Unelected Institutions Will Have To Let The Political Process Assume A Life Of Its Own
Yet another controversy over the constitutional and political role of the Pakistani security establishment is about to erupt in the country. A fundamental issue that we now face is as follows: are the powerful security institutions bound to support the elected democratic government in the country in every situation, or is it constitutionally mandatory on the military to remain neutral in any political conflict between the incumbent government and the opposition parties? Is it right for the Army leadership to take a position in support of a political government whose legitimacy has come under question in the political discourse? What possible course is available to the military leadership in a situation where opposition parties are threatening chaos and have assembled enough manpower to cause unrest in the federal capital? These and countless other questions need to be answered by Pakistan’s political and military leadership before the situation gets out of hand.
The signs of controversy started to emerge after leader of the Islamabad protesters, Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman and Pakistan Army’s spokesman, Major General Asif Ghafoor, entered into a spate of statements and counter-statements with regard to the role of the Army in the growing political confrontation between the government and the opposition parties.
Fazal has succeeded in gathering a sizeable crowd in Islamabad and is now demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Imran Khan. In speech, he said that he was giving two days’ ultimatum to the “National Institutions” to clarify their position whether they support the “illegitimate” government of Imran Khan, which he alleged was the product of election rigging.
The military spokesman, Major General Ghafoor responded: “Pakistani military is an impartial state institution which always supports democratically elected governments in accordance with the Constitution”.
Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman, while addressing his supporters, said that if the “institutions” tried to protect the “illegitimate government” after the expiration of his two-day ultimatum to Prime Minister Imran Khan, then the opposition would be free to form an opinion about the “institutions”.
General Ghafoor’s statement, however, went a little further then simply clarifying Army’s constitutional position vis-à-vis the government. The leaders of the protesters, at the very least, saw it as a menacing one, especially when he stated, “Nobody would be allowed to create instability as the country cannot afford chaos.”
Commentators have been making a contrast with the Army’s attitude in December 2017 when a much more unruly crowd of religious party activists were threatening the peace of Islamabad in protest against Nawaz Sharif government. The Army Chief, General Bajwa, had at that time dissuaded the PML-N government from carrying out a police operation against the protesters. Another general was seen handing out small sums of money to protesters being released from detention by the government.
It is no secret that behind closed doors the entire political class is in touch with the military leaders and the intelligence services. It is also known that most senior political figures tend to chalk out their strategy and political game plan after giving due considerations to the views of the military leadership.
The political leaders who the people see harping on about the impartiality of national institutions in public, are often themselves operating in a space that is shaped just as much by unelected institutions of state as elected politicians – if not more.
Yet on the surface, both the military and the political leadership uphold the professed principle of Pakistan politics—that the Army is an impartial and neutral national institution.
The military’s ability to influence outcomes from behind the scenes seems to have increased since the era of General Musharraf’s direct rule. Activities often take the form of “advising” political leaders to adopt a particular course of action. Aside from more coercive suggestions, such advising may also take the form of cajoling—for instance when in 2009 Nawaz Sharif embarked on a Long March from Lahore to Islamabad for the restoration of judges, he was coaxed into canceling the march by the then Chief of the Army Staff, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani. This was widely reported. Influencing by the Establishment may also take the form of facilitating alliances between opposing political parties—for instance it was widely reported at the time of election of the Chairman Senate that spymasters sitting in Islamabad pieced together a coalition as they didn’t want the PML-N candidate to succeed. Reports did the rounds about spymasters directly influencing the ticket distribution processes of various political parties in the 2018 parliamentary elections. More recently, Islamabad was even rife with gossip about how spymasters tried to persuade Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman to cancel his “Azadi March”.
It would be fair to say that the Pakistani political class has become even fairly accustomed to such processes.
Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman was operating in precisely such a context when he asked the military leadership, the other day, to clarify its position vis-à-vis support to PTI government. This was an instance of Maulana’s “counter-manipulative” tactics, pure and simple. Whether the security establishment now comes out in support of the government or decides to stay aloof, Fazal is the winner either way. As far as he is concerned, if the Establishment decides to stay aloof, this will reinforce the perception that no power center is now supporting the PTI government. And if it decides to come in support of the PTI government, it will simply fuel Fazal’s narrative that the PTI government cannot stand on its own.
Unfortunately, dragging the military into the political arena is now the favourite pastime of the Pakistani political class, as they think that this is the easiest way to secure political benefits from those who wield true power.
Many have argued that the present political quagmire that the country finds itself in is the product of soft intervention by unelected institutions of state in the political process that started in August 2014. By July 2017, Nawaz Sharif was removed from the scene through a court order.
We often hear demands from the military leadership that they ought to be treated as entirely non-controversial and impartial national institutions. This desire, while completely understandable, might remain unfulfilled till such time as the security institutions extract themselves from the political, social and religious conflicts that exist in Pakistani society.
Security institutions will have to let the political process assume a life of its own.
Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.