Civil-Military Relations: Off Again On Again in Pakistan’s Political Governance

Photo Credit - ISPR
Photo Credit – ISPR

Syed Sharfuddin

The controversial disqualification of an elected Prime Minister by a five-member panel of Pakistan Supreme Court on 28 July 2017 on charges of corruption and perjury has revived the debate in Pakistan’s political circles and social media on the status-quo of civil-military relations and its implications for the future of democracy in Pakistan.

In an established democracy a discussion on civil-military relations is unthinkable since military establishment is not an equal partner of civil administration in wielding political power. Being a state institution, it is subordinate to the political organs of the government. However, in Pakistan where the armed forces have played an active role in the country’s politics since the first martial law in 1958, this debate is not only necessary but also healthy to settle the question of which comes first, the military establishment or civilian administration in the governance of the country.

Historically, Pakistani military coups have been justified by pro-military actors, including the then judiciary on grounds that civilian administrations failed to carry out their electoral mandate of governing the country properly, leading to instability and causing grave threat to the survival of the country as an independent sovereign state. Thus, the doctrine of necessity was born and remained a strong instrument to justify military intervention in political matters. Pro-democracy circles, on the other hand, reject this thesis on the grounds that if democracy is not allowed to take roots in a society still recovering from the mistakes of its past military rulers how can a democratic culture be promoted and nurtured to bring maturity in political parties and produce leaders who will deliver successful elected mandates. Theirs is a democracy argument which takes inspiration from people power and advocates that political parties learn from their mistakes and move on to do better provided they are freely left to do so.

After the end of General Musharraf’s rule, the 2008 elections resulted in the full restoration of civilian democratic government in Pakistan. It was then assumed that the country had come away from the shadow of military take-overs and wholeheartedly embraced democracy based on fundamental freedoms, the rule of law and independence of the judiciary. The ruling Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) completed five years of its electoral term in parliament although it faced political challenges and had to swallow the humiliation of its elected Prime Minister resigning from his office. The PPP government was criticised by the then opposition for closing its eyes on rampant corruption and letting the former dictator leave Pakistan despite many court cases against him. The PPP kept the military establishment busy but it survived its term without a major crisis. The PPP lost the 2013 general elections making way for the Pakistan Muslim League (N) to form the next government.

The personal distrust harboured by the new Prime Minister (Nawaz Sharif) about the military leadership did not augur well for improving confidence between the new civilian government and military establishment. Mr Sharif’s friendly overtures to India to improve the climate of peace in the region did not please the military establishment which considered these premature until India ceased to sponsor terrorism inside Pakistan and made a genuine effort to cool off tensions along the Line of Control in Kashmir. The military was also frustrated with the lack of political will on the part of the civilian government to improve governance, control law and order and take pro-active steps to end corruption. Halfway in the term, the PML(N) faced political agitations from Imran Khan, head of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party which emerged as the third major political force in Pakistan after PPP and PML (N) following the 2013 elections, and from Tahirul Qadri, head of a Muslim Sufi organisation Minhajul Quran International, as well as head of Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT). Qadri is a dual citizen of Canada and Pakistan. He shows up in Pakistan only at the time of protests and then returns to Canada. This has led his critics to say that his visits have been sponsored by the military establishment to keep PNL(N) on the edge. Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri accused PML(N) of massive corruption and demanded the resignation of the then Prime Minister and his brother, the Chief Minister of Punjab. In 2014-2015 they attempted a complete shut-down of the capital Islamabad for many days and tried to bring down the government of Nawaz Sharif on the model of Tahrir Square rallies but PML(N) survived because PPP and Awami National Party (ANP) did not support an extra-election change of government by public agitation.

After the discovery of the Panama Papers in April 2016 which exposed the tax evasion of many world leaders and important business concerns, including the Prime Minister’s family, the pressure on PML (N) for resignation snowballed. PTI and PAT, as well as some other opposition leaders intensified their demand for the Prime Minister to resign. The government ignored their calls because its main rival PPP favoured the democratic course of PML (N) government completing is five-year term in office in principle. However, after the Parliament decided not to take further action against the Prime Minister on the Panama leaks, the matter did not subside and instead became more prominent involving media and civil society to take it to a final conclusion.

The PML (N) government bought rumours that the military establishment was behind the PTI and PAT to pressurise Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to abandon his soft stance on India, move against home-grown terrorists in his home province of Punjab and take a U turn on his Pro-Saudi position (which would have alienated Iran had it been allowed to be taken) on the Yemen war and the establishment of a Saudi-led Islamic Alliance Force against terrorism.

2016-2017 were the low water mark years in the country’s civil military relations since the restoration of democracy in 2008. In October 2016 an attempt by the government to undermine the armed forces through a leaked minutes of the meeting on security which were reported chapter and verse in a prominent daily of Pakistan (Dawn Leaks). The news story proved to be the last straw on the camel’s back and led to a total breakdown in the relations. In the same month the Supreme Court formed a bench to decide on the petitions filed by PTI and other opposition leaders against the Prime Minster on corruption and tax evasion, as well as application of clause 63 and 64 of the constitution on the eligibility of the Prime Minister under these circumstances. The appointment of a new Chief of Army Staff in November 2016 did not help much in mending these relations.

Many observers called the 28 July 2017 decision of the Supreme Court bench a judicial coup. The bench agreed that giving a ruling on corruption charges was the jurisdiction of the Accountability Court of Islamabad or Rawalpindi. At the same time, the bench recognised that the matter had reached an impasse which the institutions of the state and parliament had failed to resolve. The bench therefore found perjury as the reason for his disqualification which was not in the initial petitions, and asked the National Accountability Bureau to file references in the Accountability Court for further trial. Mr Nawaz Sharif’s party believes that behind his disqualification is the hidden hand of the military which did not find in him a friendly ally willing to take on board their views on many aspects of the government’s security and foreign policy they did not feel comfortable with, especially in the light of the poor governance record of the federal government and failure of Mr Sharif to come clean on allegations of corruption, money laundering and tax evasion.

This brings Pakistan to the key question of how it can fine-tune a perfect balance in the civil military relations where each side could cohabit amicably while also satisfying the constitutional requirement of making the armed forces an institution under the full command and control of the civilian government. It is a hard nut to crack because the civilian administration needs the armed forces in non combatant roles to clean up its mess partly created by bad governance and partly because there is too much of it in maintenance of law and order, disaster preparation and mitigation and committing resources to lead the fight against terrorism.

The problem faced by Pakistan is not peculiar to this country. For a number of reasons, part historical and part cultural, there are many African and Asian countries where the armed forces function as a paramount institution of the state almost at par with the ruling civilian administration. Examples of such countries include Turkey, Indonesia, Egypt, Sudan, Nigeria, the Gambia, Uganda and Pakistan. When a civilian leader is strong and holds the moral high ground the armed forces follow him and comply with the policies of the civilian government (e.g. Turkey, Uganda and Nigeria). Where a civilian leader is weak, indecisive and himself questionable on moral or financial propriety the armed forces feel embarrassed and resist his policies especially if they see these as running against their, as well as the country’s security and stability. Examples of such countries include Egypt. Pakistan unfortunately has often found itself in the latter category. The PML (N) leadership is seen very much by the armed forces through this lense even if facts on the ground are different.

Uganda solved the problem of civil military relations in 2005 by officially recognising the armed forces as a political interest group and assigning them constitutionally protected political representation in Uganda’s parliament. This is ideally not desirable in a mature democracy, but Museveni, a military-turned-civilian President, realised that this was the only way to satisfy a mammoth force which often regarded civilian administrations as untrustworthy, whether by their inefficiency, tendency toward ease and corruption or the very nature of politics where everything is based on expediency rather than principles. Museveni also did a clever thing. He got the Commonwealth to endorse this role by inviting them to observe Uganda’s first multi-party elections in 2006 under a constitution which sanctioned a legislative role for the armed forces in the politics of the country.

Article 78 of the Ugandan Constitution which was amended in 2005 states that “ (1) Parliament shall consist of— (a) members directly elected to represent constituencies; (b) one woman representative for every district; (c) such numbers of representatives of the army, youth, workers, persons with disabilities and other groups as Parliament may determine; and (d) the Vice President and Ministers, who, if not already elected members of Parliament, shall be ex officio members of Parliament without the right to vote on any issue requiring a vote in Parliament. (2) Upon the expiration of a period of ten years after the commencement of this Constitution and thereafter, every five years, Parliament shall review the representation under clause (1)(b) and (c) of this article for the purposes of retaining, increasing or abolishing any such representation and any other matter incidental to it. (3) The representatives referred to in clause (1)(a) of this article shall be elected on the basis of universal adult suffrage and by secret ballot. (4) Parliament shall, by law, prescribe the procedure for elections of representatives referred to in clause (1)(b) and (c) of this article.

Uganda has successfully completed 10 years without any major rift between the civilian and military establishments, although it can be said that the credit for this goes more to the longevity of the Ugandan President than the system itself. Nevertheless, the amendment has worked for Uganda and although clause (1)(b) and (c) of this article has become due for a review, a constitutional commission has not been established yet to review this sub-clause.

If Pakistan takes the Ugandan example as something that could work for itself, the armed forces would not need to set up a separate camp such as a political wing in the GHQ or a separate media operation like the ISPR to monitor what the civilian administrations are up to in regard to making security and foreign policies, as well as other policies such as visas policy for foreign nationals, monetary policy and media and communication. The representatives of the armed forces in Parliament would be in a secure and recognised position to observe proceedings, join committees, debate issues and vote in the legislative business. They would be free to vote as independent members or vote with a political party to play their role in the country’s good governance. 

A beginning toward this has already been made by the Supreme Court bench perhaps without the realisation that it was setting up a precedent for other things to follow when it included two Brigadier-level representatives of MI and ISI in the joint investigation team to probe the disqualified PM and his family against allegations of corruption. Supporters of the JIT justified this inclusion on the grounds that this will ensure that JIT was not under any political pressure form the government and would do its job in a neutral and non-partisan manner. The same logic can be extended to bring a constitutional amendment through which representatives of the armed forces could be elected against a quota of seats reserved for the armed forces. The candidates filing papers for these seats will be retired or about to retire military officers above the rank of Brigadier and would be elected by the people after their nominations have been jointly cleared by the military establishment and the election commission.

This arrangement, if enacted, will bring the required balance and confidence in the military establishment and civilian administration and crate a democratic process within the political system to resolve misunderstandings and reach consensus without upsetting the fancy apple cart of democratic governance which takes so much time, money and effort to organise every five years. A glimpse of what the future in-house consultations may look like with this type of composition can be seen in the way the former Interior Minister has walked his course vis-a-vis his other cabinet colleagues. For the sake of strengthening democracy and ending the circular argument of “we are better than you” by both protagonists, this practical arrangement is worth giving a serious try.

London: 19 August 2017

One thought on “Civil-Military Relations: Off Again On Again in Pakistan’s Political Governance”

  1. After I published the article a friend wrote back asking ‘How about inclusion of couple of members of Judiciary in some key parliamentary committees with protected powers.?’
    My reply to him was ‘The principle of separation of powers between the three branches of government namely the executive, legislature and judiciary would not allow it because with your suggestion the judiciary would effectively cease to be the third independent pillar of government. Judges would not like to be subservient to either executive or legislature because currently they are at par with them.’

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