There is satisfaction that the first ever elected government in Pakistan has successfully completed its full term, 66 years after the country came into being and another election is forthcoming.
Does this transition also mean that the military, which has ruled in Pakistan for half its existence, has become less powerful than politicians? Or will it be just the fourth time in a long-running saga, in which the ouster of a hated military dictator is followed by a civilian government so corrupt and incompetent that the military quickly regains prestige followed by power?
The military appears to have taken the tactical decision not to interfere in politics overtly through coup d’états but it has not given up control over strategic decision-making, especially foreign relations, nor surrendered any economic privileges.
For a start the ongoing election campaign is a casualty of fundamentalist threats unrestrained by the military. Not only have terrorist groups such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) branded democracy as un-Islamic, they have also declared war on secular political parties. More than 75 people were killed in election-related violence in April alone. The face of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, made one stilted video appeal to followers and fled the country. Unsurprisingly, his Party is expected to pick up less than 20% of the vote. But Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, believed close to fundamentalist groups, is campaigning widely and expected to win approximately 60% of the vote. Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf – believed to have the backing of the military – is also campaigning without dire threat, banking on youth support.
Not only are the military and its infamous intelligence agency, the ISI, determined to influence the composition of the new “elected” government indirectly through their influence over militant groups, a majority of young Pakistanis incredibly prefer the military over civilian government. According to a recent poll by the British Council in Islamabad, 94% of young Pakistanis believe their country is headed in the wrong direction and question the value of democracy itself. While the civilian government garners the support of barely 14% of those polled, the army received 77 percent. Even more disconcerting for the future, only 29% believe electoral democracy is the best political system for Pakistan, 32% support military rule and the highest, 38%, prefers Sharia. This is disquieting in a country where half the registered voters are less than 35 years old, often uneducated and usually unemployed.
While the country faces high inflation and crippling power shortages and staves off bankruptcy through annual infusions of approximately $5 billion from the much disliked U.S. and the World Bank, the military continues to grab nearly 20% of the budget.
The continuing dominance of the military is especially visible in Pakistan’s external relations. The application of Most Favoured Nation status to trade with India is still held up. Non-action against the Mumbai terrorists, the beheading of Indian soldiers at the border etc. set back any improvement in bilateral relations. Pakistan still calibrates Western negotiations with the Afghan Taliban and last month it was the Army Chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, not the Foreign Minister, that went to Brussels for a meeting with the new U.S. Secretary of State and the President of Afghanistan.
So while one can hope that the handing over of power from one elected government to another strengthens the democratic process, it will be a long while before the unconstitutional power of the military erodes significantly.
Ambassador Neelam Deo is Director of Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations and former Ambassador to Denmark and former Joint Secretary for Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh.
This debate was exclusively conducted for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, titled ‘The civil-military equation in Pakistan has begun to tilt in favour of civilians.’ You can read more exclusive content here.
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