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Why Is Pakistan Prone To Frequent Power Struggles?

Umer Farooq describes the nature of power struggles in Pakistan and asks why such struggles occur in Islamabad after every decade. He attributes this situation to the lack of national cohesion and an absence of rules of the game.


After every decade or so we see a power struggle in Islamabad. In this struggle, three types of characters emerge on the national political scene. First, there is a victim, which is usually a prime minister who is deposed from his job. Second, there is a powerful personality, which is mostly a military general or may be a military-backed president. Lastly, there is a facilitator, who facilitates the whole process of the powerful character dominating the weak prime minister or politician. As the powers that be in Pakistan have a penchant for providing legal justifications for their political adventures, the last character in the struggle assumes a high-profile role in the whole drama as he is the one who provides legal cover to the whole adventure. This last character could be a judge or a high-profile lawyer of the country.

As this is patently a power struggle, there is no place for morality in it. But of late, the public opinion has assumed a particularly important role in the country’s politics. Hence, every character in the struggle wants to make sure that morality is on their side or at least seems to be. In reality, this power struggle is a ruthless game of cutthroat competition, where everything is fair.

Primarily, in these power struggles, it is the ruling elite which is fighting it out between themselves. The ruling elite, for the purpose of this article, includes the military generals, political elite including top politicians of the country, judges of the superior courts and segments of the media.


This fight is shown by the interested parties to be either a struggle between pro-democracy and anti-democracy forces, clean and corrupt politicians, or anti-national and nationalist forces. There is no dearth of experts and media managers who can twist the facts and mould the scenario and public opinion according to the requirement of the situation.


Since media has been privatised in the country, it is not only the state machinery which wins the propaganda battle in this struggle—so the private parties which play victims in this game could be equally successful in convincing the public that morality is on their side. This, however, is totally a separate issue that it is the state machinery which dominates the power structure of the country and controls the mechanics of gross root politics in the society.


In the immediate post-Zia period – from 1988 to 1999 – the episodes of these power struggles were more frequent. There was a fight between the immensely popular Benazir Bhutto, who got elected as prime minister in 1988, and the military-backed president, Ishaq Khan. It was followed by the fight between the newly emerging star of country’s politics, Nawaz Sharif, and Ishaq Khan. This was followed by a fight between Benazir Bhutto and her own handpicked president, Sardar Farooq Khan Leghari. And finally, there was a coup in 1999, which was preceded by a fight between prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his handpicked COAS, General (R) Pervez Musharraf.

In all these power struggles, one thing was constant, and it was the role of the military in manipulating the power struggle. The rest of the struggle was a clash of interests between competing groups of politicians vying to attract the attention of the military’s top brass and to garner their support to push their own agenda on the national stage.


The opportunistic streak among the politicians remained visible throughout this period in the agendas pushed by the political class to win the power struggle. Sometimes, they turned to Sindhi nationalism, at other times, they appealed to chauvinist feelings in the Punjabi populous. On other occasions, they simply advocated jingoistic policies at the regional level, without paying heed to the cost of such an adventure.


The military elite showed no less opportunism in their conduct; they hobnobbed with foreign political and military leaders to strengthen their grip on the power structure of the country. The military elite used the political uncertainty in the country to obtain concessions for the business-industrial complex they are running in the country, and to slip their personnel in key posts in the state machinery.


The latest of these power struggles started in early 2017 and we are still living in its aftermath. Characters were the same; we had a victim prime minister, the role played by Nawaz Sharif. The role of power wielder was played by General Qamar Javed Bajwa and his spymasters. The former chief justice, Justice Saqib Nisar was the legal facilitator of the whole episode of the ouster of an elected prime minister from the corridors of power.


In this power struggle, Nawaz Sharif launched a frontal attack on the judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, after his disqualification through a court verdict. The frontal attack was debilitating for the political system as it was coming from the head of the ruling party, who is considered to be one of the most popular leaders in the country. Not surprisingly, General Bajwa jumped in and was reported to have told a group of journalists (in an off-the-record comment) that the army would side with the judiciary if things came to a head. General Bajwa’s statement was, however, reported widely in the national media. The then chief justice was not in any conciliatory mood at all as he deprived Nawaz Sharif all roles in the country’s politics.


So here we had a situation where three members of national elite – General Bajwa, chief justice Saqib Nisar and Nawaz Sharif – were openly fighting it out among themselves. Fighting was taking place in the mainstream media and social media. It was a fight to dominate the public opinion. In the fight, Nawaz Sharif was posing as a champion of democracy and political rights, the military was pretending to be the extreme nationalist and in the process, attempted to silence every voice of conscience. The chief justice, on the other hand, became a dam builder. Each one of them wanted morality to be on their side.


Why does Pakistan’s ruling elite fight it out among themselves every 10 to 15 years? Why are they so loud in expressing themselves when the fights start? Don’t they have any internal mechanisms to resolve their differences? Why have they not been able to agree on some rules of the game?


The reason we see the ruling elite fight every now and then is that we don’t have any national cohesion. The winning player starts talking about the need for national cohesion after winning the power struggle, as General Bajwa did, but forgets in the process that the power struggle has already alienated a popular national leader. And this has damaged national cohesion beyond repair.


We see very strong demonstrations of institutional cohesion when we see these national institutions start to close ranks in the time of crisis. But display of institutional cohesion further damages national cohesion beyond repair—hardly do these power wielders realise that their institutional cohesion is seen by a segment of the society to be an anti-people act.


Another important factor that leads to a repetition of these power struggles is the absence of any rules of the game upon which every member and institution of the power structure agrees. No rules of the game means that the institutions which have the capacity and ability to manipulate the mechanics of grassroots level politics will often display to the maximum their abilities to mould the system according to the demands of the institution and times. This would mean more instability as the political system now has more institutions, like political parties which can manipulate the political system in a better way. Therefore, the state machinery has to resort to tactics like declaring these political leaders and political parties as anti-nationals.


Of late, some of the sensible politicians have proposed to hold a national debate among the institutions to arrive at a more consensus-based political system. This would restrict the institutions to work within the boundaries set for them by the constitution. But, experts say that the constitution is a normative law and doesn’t say anything about how these institutions should operate on a day-to-day basis. This country’s ruling elite needs rules of the game and they need it urgently before we hit another crisis in the next 10 to 15 years. Remember, the power struggle which led to the ouster of Nawaz Sharif was not the last power struggle. It will happen again.


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