The failure or inability of Pakistan Army’s spokesman or any other official from the service to articulate the exact and true role of the Pakistan Army in the country’s political system has negative fallout of its own. For instance, the latest warning of DG ISPR issued to “some” politicians, journalists and analysts will create further misunderstandings between army and civil society. The genie of hurtful debates about the army’s role in politics is already out of the bottle and such statements and entreaties (or warnings) will not make it return to the bottle. Especially when the army top brass has played no small part in the creation of the existing environment in which this debate about the army’s role is taking place.
The general perception about the Army’s hegemonic role in the political system is the series of revelations coming from within the army. The army spokesman contradicts himself when he claims that army high command is apolitical. Only a few weeks back, he told a press conference that the incumbent COAS made an attempt to mediate between former Prime Minister Imran Khan and the then opposition leader, Shehbaz Sharif. Pakistani media clearly stated that it was two senior military officials who convinced the then Prime Minister Imran Khan to unblock the constitutional process—which PTI’s speaker and deputy speaker were blocking in the national assembly—when the no-confidence motion was passed by the lower house of the parliament. So, you mediate between political players in the power-game and you make constitutional functionaries unblock the constitutional process and compel them not to defy Supreme Court orders. These are only two examples from the recent past. Pakistan’s political history is dotted with numerous examples where the army acted as a hegemon in the system. In 1993, the then COAS forced both the then President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to resign after protracted confrontation led to a constitutional deadlock. This is simply politics—electioneering and vying for power is not the only form of politics.
Mediating between political players and compelling constitutional office holders to come back from the brink of disaster is also politics. Army dominates the political system. It has made things happen in our political system. And not long ago it protected the fragile political system from being overthrown by dreadful terror force we call Pakistani Taliban. Between July 2007 and September 2014, the wave of violence that gripped Pakistani urban centres made the world conclude that the Pakistan political system was about to collapse. And not without the defense put up by a potent military force the system could have survived in the form that it exists today. This has greatly enhanced the sense of entitlement among the rank and file of the Pakistan Army. If social media campaigns and media reporting are to be believed this has also led to the politicization of rank and file. The most negative outcome of this situation is the fact that competing political leaders have made a punching bag out of one of the contenders for the COAS office. This must have been a source of discontent.
A very potent reflection of the army’s hegemonic role in the political system is the fact that all the mainstream political parties, at present, have made the army or its role in the system as a reference point of their politics and political campaign. Nawaz Sharif was ousted from power in 2017 and his subsequent political campaign was focused on a series of his grievances against army top brass. Imran Khan lost power and he and his party workers started targeting and blaming the incumbent COAS General Bajwa for their ouster from the power corridors. Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman assembles his party workers in Islamabad and demands the dismissal of the Imran Khan government. In his speeches he claims he has been assured of a positive outcome of his protest by “influential circles”—a code word for the army and its top brass.
Why do the mainstream political parties make the army and its top brass the reference points of their political campaigns? One explanation could be that both Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif wanted their ouster from power to look like a big scandal. Something bigger than what the actual situation on the ground indicated—In case of Imran Khan it was the height of ineptness where a person holding all the executive powers of the state in his hands could not keep the unity of his parliamentary party intact. And in the case of Nawaz Sharif, it was simply involvement in mega corruption scandals. But these are the explanations they tend to ignore. They or their party men rather focus on factors which point towards active involvement of the army top brass and its political arm, the intelligence services, in hobnobbing with their respective opposition parties. At least their perceptions and imaginations force them to believe that even the absence of the army’s active support for their government could lead to their ouster from power in a system in which army top brass acts as a hegemon. As Imran Khan seems to believe.
Pakistan’s political system is standing on the edge or the brink of an abyss and it would be better in such a situation if the army top brass should avoid hiding behind clumsy denials of their military spokesman, which, unfortunately no one believes. The most important question facing the political system is not who rules or who wins the next elections. The most important question is whether those in opposition or those who lose the 2023 parliamentary elections would be ready to accept the legitimacy of the winning party to run the government?
Given the acrimony that exists between rival political parties, it is clear that none of them would accept the legitimacy of the other in the process of government formation after the 2023 parliamentary elections. Long marches, protests and questioning the legitimacy of whoever forms the government might mark the end of the parliamentary system as it exists under the 1973 constitution. The army and its top brass should realise that they will continue to act as hegemon as long as this system exists.
For chaos and anarchy don’t produce hegemons.