Pakistan's executive, judiciary and military have found themselves on a collision course, and Imran Khan's government might bear the brunt of the impact.

For the past month, Pakistanis have been glued to their television screens, watching a farcical power struggle between state institutions and other political stakeholders.

The floodgates were opened in early November by a sit-in led by Pakistan’s leading cleric-politician, Maulana Fazlur Rehman. A veteran of anti-government movements dating back to the 1980s, Rehman calculated that the way to undermine Prime Minister Imran Khan was to target the military - widely viewed as his backers. He repeatedly called for Khan’s resignation in daily speeches replete with references to the forced imposition of an incompetent government.

The 13-day sit-in was a high-risk strategy, considering the generals’ renowned intolerance for criticism, but it worked. The state was obviously worried that Rehman’s tens of thousands of supporters, drawn from a nationwide network of seminaries, could riot if provoked. So, instead of confronting them, government and military representatives negotiated with Rehman.

Shortly afterwards, momentum built for the release of imprisoned ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif, whose health had dangerously deteriorated while in the custody of the government’s dreaded National Accountability Bureau. This gave rise to speculation that Sharif might die from other-than-natural causes.

Again, fearing public disorder, the state caved in to pressure to let him travel overseas for medical treatment.

This infuriated Khan, and his ministers, for whom cracking down against the alleged corruption of his predecessors has been the hallmark of their “Naya  (new) Pakistan” project. Ultimately, the political machinations driving the anti-corruption campaign were exposed by a secretly-shot video in which an accountability judge admitted to convicting Sharif under duress. The judge was subsequently sacked.

Nonetheless, the government tried to prevent Sharif from travelling for medical treatment by demanding that he submit a $44 million bond. This was thrown out by the superior judiciary, which had disqualified Sharif from holding public office two years ago and has overseen accountability court proceedings against him.

At this point, Khan and his ministers began criticising the judiciary, earning a public rebuke from Chief Justice Asif Khosa. Influential Urdu newspaper columnists also began to hint that Khan was attempting to stand up to the military.

Days later, Khosa staged an extraordinary intervention. Acting on a lawyer’s petition, the chief justice questioned the grounds for the government’s decision to extend the tenure of powerful army chief of staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa.

The court suspended the administrative order and explored technical loopholes, but the manner in which the judges ridiculed the government during the hearing raised eyebrows across Pakistan.

Meanwhile, a special court hearing a treason case against the former military dictator, ex-president Pervez Musharraf, came close to passing a verdict, despite the Khan administration’s attempt to halt proceedings.

These judicial actions gave the distinct impression that the judges were preparing to confront state institutions, as it had during the lawyers’ movement against Musharraf’s rule.

Throughout these strange events, Pakistanis steadily lost their fear of being prosecuted for criticising state institutions on state media. Khan was mocked for failing Bajwa, but most derogatory remarks targeted the army chief of staff by name.

During the Supreme Court’s hearing this week, critical hashtags saying things like “extension unacceptable” were attracting up to 100,000 tweets a day.

This is unprecedented. Army chiefs have previously been criticised after retiring, not while at the height of their powers.

The net outcomes of this are plain for all to see. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s 15-month-old administration has lost credibility and may struggle to survive the duration of 2020. In the process, Khan’s biggest backer, Gen Bajwa, has also been stripped of his aura of invincibility.

Pakistan’s two most important men are paying the price for how Khan rose to power in August last year and has since governed the country.

The July 2018 election victory of his Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (movement for justice) was rendered highly controversial by the role allegedly played by agents of state institutions before, during and after votes were cast.

The deployment of soldiers inside polling stations, supposedly to prevent rigging, was widely perceived as interference in the voting process. Subsequent delays by returning officers in communicating results, blamed on the crash of the electronic vote-counting system, was seen by many as evidence that the results were manipulated.

Khan could have forestalled in the fallout of this controversy, had his government focused on implementing its vision of good governance. Instead, he has struggled to get to grips with the economy, which was suffering a balance of payments crisis due to the import-driven boom created by the outgoing administration.

The government dithered for most of its first fiscal year in office, before agreeing to an austerity programme insisted upon by the International Monetary Fund, and Pakistan’s other major creditors, China and Saudi Arabia.

The results have been disastrous.

Spending on development has been slashed. A staggered 50 per cent devaluation of the rupee against the dollar has driven up inflation to eleven percent from four percent. And an accompanying series of interest rate hikes have more than doubled the cost of borrowing to over 13 percent. Unsurprisingly, GDP growth had slumped to 3.3 per cent from 5.8 per cent.

For Pakistanis, this has meant considerably higher utility and grocery bills and widespread job losses. Khan’s political opponents are banking that the economic recession will seal his fate. As the downturn deepens, public hostility towards Khan will grow.

To escape being tarred with the same brush as Khan, the opposition hopes the military will distance and eventually desert his government.

But that will do little, if anything, to prevent Pakistan from entering yet another cycle of self-destructive politicking.

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