We have had a strange conversation about the military’s role in our politics since the multi-party conference by opposition parties. Politicos are being chided for meeting the army chief and DG ISI on the latter’s invitation to discuss the status of Gilgit-Baltistan, and speaking of matters such as free elections goes to show how deeply the de facto model of governance has seeped into our collective imagination. This is the new normal: army chief holding forth on all matters of national interest is ok; politicos speaking to him about such matters is disgraceful.
Journalists who represent the establishment’s viewpoint celebrate a hybrid form of government with civil and military authorities partnering to run the state. Those opposed to the military’s role as senior partner in this hybrid regime are designated enemy agents and part of ‘5G’ war against Pakistan. This prevents an open and candid discussion about the military’s role in the polity. If you support inflating and entrenching the military’s role in politics, you’re a patriot. If you oppose such a role, you’re a traitor. Such a divide is unnecessary and harmful for Pakistan.
Military’s role in politics is a matter of governance design that impacts what role we ascribe to the Constitution and rule of law in this country, to democracy, to separation of power and sustainable institutional evolution, and to the military. This is not a conversation about the PTI or the present military leadership. Discussions about civil-military relations are discussions about where our country is headed. Do we wish to entrench and legitimize this hybrid model as our de jure system of governance? Or are we still justifying the hybrid model on grounds of necessity?
In the realm of theory, the key contesting argument on civil-military imbalance in Pakistan has been the following: proponents of civilian control of the military argue that civilian institutions are kept weak by design, which then creates room for military intervention in politics and in turn further weakens democracy and civilian structures. Critics of our representative process and political parties argue that the corruption, expediency and inability of politicos creates a vacuum that forces the military to step in and keep the country afloat.
In the event that there was a desire to replace the junior partner, selling the idea to the institution after providing legitimate cause would take time. Such a campaign has never been initiated
So what justifies the hybrid regime at this time? Is the ruling PTI regime so inept that the military is being forced to join in as a partner to provide a stable hand? According to the narrative of the ruling regime, the PTI government is a popular elected government that assumed office after winning the 2018 election in a fair and square fight. If this is a popular government that has been fairly elected and is also not corrupt, like the previous one or the one before that, what vacuum is the military being forced to fill at this time with its role in this hybrid regime?
The question is whether this hybrid model is time bound or permanent. And in the latter case, can it fit within our constitutional design? It is not that details of the military’s role in running of the polity today have come to fore accidentally. The release of information is deliberate. We have had chosen anchors eulogize how the hybrid model is a panacea to all our challenges. We have had unofficial and official spokespersons of the military reveal how politicos have sought audience and been granted audience with the army chief to have their problems addressed.
The picture emerging from disclosed information is of a benevolent sovereign who has reassured politicos, reaching out to him with their distressed appeals, that the state will treat them fairly. It isn’t the picture of a chief disinterested in and detached from the subject matter of those appeals. We are told that Khawaja Asif called the chief at 2am after the night of Election 2018. The chief took his call and reassured him that all will be well, as opposed to saying he had nothing to do with the election and that Asif should probably call the Election Commission.
Details of the chief being involved with matters of a political nature in his interactions with JUI-F and Maulana Fazlur Rehman or Khawaja Asif or Mohammad Zubair or opposition leaders during the GB-related moot have not been leaked by politicos, but by DG ISPR, Shiekh Rashid and chosen anchors. The narrative is that it is shameful for politicos to try and bite the hand that feeds them. There is no doubt it makes politicos look bad when they proclaim allegiance to the principle of civilian control of the military. But what does it say about the military?
Let us assume opposition parties have tried very hard over the last year to contest for the position of junior partner in the hybrid regime. And after it became clear that there might be no job opening anytime soon and no other relief may be granted to opposition leaders, they have decided to attack the senior partner in the regime. This projects opposition politicians as opportunists devoid of principle. But if it is clear that the military is the senior partner in the ruling regime, wouldn’t opposition parties negotiate a manner of use of state power with those running the polity?
Opposition parties which thought that replacement of the junior partner would be a simple or viable affair were living in a fool’s paradise, lacking understanding of the military as an institution. The PPP fell out with the military after Bhutto’s hanging and the institution continued to view the party and Benazir Bhutto as a security threat through the 1990s. Nawaz Sharif offended the military in 1993 and fell out completely in 1999. His party is now etched into the institutional consciousness as an adversary and not a prospective partner. And after years of patronage, Imran Khan is an ally and protégé.
Khan is right when he says there is no other option but him. Institutions evolve their thinking and preferences slowly. Unlike political parties run by autocrats who can act whimsically and get away with it, the military is an institution where even the chief does not have the freedom of action that a party head enjoys. In the event that there was a desire to replace the junior partner, selling the idea to the institution after providing legitimate cause would take time. Such a campaign has never been initiated. It is safe to say that this hybrid regime is here to stay.
And that leads is to the more relevant question. What form and direction will the polity take if the hybrid regime is here to stay? Military intervention and control of the polity from behind the curtain has worked for the military in the past due to division between responsibility and power, with responsibility resting with elected political regimes and power wielded by the military. Whenever military chose to assume control directly after imposition of martial law, it became the object of public resentment and ridicule just like civilian governments.
So in a sense we are in virgin territory. The military is not in the back-to-barracks mode it gets into after years of military rule. It is not in the pulling-strings-from-behind-the-curtain mode where it controls key decisions and leaves day-to-day governance to an elected civilian regime. It is not in the selector or umpire mode where it is called upon to act as an arbiter in overseeing distribution of power between political actors or resolve conflicts between institutions. In this hybrid regime, the military has become an active partner in day-to-day governance. Public opinion sees it as bearing both power and responsibility.
There is no apparent path to transition from the existing de facto system of governance to a de jure one. Has the military leadership thought through this hybrid model and where it will lead us?
The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad