sugar industry scam, fissures within Khan’s party’s ranks, and the fracturing of his weak coalition in parliament. Pakistan’s military used similar excuses in the past to destabilize democratically-elected governments behind the scenes. The cycle is repeating yet again.

A “minus-one” formula

In June, rumors began to float in Islamabad that Khan’s hold on power was precarious and he might not last much longer as prime minister. He took to the floor of the National Assembly to address the rumors in a long, rambling speech on his government’s performance. Khan even brought up the opposition’s call for a “minus-one” formula: the idea that he should step down to pacify opposition parties while his government finishes out its term. That is essentially how former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s party survived its term in government — without Nawaz. In his speech, Khan insisted that he would finish his term.

Khan’s strident tactics in the past as an opposition politician haven’t helped him now that he’s in power, in terms of dealing with the current opposition. During a sit-in that lasted for weeks in 2014, Khan clamored for Nawaz Sharif’s ouster every night while standing on a shipping container, and some say he is reaping what he sowed. But part of the problem is also the structure of civilian-military relations in Pakistan: Pakistan’s powerful military relies on performance legitimacy for itself, but also for civilian governments, and quickly loses patience with them once their performance falters. The military does not wait for the civilians to be voted out but progressively asserts control, or pushes for their ouster, as it did in the 1990s, destabilizing Pakistan’s entire democratic enterprise. In this playbook, opposition parties often work as pawns for the military, willing to go beyond parliament — such as with “multi-party conferences” or back-room deals — to destabilize the incumbent government. In recent weeks, the current opposition parties, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), have fit right into those prescribed roles. The public, too, has become accustomed to this cycle, and begins to lose patience during a government’s term rather than waiting for elections.

When it comes to Pakistan, stories of the military’s growing control may seem to blur into each other. Is anything different this time? Khan was the military’s favored candidate in the 2018 election, and it paved the path to his election. He has gone out of his way to be accommodating to the military, including by extending the current army chief’s tenure. For a time after his election, it seemed that Khan’s closeness with the military might give him the space to implement the domestic policies that he wanted. It seems that period is over. Khan is now clearly constrained by a military whose role has grown progressively through Khan’s term in office and has expanded to the ambit of domestic policy during the pandemic. (Khan’s aides deny this, saying that Khan is still “calling the shots,” with the army’s support — a repetition of Khan’s mantra that they are “on the same page.”)

Wither provincial autonomy?

When Khan let the coronavirus response fall to provincial governments this spring, it briefly seemed as if the pandemic might actually help democratic consolidation in Pakistan. Instead, it has opened up a largely unconstructive and inconclusive debate on problems with provincial autonomy and the 18th constitutional amendment that granted it — with those critical of the law pushing back against the initial provincial control of the virus response. Some of the criticisms of the 18th amendment are warranted, but it is no secret that the military doesn’t like the law, which in taking power away from the federal level threatens the military’s power and finances. The provincial autonomy that defined Pakistan’s initial pandemic response is now firmly in the hands of the National Command and Operation Center and the National Coordination Committee.

Illiberalism reigns

The military’s increasing control has also translated to a crackdown on dissent and freedom of the press — a matter on which Khan’s government is studiously quiet. On July 21, a prominent journalist critical of the military and the government, Matiullah Jan, was abducted in Islamabad in broad daylight. He was released that night after an international outcry. In a statement, he said his abduction was the work of forces that are “against democracy.” And this is not to mention concerns about how intelligence agencies are using militant tracking technologies to trace coronavirus patients and their contacts, and the disturbing potential to use that tracing to crack down further on critical voices.

Pakistan’s provincial governments have also used this time to indulge in illiberal impulses, seemingly taking advantage of a permissive environment to do so. In Punjab, the legislative assembly passed a bill to “protect the foundations of Islam,” by giving the province’s director general of public relations the power to ban any books in the province — published locally or imported — that he or she sees as against the “national interest.” In a similar vein, the head of the Punjab textbook board began banning textbooks chosen by private schools for “anti-Pakistan” or “blasphemous” content — citing objections that the books include Mahatma Gandhi’s quotes or photos of pigs in math equations. Both developments are clearly regressive, a blow to freedoms in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s civilian-military games continue, and democracy loses out

Last week, the state minister for health in Pakistan, a political appointee, resigned, citing political pressure and opposition criticism. Amid the pandemic this summer, Pakistan’s usual civilian-military games continue, with an empowered military and opposition parties all too willing to play the game to help weaken the ruling party. Khan’s political space has now been constricted as much as previous prime ministers, with one difference: He is apparently more willing to cede space to the military for his political preservation. In Pakistan, as in some other countries, the longer-term loser of the pandemic is becoming clear, and it is its democracy.