Pakistan: Systemic Change in the Making?
Aug 31, 2007: STRATFOR
It no longer is a matter of if, but of when Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf will leave the helm in Islamabad. The judiciary and the man he ousted from power, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, are threatening to throw a monkey wrench into his evasive maneuvers. The issue, however, now turns from the day-to-day drama of internal Pakistani politics to the much deeper issue of whether Musharraf's fall from grace will be paralleled by that of the Pakistani military as a whole.
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced Aug. 30 that he will return to Pakistan from forced exile Sept. 10. The same day, another exiled former leader, Benazir Bhutto, announced breakthroughs in negotiations with President Gen. Pervez Musharraf that would ease the general out of power. Meanwhile, the country's Supreme Court began proceedings on petitions challenging on constitutional grounds Musharraf's bid to seek re-election.
Stratfor forecast months ago that Musharraf would have to concede his position as military chief if he intended to stay on as a civilian president, and that he would have no choice but to work out a political agreement with Pakistan's opposition parties, specifically Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party. Prompted by advice from his closest aides, Musharraf is now quietly working toward securing an honorable exit from the scene. He could be forced to throw in the towel sometime after the appointment of a successor military chief on or around Oct. 8.
Once Musharraf vacates the presidency, events will pretty much unfold as per the constitution -- the way they did when the death in 1988 of Pakistan's last military dictator, Gen. Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, created a power vacuum. A caretaker government headed by an acting president and an interim premier will be charged with holding fresh legislative elections, which will likely produce a highly divided parliament resulting in a coalition government.
Beyond the change in political personalities and groups, a far more important shift will take place in Pakistan in the coming months. For the first time since the army took control of the state in 1958 under Field Marshal Ayub Khan, the military's grip on the reins of the state is in the process of weakening.
This did not happen even when Pakistan's second military dictator, Gen. Yahya Khan, stepped down in 1971 after civil war led to the secession of a major chunk of the country and the surrender of some 100,000 troops to Indian forces. Neither did it happen when Zia-ul-Haq and his top generals died in a mysterious plane crash, ending his 11-year stint. In both cases, the military merely went into the background for some years -- only to return when the politicians could not agree to disagree. Even when the army was not directly ruling, the civilian leaders had to look over their shoulders continuously to see whether the generals were still with them nearly each step of the way.
That was in the past, however, when there were essentially two players in Pakistan -- the army and the political parties. Today, a vibrant civil society and increasingly independent and assertive judiciary have emerged within the country.
The empowerment of Pakistan's civil society was catalyzed by Musharraf's ill-fated decision to sack Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry in March. Chaudhry, breaking with tradition, would not fold, which set in motion a series of events that, within a matter of days, energized bar associations across the country. In turn, this emboldened the judiciary to assert its independence and challenge the military's hold on power.
The Supreme Court already has asserted its power, reversing a number of the Musharraf regime's decisions. The court reinstated the chief justice, released a top Musharraf opponent who was jailed on charges of treason and ensured Sharif's right of return. The judiciary also has taken steps to limit interference by the military and the intelligence agencies in matters of governance.
Meanwhile, the country's media, particularly the private television news channels, also have emerged as a powerful driver of events. In the wake of the judicial crisis, Musharraf tried June 4 to place restrictions on the electronic media through new ordinances empowering the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) to block transmissions, suspend licenses and confiscate equipment of electronic media organizations deemed in violation of the new laws. But five days later, under intense domestic and international pressure, he was forced to withdraw the controversial restrictions.
Pakistan also has witnessed an unprecedented surge in civil society activism. Instead of the political parties that historically have led protests, civil society groups -- especially the legal syndicates -- drove the protests during the legal crisis. There also has been an unprecedented outbreak of social debate on national issues, not only regarding the military's role in politics but also on the issue of rule of law. This debate has included criticism of men in uniform, as well as politicians.
All of this has been made possible by several structural changes that took shape mostly during the first seven years of Musharraf's rule. In order to counter the perception that he was a military dictator, Musharraf created a hybrid political system with a significant civilian component. Despite having manipulated the constitution on a number of occasions, he relied heavily on it to strengthen his grip on authority. In the process, he inadvertently strengthened the country's constitutional roots, which is now weakening the very power he consolidated.
Even within the military, Musharraf's repeated reshuffling of positions has contributed to his own undoing. It has brought to the fore a junior crop of generals that is inexperienced in politics and government. For a long time, this worked to his advantage by preventing any of his subordinates from rising up to challenge him. Now, however, as he faces challenges from Pakistan's civilian sectors, his top generals are unable and/or unwilling to support him.
In essence, the law of unintended consequences has worked against Musharraf. Moreover, it has weakened the military's ability to dominate the state. For now, this is limited to the political sphere. Eventually, the judicial branch can be expected to empower the legislative branch by forcing the military and the intelligence community to open up their books to parliamentary scrutiny. The weakening of the military's hold over the country's economic sector will be the next stage in the ongoing systemic change.
The question moving forward is: How far will the military's grip slacken before arrestors force the generals to take a firmer role? For now, the trend is running against the military -- and historical positions are being reversed. As the civilians entrench their power, it is the military -- not the civilian politicians -- that will mostly have to contend with limitations imposed by the judiciary. And civil society will serve as the watchdog.
And yet, there are plenty of issues that have the potential to topple this emerging civilian structure, such as the ability of Sharif and Bhutto to get along with one another and cooperate in order to check the military's power; the Islamists' level of power in the political system; the level of security in the country's Northwest; the status of the war on terrorism; the amount of pressure from the United States; and, of course, how India reacts to the changing political dynamic in Islamabad.
Any of these issues could lead to the military's return. Pakistan might be moving into the hands of civilians, but half a century of political culture does not die easily.