Diverging Views on the Military’s Interference in Pakistani Politics

April 14, 2021

Pakistan's military has the final say in politics, says the Pakistani opposition.
MARCH 25: Pakistani army vehicles take part in a military parade to mark Pakistan's National Day in Islamabad, Pakistan on March 25, 2021. The military parade delayed due to weather conditions. Photo by Muhammed Semih Uğurlu. Anadolu Agency.

The leaders of Pakistan’s main opposition parties gathered and formed the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) in September 2020, accusing Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan of having a strong connection with the country’s military.

According to the opposition, democracy is under a serious threat if the current government proceeds in its cooperation with the army. Nationwide protests erupted across Pakistan with supporters of the two main opposition parties, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), protesting against the military establishment’s involvement in politics.

The two main opposition parties have claimed that the country’s army brought Imran Khan into power. On September 16, 2020, a bill was introduced by Khan’s government which punishes anyone who intentionally defames or ridicules Pakistan’s army. The main purpose of the bill is to prevent “hate speech” against the armed forces. According to the opposition, however, this shows how the military establishment in Pakistan is strengthening its grip on power.

The Pakistani opposition had formerly claimed that an excessive number of troops was deployed inside the polling stations during the general elections of 2018. They claimed this showed the army’s powerful support for Imran Khan and that, therefore, the election was rigged.

VIDEO: Is Pakistan’s Military Interfering in Politics?

Imran Khan’s party, Pakistan Movement of Justice (PTI), denied these claims by arguing that the presence of the army was to maintain law and order, and to ensure the transparency of the elections. The military presence, they argued, was only for the peaceful transition of power as general elections in Pakistan never go smoothly, opposition parties always claim that the elections are rigged, the elections are followed by protests, etc.

Military men rising in Pakistan’s bureaucracy

The number of governmental and private institutions run by persons who have a military background has been increasing since Khan was sworn into office. For example, retired Lt. Gen. Asim Saleem Bajwa was appointed by Khan as the chairman of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) authority and Pakistan’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Bilal Akbar, is a former three-star general. However, the latter was a reciprocal step as the Saudi ambassador to Pakistan, Nawaf bin Said Al-Malki, is also a former navy officer.

According to the opposition in Pakistan, foreign actors sometimes approach the army directly whenever they are on an official visit and this gesture runs against democracy.

According to the opposition in Pakistan, foreign actors sometimes approach the army directly whenever they are on an official visit and this gesture runs against democracy. However, PTI officials reject these claims by saying that although undoubtedly Pakistan’s army is an integral part of the Pakistani government, it’s an autonomous institution. They claim that the Khan administration has the same sort of relations with the armed forces as with other state institutions.

Some believe that the PDM does not aim to defame the military establishment with this criticism, but to regain power through deposing the Khan administration. Ironically, opposition parties in Pakistan have a history of forming governments with the assistance of the military. For example, the convicted former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, was brought into politics by Gen. Muhammad Ziaulhaq, a former military dictator.

Pakistan is surrounded by its adversaries, and in particular India, so security is an inevitable part of Pakistan’s foreign policy. Speaking to Al Jazeera, Fawad Chaudhry, Pakistan’s federal minister of science and technology, said, “As far as Pakistan’s border security and territorial integrity are concerned, army and politicians should be on a mutual platform against India’s intentions to create chaos in Pakistan by sabotaging the CPEC project as well as supporting the BLA [Balochistan Liberation Army]. Army officials are strategically experienced and and disciplined in making decisions under alarming situations – there is no harm if the government moves forward with harmony with the military.”

Only 11 years after its independence, in 1958, Pakistan saw its very first military coup.

Pakistan has a decades-long history of army interference in civilian governments. Only 11 years after its independence, in 1958, Pakistan saw its very first military coup. Following this, there were two more coups, in 1977 and 1999. On other occasions, the Pakistani military explicitly ceased the government or enforced martial law.

Although Pakistan was established as a democratic country, in the 73 years since Pakistan emerged on the world map, almost half of this time has been under the rule of military administrations. Undoubtedly, the army has played an effective role in the political history of Pakistan.

Along with the failed coup attempts, the Pakistani army dissolved assemblies and removed civilian leaders from office several times. What is more, whenever martial law was announced in Pakistan, the military always stayed in power for a long period as compared to the democratically elected governments.

Despite long years of military rule, the Pakistani public has embraced army rule more enthusiastically than civilian governments. People love the army-run governments because according to them, Pakistan has developed more under martial law. Nonetheless, army rule is not acceptable for a democratic country as it increases the possibility of a dictatorship or totalitarianism.

Pakistani citizens love the military but there seems to be a wrong correlation between loving the country’s army and supporting a military administration in a democratic country. It is true that Pakistan has experienced economic growth under military governments, and this has helped create a positive image and legitimacy in the eyes of the public. For example, economic growth has always been higher under military rule as opposed to civilian rule.

Yet, certain military reigns overwhelmingly blackened the country’s image such as the results of the military operation carried out in 2004 under General Musharaf. Thereafter Pakistan started facing terrorism threats by Taliban attacks. During that time, the West started labelling Pakistan as a safe haven for terrorism.

However, both the government and the army can be on the same page when Pakistan is under threat. “The army’s job is to protect the borders, not to govern the country,” Raza Rabbani, former chairman of the Senate of Pakistan said recently. If the matter is national security, the army can give suggestions in foreign policy decision-making but it is not supposed to intervene directly in politics.

As for the Kashmir question, India has always been a threat to Pakistan. In order to render any escalations on the Line of Control (LoC), the military can take preventive steps for an immediate retaliation under high alert situations. In such circumstances, army and government are expected to act in harmony. In the long run, however, the grapple for power between the army and civilian politicians is fragmenting Pakistan domestically and stigmatizing it internationally. A full-blown army intervention in politics can create an excuse for Pakistan’s rivals to bolster propaganda against the country.

Rafi Ullah is currently an undergraduate student of International Relations at Ataturk University in Turkey. A part from journalism, his areas of interests are forced migration and South-Asian studies.

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