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In Pakistan, political and economic problems have many fearful of history repeating

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In Pakistan, a year of political deadlock has paralyzed the courts and unraveled the economy, and now there are fears that history could repeat itself. Pakistan is a place where generals have ruled for nearly half of its 75 years since becoming an independent country. NPR's Diaa Hadid has more from Islamabad.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So you feel circumstances are right for a military intervention.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Imagine a country so enmeshed in troubles that a journalist asks a former prime minister if he thinks there's an impending military takeover. And the answer is...

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SHAHID KHAQAN ABBASI: I leave that for you to judge. But yes, in the past, in less severe circumstances, the military has taken over.

HADID: That former prime minister is Shahid Khaqan Abbasi. He isn't alone because, as one columnist put it, the wheels are falling off Pakistan. The unpopular ruling coalition refuses to hold provincial elections on time. The opposition leader, another former prime minister, Imran Khan, is threatening street protests if they don't. Judges on the Supreme Court are fighting among themselves. Millions are going hungry as inflation soars and industries shut down amid an economic crisis. The military says it has no plans to seize power, but...

MADIHA AFZAL: Pakistan can't really escape its 75-year history where this was a repeated occurrence.

HADID: Madiha Afzal is a fellow at the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution.

AFZAL: I think now we're hearing rumblings because the crises, you know, plural, are so acute.

HADID: Now, Pakistanis half-joke that they're expecting to hear the vintage version of their national anthem blaring on state TV...

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in non-English language).

HADID: ...Followed by a general promising to save the country. But that hasn't happened in Pakistan since the last military ruler stepped down a decade and a half ago. Since then, the country's been ruled by civilians who've handed power to each other through the ballot box. But as Pakistan's problems grow, other prominent elites have expressed their fear that the military might return. They include the foreign minister who warned parliament that, quote, "a third force" would take advantage of the situation if politicians couldn't resolve their problems. Then there's Mushahid Hussain, a senator with the ruling coalition. We meet in his garden.

MUSHAHID HUSSAIN: If no sense is instilled in that very divisive political atmosphere, then all bets are off. In this vacuum, some General Ayenda Khan can take over. Ayenda means future. That's a generic way of describing a military intervention.

HADID: A generic way of describing a military intervention - but the military is divided. The top brass doesn't like the opposition leader, Imran Khan, so they support delaying elections for now. That's according to prominent columnists with the liberal daily Dawn. Her name is Arifa Noor, and she says the military has its own problems because...

ARIFA NOOR: The lower rank and file in the military itself supports Imran Khan.

HADID: So does Pakistan's middle classes, a constituency that was once firmly with the army.

NOOR: This time, if you hold a coup, there will be very few people welcoming that coup because a lot of them now feel that Imran Khan is a better choice for Pakistan.

HADID: A man who once ran Pakistan's powerful military intelligence agency agrees. Javed Ashraf Qazi says for now, the army is looking to the Supreme Court to try resolve Pakistan's deadlock.

JAVED ASHRAF QAZI: There is still hope that the crisis will resolve without the military intervention, so long as Supreme Court is active, and there is a chance that they might succeed in bringing these quarrelling politicians together.

HADID: But what if these efforts fail? That's the question asked by political economist and columnist Niaz Murtaza.

NIAZ MURTAZA: Ultimately, if things get too bad and it seems that it's just becoming a bit too chaotic, they will probably reassert themselves in some way or the other.

HADID: In some way or the other. Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.