It may sound strange, given that there was a parliamentary vote of no confidence, an emergency Supreme Court hearing, boisterous speeches, mysterious helicopter rides, and a clandestine meeting between now-ex Prime Minister Imran Khan and military and intelligence chiefs around midnight local time, but nothing fundamentally important changed in Pakistan this week.
The transition from the Khan government to the opposition alliance was the result of a power struggle within the elite, not a mass mobilization based on the people, such as those of the late 1960s, late 1980s or, more recently, 2007-08. The military went from supporting Khan to declaring his neutrality. The so-called “electables” in parliament changed sides. The opposition suddenly had the numbers and, poof, Khan was gone, for now.
Given the lack of popular participation in Khan’s removal, the most glaring flaws in his so-called “hybrid regime”: the enforced disappearances of activists, the vicious crackdown on press freedom, the imprisonment and harassment of political opponents, the extensive and cozy space given to religious extremists, all remain unchallenged. Therefore, if these scores are going to be advanced, it will be because of what happens from now on, not because of what has happened. In the absence of such structural reform, this weekend will amount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic for a country whose slapstick political scene belies the seriousness of its challenges, threats and potential.
Lessons for the military establishment
The most important lesson from this weekend should be for the military: ideally, they would stop engineering political outcomes. Leaving aside the legality or ethics of extra-constitutional machinations, his record is dismal.
Half a century ago, military dictator Ayub Khan brought rising political star Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto under his wing. In the early 1970s, Bhutto was the establishment’s choice to balance the “subversive” Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the Bengali nationalist movement.
But the marriage ended badly: Bhutto was deposed in a coup by General Zia-ul-Haq in 1977 and later sentenced to death under his regime.
Then, in the 1980s, it was the turn of Zia, who fostered the rise of Nawaz Sharif, then a young industrialist. By the end of the decade, Sharif was the establishment’s choice to counter the “dangerous” Benazir Bhutto.
Sure enough, theirs was also an ugly divorce. Sharif was deposed in a coup by General Pervez Musharraf in 1999 and remote since his third term in power under military pressure in 2017, spending the intervening years being Pakistan’s strongest voice against the military’s role in politics.
Which brings us to the present. The military reached out to Khan in the early 2010s, first using him and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), to pressure the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League governments. Pakistan-Nawaz (PML). -N) from the street and later, in 2018, installing it In power in a widely regarded election equipped.
But seasoned watchers knew exactly how this movie would end: in shambles, tears, and recriminations, as it did this weekend.
The song remains the same: Generals promote someone they think they can do business with because a popular alternative threatens them. A decade or so later, a different general discovers that his predecessors were wrong: it turns out that the junior partner isn’t as malleable as first assumed. A fight ensues, the military wins, and the civilian is deposed. If the civilian is not killed but simply imprisoned or exiled, he belatedly discovers his democratic credentials and begins to play politics against the military, needing the next prodigal son. Rinse, he repeat.
By now, the lessons for the military should be clear: let the system handle itself. The military, whose organizational culture and ethos are characterized by regiment, predictability, and order, cannot fathom the disorder inherent in multiparty democracy. But the (appearance of) disorder that accompanies such a system is necessary for a country as large, diverse and troubled as Pakistan, in order to establish stability at a broader systemic level.
Furthermore, if the total chaos of the past week shows one thing, it is that the architects of such policies do not know how to produce order. Pakistan has enough security threats, internal and external, that its military and intelligence agencies are not drawn into the business of elections, parties or politicians.
turning back the clock
Khan’s flirtation with the military has arguably set Pakistan back 30 years in its political development. To understand why, we have to go back in time.
The turn of the century found Musharraf’s authoritarian military government entrenched in power. The two main parties, the PML-N and the PPP, had spent the previous decade, the 1990s, acting as paws for the military whenever they grew tired of each other, operating in the nebulous space between co-conspirator and collaborator.
In 2006, at the height of Musharraf’s power, the heads of the two parties, Sharif and Bhutto, both in exile, signed the Democracy Charter. The document seemed to mark a fundamental change. Among other things, the couple pledged never to conspire with the military in the event that it destabilizes or replaces an elected government.
Many cynics dismissed the signatures as mere theater. But what followed was a momentous moment in Pakistan’s political history. The period after Musharraf was remote (2008-2013) saw major developments, such as the 18th Amendment, which gave Pakistan’s parliament stronger protections against dismissal or dissolution, a significant achievement. Through an apocalyptic flood, a global recession, and a devastating war against the Taliban, the PPP government handed over the reins to the PML-N. It was the first time in the history of Pakistan that the National Assembly completed its mandate.
Political scientists who study democracy look for a second free and fair election in a row, not the first, when considering calling a country a democracy. It is the peaceful and predictable transition of power from one elected government to another that truly marks one as a democracy. Sixty-five years after its birth as a republic, Pakistan had finally made it.
During the PML-N mandate (2013-2018), the PPP more or less returned the favor, playing the role of loyal opposition. The military were restless, but without a major party to play with, they couldn’t do their usual tricks. Foreign powers like the United States had momentarily taken notice and signaled to the military that they would not tolerate open interference, as they had done before.
As such, there was genuine optimism that Pakistan had taken steps to shed its history as an authoritarian military state.
But this progress was always tenuous, with Imran Khan playing the bull in this delicate china shop. Khan and his PTI, the third force in Pakistani politics, cared nothing for democratic niceties: he was coming to power, replacing the thieves and criminals he claimed had plundered the country, and that was it.
His willingness to partner with the military and intelligence agencies, something other major parties had renounced, meant that Pakistan’s hard-won progress on the civil-military front was wasted on the altar of one man’s ego. Pakistan may have gotten that coveted relatively free and fair second consecutive election, but it was not going to get a third.
Parties and democracy
The 2018 stage election, and everything that preceded it, may have convinced the PML-N and PPP of the adage “if you can’t beat them, join them”. By reaching an understanding with the military this year to replace Khan, in essence tearing up what was left of the dog-eared Democracy Charter, the PPP and PML-N have played their own ignominious role in turning back the clock. to the 1990s. The regression speaks volumes about the lack of ideological commitment of the main parties in Pakistan.
But, ironically, it is now, out of power, that Khan and his PTI can really strike a blow for democracy and civilian supremacy, should he choose to phrase his fight in those terms. Today, he prefers to blame his departure on those outside the country rather than those inside, adopting a conspiratorial anti-American framework. But if he directly named the generals he holds responsible, including Army Chief of Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and fomented a stronger opposition against the military, Pakistan’s democracy could salvage something from this period. of rancor
The PTI’s social base, made up mainly of the urban middle class and the elite, is almost exactly the same that has historically strongly supported the military’s interventions in politics. If Imran Khan explicitly targets Bajwa, the polarization of this class into pro-Imran and pro-army factions may unwittingly sow the seeds of democratic reform. There are already some signs that the PTI base is expressing more skepticism about the military’s role in politics. As long as that division does not escalate into violence, it may hopefully end up serving Pakistan’s long-term interests.
But this is sticking to straws. He ignores that Khan has no problem with the military, just a military man. He ignores that in politics memory can be short. Most of all, he’s unaware that we’ve been here before, with the military apparently mistaking it too far, only for his influence to continue unabated.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.