Pakistan Election 2018: Civil-military relations still in army's favour; naive to think govt will get more power now

A high court judge in Pakistan has only confirmed what has been an open secret: the Pakistan military's direct and indirect meddling in Pakistani polity to ensure its continued supremacy. Islamabad High Court judge Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui has accused Pakistan's notorious spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), of gross interference in judicial functioning:

"The ISI is fully involved in trying to manipulate the judicial proceedings," Siddiqui had said on Sunday. "In different cases, the ISI forms benches of its choice to get the desired results. The ISI had asked the chief justice to make sure that Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz should not come out of jail before the 25 July elections. It had also asked him to not include me in the bench that was hearing the appeal of Nawaz Sharif and his daughter in the Avenfield case. The chief justice told ISI that he would make a bench of its choice."

This is a familiar yet lamentable tale of Pakistan, where the military continues to be the most formidable actor in the political process. The top military brass may no longer be interested in directly assuming power, but it still has a major say in decisions on foreign policy, security and key domestic concerns.

Pakistani Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa (2R), Pakistani Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Zafar Mahmood Abbasi (C), Pakistani Air Chief Marshal Mujahid Anwar Khan (top-R) and Pakistani Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee Zubair Mahmood Hayat (2L). AFP/Aamir Qureshi

File image of the top officials in Pakistani armed forces. AFP

A level playing field would have ensured a potential victory for the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) with reduced numbers, but a military-assisted victory of Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) is not a distant possibility now. Through sheer manipulation, the military is busy mainstreaming radical jihadists who have vitiated the electoral process rife with intrigue, rumours and whispering campaigns.

Theoretically, democracy must strengthen further after every popular election. But that is not the case with Pakistan. It is Pakistan's military establishment that always holds the sway on electoral processes. Why? Simply because the military has directly ruled Pakistan through half  its existence. Pakistan's singular and obsessive focus on perpetuating enmity with India, coupled with the over-sized ambitions of its generals, is another reason. Defenders of military rule in Pakistan also argue that civilian leaders are thoroughly incompetent and cannot ensure security and economic development. But the solution to civilian incompetence is certainly not military intervention.

Both India and Pakistan trace their roots to the same British colonial order. However, while India has become an institutionalised democracy with well-established norms of civil-military relations, Pakistan has turned into a state where the military remains primus inter pares. Civilian control over the military is a concept that was never absorbed and implemented in Pakistan.

The nature of civil-military relations in Pakistan was partially democratised during its initial years, whereby politicians struggled to survive in the newly-born country, but it was heavily bureaucratised under civil service officers who ruled the country from 1951 to 1958, with the military acting as a junior partner. However, the army assumed direct control of national polity through its first coup in October 1958. Till the self-inflicted disastrous war with India in 1971, the contours of civil-military relations had manifested a clear militarised character, where non-kinetic methods were frequently employed to silence political adversaries and defiant politicians. From the era of the Muslim League of Field Marshall Ayub Khan to the times of the Muslim League (Quaid-i-Azam) of General Pervez Musharraf, the presence of army strongmen in Pakistan's political horizon has reflected two things — first, the presence of self-seeking politicians who are not bothered about furthering democratic consolidation; and second, the military's patent disregard for people's mandate.

Although Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's era of the 1970s was important from the point of view of democratisation, the nature of administrative machinery became highly personalised. Bhutto's efforts to reorganise the institutional structure of bureaucracy and the military were superficial, which is why he failed to establish complete civilian control over the military, leading to his government's ouster and his "judicial" execution. From then on, the military has successfully maintained the leading position in Pakistan's state institutions. Even when Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were prime ministers, the civil-military equation was unmistakably tiled in favour of the army. Both Bhutto and Nawaz's failure to control the military can be attributed as much to the structural and institutional constraints as to their lack of vision to democratise Pakistan.

Pakistan is often projected to have achieved remarkable success from 2008 to 2013 when it transitioned from a military regime to a democratic government. However, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) government could not assert itself vis-à-vis the military since the latter did not allow it to guide the country's security and foreign policies. In fact, the military used its enormous influence to secure a permanent presence on the nation's vital national security institutions, further titling the balance in its favour.

The Nawaz government attempted to exercise authority in framing and conducting Pakistan's foreign policy, in terms of normalising ties with India and controlling the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, but the military could not tolerate its "interference". The covert role of the military undermined his government and created economic hardship and political instability. Eventually, a "judicial coup" ensured another unceremonious ouster for Nawaz — he was last removed from power in a 1999 coup — in the case of the Panama Papers leak.

After being ousted from power, Nawaz gave an interview to Pakistani newspaper Dawn, in which he acknowledged the role of non-state actors and lambasted the imbalance in civil-military relations. He had said: "Militant organisations are active. Call them non-state actors, should we allow them to cross the border and kill 150 people in Mumbai? Explain it to me."

His remarks about the role of the military clearly indicate that the civil-military divide is at the heart of Pakistan's current woes. "You can't run a country if you have two or three parallel governments. This has to stop. There can only be one government: the constitutional one." The military is prepared to work with a civilian government as long as it does not threaten its interests, and Nawaz had become too hot for the military to handle.

Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan may be in the good books of the military establishment right now, but he will face the fate of his predecessors. In fact, Nawaz had been where Imran is right now. Now, the military is exercising its visible and invisible machinery to ensure that PTI forms the next government at the expense of the PML-N. A hung Parliament is also something that the military is inclined to deal with. Although much will depend on the nature of the coalition, a fragmented government with a weak political base and divergent interests is likely to be more acquiescent to the military viewpoint as far as foreign and security policies are concerned. A coalition government, particularly one led by the PTI, would find it virtually impossible to challenge the military's dominance and could, in fact, transfer further control to the military.

Throughout the seven-decade history of Pakistan, democracy has suffered the most at the hands of the all-powerful military establishment. Pakistan has been subjected to either martial laws or sporadic phases of faulty democracy. The military has not shied away from rigging elections, controlling the media and compromising civil liberties. This is why those who believe that Pakistan is heading in the right direction with a second consecutive democratic transition under civilian rule are naive in their assessments.

A country's stability is overwhelmingly determined by the type of political structure it has. Due to the military's prolonged involvement, political parties in Pakistan are irrevocably weakened. Equally damaging has been the impact on the judiciary and civil society. Consequently, the military continues to be the most powerful institution, overshadowing every other organ of the state.


Updated Date: Jul 25, 2018 11:02 AM

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