On the surface, things could not appear to be better for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. With a majority in parliament, electoral rigging charges thrown out by the judicial commission and continued successes in by-polls, any prime minister would be comfortable with the current state of affairs. Yet, Sharif seems worried by what he deems to be conspiracies afoot to replace him. A week ago, in no uncertain terms, he alluded that some people wanted to overthrow him. Was he referring to the opposition led by Imran Khan, the establishment or another political grouping? He did not expound much but as a third-time prime minister, he knows how a civilian government can be weakened, and then undone.
Sharif’s political trajectory has been a paradox. The civil-military bureaucracy groomed him in the 1980s as a ‘pliant’ politician. A decade later, he reached the office of prime minister after a manipulated election but soon ran into trouble with the security establishment. In 1993, he was ousted; only to be re-elected with a bigger mandate in 1997. This time his power seemed invincible. He fired an army chief and the chief justice, and appointed a ‘safe’ general to lead the military. By 1999, he had been subjected to a coup, leading to incarceration and a long exile.
Sharif’s resurgence in the 2013 elections was a testament to the political base he had carved in the largest province. Two years after being elected with a landslide majority, not much has changed: there is a powerful military, a kitchen cabinet and a coterie of loyal bureaucrats, a sidelined parliament; and an opposition willing to make ‘deals’ with the real power centres.
The year 2014 witnessed decline in civilian power. Months of televised protests, orchestrated with the help of elements within the establishment — the blowback from the attempt to indict General Musharraf for treason — left the Sharif government considerably weakened. After the lethal attack on the Army Public School (APS) in December 2014, Sharif’s power slipped further. Within weeks of the APS incident, parliament amended the Constitution to create military courts, and the Apex Committees led by the military took over counterterrorism operations.
The regional situation has also helped the military regain its prestige, somewhat lost during the anti-Musharraf protests. The West wants to leave Afghanistan and the military is the key player that can broker a deal between Afghanistan and the Afghan Taliban. China is advancing its ‘One Belt, One Road’ policy that makes Pakistan vital for expanding Chinese influence westwards. This cannot be accomplished without the military undertaking the security for the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The re-emerging Russian power has also found an ally in the form of the military as Pakistan is seen as key to containing the extremist threat in the Central Asian region. At home, the Baloch insurgency is divided, and its outcome appears to be tilting in favour of the establishment.
Notwithstanding the external factors, it is the domestic variables that have led to a post-modern coup in Pakistan. The military, through the Rangers, is conducting a clean-up operation, targeting the nexus of crime and corruption in Karachi. The business lobbies had been asking for a military intervention, given the general state of insecurity. The provincial government is disempowered and the rest of Pakistan welcomes this. Opposition leader Imran Khan has asked the military to extend such operations to Punjab — the home province of the prime minister where his brother is the chief minister. This may have also caused panic to the prime minister and his team.
Public opinion perceives the military operations against the Pakistani Taliban and their affiliates to be the right policy move. Even though it was the former army chief who, according to his own aides, was reluctant in initiating such operations, the narrative is that the civilians are indecisive. In the public eye, it is getting clearer that General Raheel Sharif is the man in charge. Noted analysts and columnists continuously propel this image, which is not too different from what they did each time a powerful general was at the helm.
Is all this leading to a formal coup d’ etat? The answer is in the negative. If the security establishment has achieved its sway over policy, why should it get embroiled in the day-to-day mess of running a country? Is this sustainable? The answer is again in the negative. While a more temperate Nawaz Sharif is keen not to annoy the military, as a politician he would attempt to arrest the further weaning of his power. But the prime minister has become far more vulnerable. Another round of political protests might make his survival in office difficult. This time the political parties that stood by him during the sit-in by Imran Khan may not lend a helping hand.
A recent survey by the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency shows that 66 per cent of Pakistanis view democracy “favourably” and 64 per cent said that democratic governments constitute the best system. While only 20 per cent approve of direct military rule, 75 per cent trust the military (the highest approval rating for any state institution). Conversely, parliament (49 per cent), the Election Commission of Pakistan (37 per cent) and political parties (35 per cent) enjoy much lower approval ratings.
Herein lies the failure of democrats in Pakistan, who have consistently neglected the vital role of governance via parliament. They have also disregarded party reform and the need to build grassroots cadres that can promote a culture of democracy. With delayed (and much weakened) local governments rolling in, people remain far removed from governance and decision-making. In such a context, it is easier to strengthen the narrative of ‘civilian failure’.
At the end of the day, it is the civilian government, which has to reorganise its priorities and find ways of working with parliament to strengthen the fast-eroding civilian influence. There are few takers of the victim narrative in today’s Pakistan. There is no alternative for the prime minister but to make his cabinet the arena of decision-making, aid parliamentary committees to hold the executive agencies accountable and ensure that the National Accountability Bureau functions independently before it needs a saviour’s intervention. Finally, for the health of an ailing democracy, the government must guarantee that media freedoms, currently in the decline, are protected. Otherwise, the eight-year-old democratic interregnum runs the risk of hitting another systemic breakdown.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 29th, 2015.
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