The Collapse Of Civilian Institutions In Pakistan
More than 70 years have passed since we started our journey as an independent state and in this period our ruling elite have failed to reach a consensus over the rules of the game — rules under which they will jockey for power. We have failed to evolve a consensus over the use of force or use of coercive apparatus of the state against those who break the rules primarily because we don’t have a consensus on what those rules ought to be. We journeyed from being a parliamentary democracy to a presidential form of government and sojourned at a system which was a hybrid form of the two. The question still remains unsettled with voices advocating presidential form over parliamentary, since in their view the latter is more suitable for Pakistan, where the need to control the destabilising forces requires dictatorial power.
Political class shows little understanding and commitment to the system—in our case parliamentary form of government—to which they vow loyalty. Federal structure of the state hardly stands on strong footings—as the most powerful man, I mean the incumbent army chief, is on record to have cast doubts about the usefulness of 18th amendment, on which the federal structure is based.
At present, there are three kinds of political power that are relevant to the power struggle that has been going on in our society and that has been a basic characteristic of our political life. First type of political power is the popular support base of the politicians. This means a politician has a certain vote bank, he can attract votes in general elections and he is a crowd puller. More votes he can attract the more power he has. But this power on its own—as our experience especially in the post-Zia period has demonstrated—cannot get the political leader into power corridors. For that to happen political leaders will have to make compromises with other power centers.
Second type of political power perceptibly flows from the barrels of the gun—institution with the most guns and with the most organisational spread in the country enjoys this kind of power. The army not only has the most firepower but also the characteristic of its organisational base spread all over the country. It is present in every nook and corner of the country. This gives it the reach and strength enjoyed by no other organisation in the country.
What’s the use of this firepower and strength of spread of its organisational base when they are not actively used against a countervailing force, except on the periphery like Balochistan and tribal areas? The answer lies in the soft power the military has successfully mastered during the last 20 years. They are controlling the narrative of the society and they have successfully created an image or a myth of themselves to be omnipotent and omnipresent among the political class and urban middle classes of the society.
So does that mean the army doesn’t need any assistance as it is all powerful? No, that’s not true. The army needs popular leadership and their support for social and political stability in the society. Army needed popular support in the face of urgent need to go after the militants in the tribal areas in the early years of this decade.
The establishment needs a façade of popular civilian government to act as a shock absorber against pressure from the domestic factors and international community. But there is a pattern in the establishment’s behavior in showering blessings on political leaders of its choice—it keeps on changing allies in the political arena.
The establishment doesn’t have permanent allies. It keeps on changing allies according to its needs and requirements. The crux of its behaviour in the post-Zia period is that it has no permanent allies. The official leaks about the hobnobbing between COAS General Bajwa and PMLN second tier of leadership clearly indicate that present top brass has not put all its eggs in one basket.
Third type of political power has recently emerged as a potent force in the arena—the judiciary and the power of judicial review grants the superior courts a position in the power structure unmatched by other types of political powers. Our constitution gives the superior courts the jurisdiction to review executive decisions, appointments, laws and policies of the government. This means the judiciary can thwart the plans of other types of power in our society as they have repeatedly done during the Post-Zia period. They can restore governments dismissed by military backed presidents. They can oust the incumbent prime minister. They can suspend the appointment of the army chief and they can strike down laws. By all means this gives them immense power in the political arena.
Pakistan’s political future will be decided in the arena that we will see intense struggle between these three types of political powers that exist in our society. Our constitutional scheme requires that the elected civilian government should be on the top of the power structure. This elected civilian government has to face democratic accountability as envisaged in the constitution. But the problem is that the institutions of civilian government have lost both moral strength and material capacity to set the direction of the political system. And the vacuum left by civilian institutions after the loss of legitimacy and material capacity is filled by two other types of political power—military and judiciary. This tragedy has gone unnoticed and un-mourned. Pakistan’s chattering classes are so busy in celebrating the emergence of new power centers in the society that they have forgotten to mourn the near death of civilian institutions. It seems that now two power centers are rewriting the rules of the game according to their own taste and convenience.
Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.