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Pakistan Will Remain A ‘Defective’ Democracy Until Civil-Military Relations Are Stable

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While summing up the state of civil-military relations in Pakistan by the end of 2019, I maintained that the country’s economic performance was below average with low Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate− that fell sharply from 5.8 % (revised 5.2%) under the PML-N government to 3.8%  in the first quarter of 2018-19. And it declined further in the following months.

Since the military is a stakeholder when it comes to the political and economic system of the country, it usually looks at economic under-performance skeptically because poor economic indicators affect the stability of the society and the state.

In fact, to meet defence requirements such as weapons procurement, a stable economy is a prerequisite. In addition, shaky economic performance carries the potential to urge the masses to stage agitation politics, that can be cashed on by the political opposition for its own agenda.

Hence, looking at 2020 deductively, it seemed plausible that the PTI government might have faced social unrest owing to, for instance, prices hike and increasing unemployment. However, courtesy Coronavirus, we are now living through unusual circumstances nationally and globally. The pandemic has affected global economy in negative terms. Regionally, Pakistan’s economic indicators project negative (-1.5% GDP) growth rate for the ongoing year, and it is likely that this negative curve/trend will continue beyond 2020. Importantly, the Covid-19 has impacted Pakistan’s dwindling economy in a manner where the former no longer seems an exception, but rather a part of the global economic crunch. This, in turn, carries political implications particularly for civil-military relations.

Firstly, the COVID-19 pandemic has politically provided a sigh of relief to the PTI government since it evidently becomes difficult for Khan’s political opponents such as the PMLN and the PPP, to criticise the government for economic under-performance and launch protest politics because the world’s top economies such as USA and China are also expecting low GDP growth and declining exports in the coming years. Therefore, in an unusual Covid context, the government can expect to face little political challenge such as protest politics.

Secondly, being mindful of the power and influence of the powers-that-be, the government seems successful in maintaining the confidence of the former. The appointment of General Asim Saleem Bajwa− and related appointments of retired military men in housing, health sector and railways should be seen from this angle. Moreover, having accorded extension to General Bajwa through legislation, Khan seems to have secured his political survival in the current context where the opposition is almost non-existent and protest politics is improbable. Indeed, the opposition especially the PPP and the PMLN is being grilled through NAB.

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The foregoing, where the civil government embraced the military formally through high-level appointments, can be termed as hybridization of civil-military relations in contemporary Pakistan. This type of CMR was not practised in the past. Put simply, hybridity− or duality, which the author’s original model that has been developed in forthcoming book titled Perspectives on Contemporary Pakistan (Routledge, London/New York)− refers to political, institutional/constitutional processes where the civilians (read politicians) appease the powerful/principal military by according the latter a role in, for instance, governance, both institutionally (i.e. apex committees) and constitutionally (21st and 23rd amendments).

Furthermore, the politicians, both in office and in opposition, accord such roles/positions to the military rationally in order to, prevent coups and complete their tenure or avoid prosecution in corruption cases. The military, on its part, also desires such a role/position as it deems itself a stakeholder in politics, economy and the state without staging a (hard) coup. The extension of Army Chief and appointments of serving or retired military officials in civilian institutions can be explained from this duality perspective.

Duality seems very dynamic functionally where the civil and military authorities seem busy in, for example, governing the country and/or improving its economic profile. However, in reality, duality generates ‘deterioration’ which refers to political and policy decadence along with putting the country on the path of autocratization. Thus, Pakistan can only qualify as a ‘defective’ democracy where civil-military relations have remained unstable and become major source of political instability. Comparatively, Pakistan’s case is far behind other comparative contexts. For example, the former communist European countries such as Hungry and Poland where CMR were patterned on democratic lines by the political leadership in an enabling environment whereby external variables− i.e. US/NATO support in the post-Cold War period− played a crucial role in conjunction with internal factors, i.e. political and social consensus on establishing civilian control over the military. Civilian control, academically, pertains to functioning of government branches such as executive and judiciary, within the prescribed institutional and legal/constitutional domain. The term does not imply subjugation of the military. The latter remains an important institution of the state with the primary task to defend national sovereignty. However, there are different types of democracy such as electoral, liberal etc. Most of the former communist countries of Europe fall between electoral and (semi-) consolidated typology. However, Pakistan, as noted earlier, is far behind most of the East European and East Asian countries where democracy has been (semi-)consolidated.

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Thus, Pakistan needs to move in the direction of democratic civil-military relations where each institution works within its legal/constitutional and institutional domain. This could only be realized through social and political consensus− which unfortunately is lacking. We have a dynastic party system in place− not unlike other South Asian countries. Consequently, political parties in Pakistan lack intra-party democracy. Moreover, we are socially conservative in terms of abhorring innovative ideas, i.e. generating social consensus. In addition, there is a chronic distrust between the political forces and the military. At best, it is a marriage of convenience in a given context; in all the previous cases− where we had the so called ‘same-page’ scenario− there was ultimately separation or a divorce. Thus, if past is a reference, the current dualized dispensation may live on for some more years but it will ultimately reach its logical end where the ‘civil’ side would get replaced with another set of politicians.

Hence, to correct structural and institutional anomalies impacting Pakistani’s civil-military relations, we need to generate social and political consensus on the nature of political system and the type of civil-military relations. Democracy in real terms can only thrive when each institution is respected, plays its part as per the Pakistani Constitution and the law.

In the absence of a meaningful debate and consensus leading to the establishment of a truly democratic dispensation, our political and socioeconomic woes, exposed by the coronavirus, will prolong.

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