foundation in 1947, Pakistan has spent more than three decades under military
rule. Even when out of power, the military has exerted behind-the-scenes
influence to maintain its firm grip on politics and national security.
Establishing democratic institutions, including civilian control of the
military, has thus been an arduous process riddled with uncertainty,
backsliding and reversal.
has often found civilian politicians willing to do its bidding. Every time
civilian politicians bend laws to accommodate the uniformed autocrats, they
undermine the trust of the people, damage the long-term prospects for democracy
and further enhance the military’s power.
On Aug. 19,
Prime Minister Imran Khan extended the term of Gen. Qamar Bajwa, the chief of
the country’s army, by three more years. General Bajwa was supposed to retire
in November, but the decision was made in view of the “regional security
before General Bajwa’s extension was about to kick in, the Supreme Court of
Pakistan considered a petition challenging it and suspended the extension.
Eventually, the Supreme Court gave the general a six-month extension and ordered
the government to get the Parliament of Pakistan to decide on such an extension
and its duration.
On Jan. 7,
the Parliament hurriedly passed the legislation as the country’s main
opposition parties voted in support of the law. They are the Pakistan Muslim
League (Nawaz) of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan People’s
Party run by the slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s son Bilawal
Bhutto, which have alleged that the 2018 elections which brought Mr. Khan to
power were rigged by the military under General Bajwa.
supporters of Mr. Sharif’s P.M.L.N., Mr. Bhutto’s P.P.P. and the country’s
beleaguered civil society activists interpreted it as a stark betrayal of their
apparent commitment to the democratic process. They seem particularly
disappointed with Mr. Sharif, who has popularized the slogan, “vote ko izzat
do” or “honor the ballot,” a thinly veiled rebuke to the military’s habitual
stepped down as prime minister in 2017 after the Supreme Court of Pakistan
disqualified him from holding public office after a corruption inquiry linked
to the Panama Papers. Mr. Sharif was not named in the Panama leaks and there is
no evidence that he abused public office for private gain, but the judges
disqualified him for hiding assets, and therefore failing to being “honest,” a
constitutional requirement for being a member of Parliament.
chose to defy the powerful military and galvanized his support base in Punjab,
the country’s most populous province, against its political influence while
campaigning for the 2018 parliamentary elections. Despite the military’s dogged
efforts — encouraging defections and bringing in false corruption cases against
party leaders — to ensure the defeat of Mr. Sharif’s party, it managed to win
the highest number of seats in the Punjab provincial legislature and the second
highest in the National Assembly.
is an unlikely principled democrat. In 2000, he meekly accepted going into
exile to Saudi Arabia after the military led by Gen. Pervez Musharraf removed
him in a coup in 1999. He has since redeemed himself by asserting civilian
supremacy over the generals while in power, despite its high political costs.
He has also refused to strike a deal with the military, despite suffering from
life-threatening medical ailments while being imprisoned on corruption charges.
was allowed to travel abroad for specialized emergency medical treatment in
November, Mr. Sharif appears to have softened his stance toward the military,
presumably under the influence of his younger brother and current P.M.L.N.
President Shahbaz Sharif, who is not averse to working with the generals to
resurrect the party’s fortunes.
Bhutto, the P.P.P. leader, emphasized the need for proper scrutiny of the law,
but retreated after citing the party’s inability to affect the outcome given
its low share of parliamentary seats. But his father and former President Asif
Ali Zardari’s release on bail in an alleged money laundering case in December suggests
a tacit accommodation with the military. Several prominent members of both the
P.M.L.N. and the P.P.P. reportedly opposed the legislation, but were overruled
by the top party leaders who control decision-making.
just a matter of supporting the new legislation that has disappointed Pakistani
democrats. What also dashed their hopes was the manner in which the P.M.L.N.
and the P.P.P. unconditionally and hastily approved the law without even a
perfunctory debate, let alone dissent. For some, they behaved less like leaders
and more like good soldiers who respond with “how high” when asked to jump by
General Bajwa’s command, the military has dramatically escalated curbs on the
news media, brazenly engaged in the intimidation, torture and abduction of
journalists, rights activists and other dissidents and manipulated the
judiciary. There were widespread allegations that the military had “tilted the
field” during the 2018 elections to favor Mr. Khan and his party.
army has long been the ultimate arbiter of politics in the country, which has
tilted the political playing field against its opponents with detrimental
consequences for democracy. Politicians have turned to the military as a
shortcut to power and their politically expedient knocks on the doors of the
barracks have allowed the generals to divide and rule.
Sharif’s seemingly steely defiance of the military had raised hopes that
Pakistan’s most popular opposition leader had learned his lesson. Democracy
does not necessarily need principled democrats, but it does need determined
political leaders who can rise to the occasion.
democracy requires compromises and accommodation between authoritarians and
democrats, politicians of all persuasions must commit to civilian supremacy as
the only game in town.
politicians have chosen to reward the military’s egregious violations of the
sanctity of the vote, a principle they had sworn to stand by no matter what.
Their abject betrayal of their own word augurs ill for the future of democracy
Minister Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party introduced legislation in the
Parliament that would give Mr. Khan and any future prime minister the power to
extend the tenures of the chiefs of staff of the army, navy and air force, and
the largely ceremonial post of chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee.
Shah is the author of “The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan.”
Headline: How Pakistan’s Politicians Help the Military
Source: The New York Times