Can Pakistan’s politicians break the military’s stranglehold?

Pakistan’s political leaders have come together previously to bargain for more space in the system. But the military’s influence runs so deep that pushing back can appear nearly impossible, analysts say.

Pakistani army has directly ruled the country for more than three decades. [Bilawal Arbab/EPA]
The Pakistani army has directly ruled the country for more than three decades [File: Bilawal Arbab/EPA]

Islamabad, Pakistan — It was a rare admission. In November 2022, then-army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa conceded that Pakistan’s military had meddled in politics for decades. In his farewell speech, General Bajwa promised that in the future, the army would steer clear of interfering in Pakistan’s democratic functioning.

Just 14 months later, that assurance appears to have evaporated. As Pakistan gears up for its February 8 general election, the military’s familiar shadow hovers over the process.

Observers have expressed concerns regarding the fairness of the polls with the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party of former Prime Minister Imran Khan denied its election symbol, many of its leaders — including Khan — behind bars and several others in hiding. The party’s members have to contest as independent candidates.

Journalists have spoken about a shroud of censorship imposed by the military, especially when it comes to reporting on Khan and the PTI. And there is little of the festive atmosphere that otherwise accompanies the campaign season.

At the heart of this subdued political climate is the military’s deep influence on politics, which has seen it rule Pakistan directly for more than three decades while controlling the levers of power from behind the scenes for much of the rest the country’s 77 years as an independent nation.

It’s a stranglehold that has resulted in a democracy where no prime minister has ever completed a five-year tenure, but three out of four military dictators managed to rule for more than nine years each.

As Pakistan votes in its 12th general election, one question above all lingers in the air, veteran politicians and analysts say: Can the country of 241 million people rectify the civilian-military imbalance, which has, to many critics, turned the latest vote into a farce?

‘Establishmentarian democracy’

Badar Alam, a Lahore-based journalist and editor, says the military believes it is central to Pakistan’s existence and remains the most dominant institution of the state with influence across non-military spheres, thanks in large part to its years of direct rule.

Asad Umar, a former federal minister and now a retired politician who was formerly associated with the PTI, says the military’s supremacy over the country’s institutions was borne out of the war against India in 1948, just a year after independence.

Then, just a decade later, the country was placed under martial law for the first time when General Ayub Khan, the army chief, took power in a coup. Since then, the military has consistently received more budgetary resources than any other government department.

“Once the military took over in 1958 and installed martial law, their ingress in the system became normalised in Pakistan,” Miftah Ismail, a two-time former finance minister and once part of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN), tells Al Jazeera.

As a new nation, Pakistan grappled with economic difficulties in its early years. Only the military was immune, giving it unmatched leverage in society.

“It is the only institution that Pakistan inherited from British India with its chain of command, logistics and even garrisons and munition fully intact,” Alam says.

Multiple wars with India — in 1948, 1965, 1971 and 1999 — further shored up the sense of the army’s centrality in Pakistan. It “has consistently received large funds from the state to expand and strengthen itself as a bulwark against a real or perceived Indian threat,” Alam says.

The influence accrued by the military in the initial years led to a political configuration in the country that political scientist Asma Faiz describes as “establishmentarian democracy”.

“Pakistan represents a neat example of a hybrid system of governance where the political class is divided,” Faiz, an associate professor of political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences, tells Al Jazeera.

In some ways, it’s a chicken and egg situation. On the one hand, “civilian governments have been less than effective in delivering to the people,” Faiz says.

On the other hand, Niloufer Siddiqui, author of the book Under the Gun: Political Parties and Violence in Pakistan, argues that while political parties are flawed, their failings are due to “frequent military interference”.

“This has made it more likely that political parties are dynastic, family-controlled, internally undemocratic and with limited local-level presence,” she tells Al Jazeera.

Siddiqui, who is also an assistant professor of political science at the University at Albany, State University of New York, pointed to the repeated inability of governments to complete their terms and the fact that elections are rarely held on schedule.

Next month’s general election was originally scheduled for November but was postponed after the Election Commission of Pakistan said it needed more time to draw up the borders of new constituencies following the 2023 census. And 2013 was the first time Pakistan witnessed a peaceful transfer of power between two elected governments.

But some veteran leaders said politicians were also to blame for being “too eager” to play along with the military.

“They were complicit in the whole thing from the beginning,” a former federal minister tells Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity. “They cannot disassociate themselves. The way the system worked was that you could only access power by being in the good books of the military.” 

Umar agrees and says politicians have often reached out to the military to unseat their opponents.

“The system itself is not averse to military intervention. Politicians don’t necessarily reach out asking for a takeover, but they try to ask for help to strengthen their position and intervene on their behalf to oust their rivals,” he says.

Ismail says politicians often behave like “small dictators” themselves when in power.

“Whether that attitude is due to a cult of personality or family dynasty, they haven’t shown Pakistani people that they are better than the military,” he says. “Politicians have received a lot of opportunities and have spurned those.”

‘Promise of democracy’

The opportunities have come in the shape of civilian governments in the late 1980s and the 1990s when Pakistan emerged from the 11-year-long dictatorship of General Zia-ul Haq, who died in a plane crash in August 1988.

However, for the subsequent 11 years, Pakistan went through four elections, all tainted with allegations of manipulation, rigging and military interference.

Nawaz Sharif is a three-time prime minister of the country and is aiming to win the premiership for an unprecedented fourth time. [Sohail Shahzad/EPA]
Nawaz Sharif is a three-time prime minister and is aiming to win the premiership for an unprecedented fourth time [Sohail Shahzad/EPA]

The Benazir Bhutto-led Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) won two elections (1988, 1993), while the Nawaz Sharif-led PMLN won the other two (1990, 1997).

None of the four governments was able to complete their tenure with both facing charges of massive corruption, which continue to haunt the two parties even today.

The last direct military coup in Pakistan occurred in October 1999 when then-army chief, General Pervez Musharraf, overthrew the PMLN government and sent Sharif, the prime minister, to jail.

While Musharraf’s rule lasted until 2008, the period also saw both the PPP and PMLN reaching out to each other and agreeing on what was called as a landmark document, the Charter of Democracy, in 2006.

Despite sharing an antagonistic relationship with each other earlier, Bhutto and Sharif agreed they would not “undermine each other through unconstitutional means” or solicit military support to dislodge a government or come into power.

When Bhutto was assassinated during a political rally in December 2007, the party was taken over by her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, and the PPP swept to power in the 2008 elections with Sharif’s PMLN coming second.

Umar says that while the signing of the agreement was, conceptually, the right thing to do, the parties haven’t truly adhered to it.

“Instead, the perception among people was that this was an agreement between two groups that did this to protect each other from accountability instead of genuinely strengthening democracy and civilian supremacy,” Umar says.

The 2013 elections not only saw the government baton passed from the PPP to the PMLN but also the rise of the PTI, which was led by the charismatic Imran Khan, a former cricket superstar, a philanthropist and an emerging political force who rode a wave of popularity on his slogan of accountability.

The next five years saw the PTI’s support rise as Imran Khan targeted corruption under the PMLN, and the schism between the military and the government kept growing.

When Imran Khan won in 2018, his critics suggested he had been handpicked by the military to get rid of Sharif, who was first disqualified from the premiership in 2017 for not being “honest and truthful” and in July 2018, merely days before the elections, was sentenced to jail on charges of corruption. His daughter too was arrested, and his party faced a crackdown.

But eventually, tensions between Imran Khan and the military grew too. He and his government were removed from power in April 2022 through a parliamentary vote of no confidence, which Khan alleges was arranged by the military through a US-led conspiracy, charges which both Washington and the army deny.

The experiences of Sharif and now Khan underline why politicians in Pakistan often feel compelled to comply with the military’s wishes.

“If they don’t, they run the risk of facing consequences that can include imprisonments, trials, negative media campaigns and even murders and assassinations,” says Alam, the Lahore-based journalist.

Catharsis for military?

Yet by all accounts, Imran Khan and his party have faced a level of persecution unseen in many previous rounds of the political roulette that marks the military’s relations with civilian leaders.

Since his ouster, Khan has survived an assassination attempt and has been incarcerated since August as he faces charges of corruption and revealing state secrets, which he says are politically motivated.

Khan and his party are also facing a crackdown by state authorities since May 9 when the PTI leader was arrested from an Islamabad court.

Even though he was released from jail in fewer than 48 hours, his supporters went on a rampage across the country and were involved in rioting and targeting government buildings and military installations.

Former Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan has been in jail since August 2023 on multiple charges. [Shahzaib Akber/EPA]
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has been in jail since August on multiple charges [Shahzaib Akber/EPA]

With elections in fewer than two weeks, Siddiqui says Pakistani politicians must change their ways to “exit this hybrid regime system”.

“They must commit to a system of elections and a coherent set of rules by which they abide regardless of any short-term benefit they gain by flouting those rules,” she says. “For the most part, however, this has not happened. Parties continue to be motivated by immediate benefit at the expense of the long-term health of the democracy.”

Ismail, however, says the military cannot be ignored.

“I see no solution to our country’s problems without military involvement. I have repeatedly suggested about first admitting we failed our countrymen for the last 75 years and then agreeing on rules of the game,” he says. “If the PMLN comes to power, the onus is on them to try and get everybody to sit together, including PTI, to figure out a roadmap forward while including stakeholders such as military, courts and others.”

Umar, who left the PTI in November, also agreed with the need for political leaders to sit down together and set out the “rules of the game”, but he remained sceptical of it happening.

“It is essential for politicians to come together, but it appears there is no space for reconciliation right now. Is Nawaz Sharif willing to say, ‘I cannot run a genuine democratic system without Imran Khan’? Is Imran Khan willing to say the same?” the former minister asks.

“Unfortunately, right now, the answer is no.”

Despite the cloud that hangs over the credibility of the upcoming vote, some analysts believe the elections are essential for the country.

“The country needs an elected government to rise up to the occasion and meet monumental challenges it faces, and elections are just the beginning of this long journey,” Faiz says.

But for the former federal minister who requested he not be named, the upcoming polls are nothing more than a “joke”.

“This election has been rigged unlike any other in Pakistan’s history. It is nothing but a catharsis for the military for May 9 to have an election without Imran Khan and PTI,” he says. “That is their bottom line.”

Source: Al Jazeera