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Imran Khan May Survive But Power Vests In Another Office

The emergence of the office of Chief of the Army Staff as a parallel executive authority and as arbitrator of political disputes in the political system is another manifestation of institutional imbalance that has been the hallmark of Pakistan’s political culture. Saeed Shafqat has quite convincingly described in his book, “Civil-military relations in Pakistan” that Pakistan’s political system has vacillated between military hegemonic system—when military directly ruled the country and political party dominance—when one or the other political party came to power as a result of parliamentary elections— in the years following independence.  The present state of Pakistan’s political setup—when parliamentary democracy is prevailing while military is still dominating the decision making processes in the capital city— could be described as return of military hegemony with the façade of parliamentary democracy still intact.

The present dominance of the system by the office of Chief of the Army Staff— to the extent of perception among the political elite that he is the final arbitrator of disputes and his rise as a parallel executive authority—is fast making the system completely dysfunctional. Representative political institutions, which potentially can produce consensus, have been made inoperative, infighting between political parties on petty issues is the new normal and the representative institution that is supposed to preside over this system as an executive authority—the office of Prime Minister—is facing drastic reduction in executive power especially those related to decision making processes in the policy sphere.

These changing dynamics of power are amply reflected in the political jokes that are in currency in the federal capital and viral memes on social media that show powerful, hugely fat and giant like Army general patronizing the little-toddler-kid that is shown to be our incumbent prime minister, Imran Khan. It is not that the reduction in the stature of the office of prime minister has happened with the election of Imran Khan. The prime minister’s office has gradually lost stature over the past many years.  

There has been a gradual but persistent decline in the in the status and practical powers of the office of prime minister in post-Musharraf period. Immediately after coming to power in 2008 the PPP government through a cabinet decision vested the office of the COAS with the authority to take decision related to the application of force, wherever necessary, to deal with the threat of extremists and militancy or negotiate a deal with the militant according to the needs of the situation. This cabinet decision directly undercut the powers and authority of the Prime Minister.

General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani started to act as the Diplomat-in-Chief of the country during Pakistan People’s Party government. General Kayani undertook ten full-fledged diplomatic visits to important world capitals. The objectives of these visits were not restricted to advancing military to military contacts with friendly countries, as often Pakistani military commanders (who had not staged coups) had done in the past. General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s visits had broader objectives. He was clearly acting as a face of country’s foreign policy.

During his visits to important world capitals, General Kayani held discussions with political leadership of these countries. There is nothing secret about these talks as the nature of General Kayani’s meetings with important world leaders were revealed in the ISPR statements issued after every visit. Senior government officials used to say at that time that PPP government was privy to all these visits and Foreign Office took active part in organizing and arranging them. Nevertheless, the nature of the talks held and its descriptions in the official press releases are revealing. He thanked the Saudi King for his generous support to Pakistan in the times of need, discussed strategic relations with Turkish and French Presidents, discussed policy framework of war on terror with US Defense Secretary and UK foreign Secretary, informed Afghan President that Pakistan would no more tolerate drone attacks and initiated new strategic relationships with two important European countries – Russia and Germany.  This tradition of acting as Diplomat-in-Chief continued during the tenure of General Raheel Sharif and General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

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Conversely, Prime Minister’s office faced a drawdown of sort—it was unstable as it was facing onslaughts from the political opponents as well as superior courts, whose decisions played no minor part in creating the perception of highly unstable, undependable and bubble-like nature of PM Office in the new system that emerged in the post-Musharraf period.

Earlier, in the post-Zia years, when extra-ordinary constitutional powers of the President were intact and when parliamentary democracy was restored in a very nascent form, the informal decision making institution of Troika—involving COAS, Prime Minister and President —was made operational till the time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif government repealed the constitutional power vested in the office of the President in the late 1990s. Thus the office of President was relegated to the status of a constitutional head, leaving Prime Minister and COAS as the only two centers of power in the field of decision-making processes.

In the years before the October 1999 coup, the Army entered directly into matters of governance—as was evident from the then COAS, General Musharraf making public proposals about fixing public institutions like WAPDA. No objections were raised by the then PMLN government against such proposals.

The rising profile of the office of Chief of the Army Staff in Pakistan’s political system is an old story. But in the post-Musharraf period the said office has assumed a hegemonic role, to use a term from Saeed Shafqat’s book, thereby creating a highly unstable system of governance.

Consider the role of the office of Chief of the Army Staff in the constitutional and political crisis of 1993, when the then President, Ishaq Khan and the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif were at loggerheads. General Waheed Kakar, the then COAS forced both of them to resign from office, thus acting as an arbitrator in political disputes and conflicts and setting a tradition for his successor to follow in his footsteps.

So it was easy for one of his successors, General Raheel Sharif to invite two rebels—Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri in August 2014 to GHQ in an attempt to act as an arbitrator between them and the then PMLN government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Ironically these two rebels were talking of civil-disobedience, threatening violence and practically paralyzing the capital city. And yet Chief of the Army staff invited them for parleys—just to act as a person who could settle political disputes—most certainly a role out of bound with his constitutional role.

A few weeks ago, the incumbent COAS, General Bajwa jumped into the same role when he invited another rebel, Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman to his office to discuss the so-called “Azadi March”. Another irony is that the no civil government or its representative raised an objection to the fact that a troublemaker could not be invited to the office of COAS. Because General Bajwa was telling the rebel that he should forget about replacing the incumbent prime minister, this aberration was tolerated in the power corridors in Islamabad.

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Imagine a civilized democracy allowing its Army chief to discuss political matters with a opponent of the government, who is hell bent in bring down the democratically elected government in the capital, and that too through violent protest march. Next to impossible, not even an Army chief who is on extremely good terms with the prime minister or head of the government would be allowed such space. Not even to discuss the security part of it. Why? Because allowing the Army chief to discuss the political matters with government’s opponents would make the system dysfunctional.

Pity the political system whose Prime Minister—a person who is supposed to be policy direction to the country and political system—feels proud of his Army Chief who had just negotiated with his political opponents hell bent on removing the prime minister through violent means. We should take pity on prime minister, Imran Khan and former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif for doing just that.

Why is it making the entire political system dysfunctional? Firstly because this situation is giving rise to a growing perception that the COAS is the real power wielder in the system and not the prime minister. And second it’s the COAS, who is giving policy direction to the system and not the prime minister. It is precisely of this reason that we hear a lot about Bajwa Doctrine and never hear about Imran Khan doctrine or Nawaz Sharif doctrine.

Lastly, what will simply ruin this political system is the issue of tenure of six years that one of the Army chief had enjoyed in the post-Musharraf period and the second one is enjoying right now. Prime Minister, Zulifikar Ali Bhutto reduced the tenure of Army chief from four years to three years just to make sure that Army chief should be appointed and retired within the tenure of an elected Prime Minister. Our inept political leaders just threw away the gains made by political democracy years back without the slightest idea that they are undermining their political autonomy and independence. An Army Chief, who will remain in office for six years will be much more assertive and ruthless towards the political system than they can well imagine.

He may be your favorite, Mr prime minister, but he is the same man who made life difficult for the previous government. Mr prime minister, no reason to feel complacent especially when power is slipping from your hands.

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