Transition from Military to Civilian Rule in Pakistan

Conditional transition?
By Aqil Shah, Dawn, March 13, 2008

IS army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani more ‘professional’ than his predecessor? Several political pundits, and even some politicians, seem to think so. As evidence, they cite the reported withdrawal of military officers from the civilian bureaucracy and the alleged disengagement of the military intelligence services from electoral rigging on his orders.

If implemented in letter and spirit, these are no doubt positive steps towards a transition to civilian rule. But before we yield to the temptation of cheerleading for the military’s new-found ‘professionalism’, it is important to understand the larger political context in which these changes are taking place as well as military organisational motives.

For one, and not surprisingly, the messages emanating from GHQ in the aftermath of the elections point more to continuity rather than a change in military perceptions of democratic politics. In the wake of the latest Corps Commanders’ Conference, Gen Kayani customarily pledged the military institution’s support for the incoming elected government while at the same time dispelling the growing impression that the generals were at odds with Musharraf, so what if in his dubious presidential capacity he is arguably the central hurdle to a timely and ordered transfer of power to elected civilians. And in the same breath, Kayani called for a “harmonised relationship between various pillars of the state as provided in the Constitution”, warning that “any kind of schism, at any level, under the circumstances would not be in the larger interest of the nation”.

He went on to warn civilians of the dangers of “unnecessarily dragging” the army into the political sphere. Publicly assured of the commanders’ support, Musharraf wasted no time in echoing his own conditional support for the incoming government: “I will fully support the new coalition governments [if] the political parties demonstrate prudence and focus on governance and this is possible only if all of them demonstrate peace.” This is buck-passing at its best. After all, the deterioration of “peace” in Pakistan is the result of military rule since 1999. No less, the worst violations of constitutional norms have been pure military operations, such as Musharraf’s Nov 3 martial law in the guise of emergency, designed to sort out non-compliant civilian institutions and individuals.

It is quite convenient for the military to explain away its intervention and political influence on the tendency of civilians to invite it in for mediating political conflicts and restoring order. But, as Samuel Finer and other scholars have argued, the opportunity to intervene does not equal intervention.

The military’s political behaviour is not shaped by civilian preferences. Organisational motives are crucial in the decision to intervene or withdraw from politics. The defence or advancement of the military’s corporate interests — relative autonomy from civilian interference, resources, and status in society — is one key motive. Thus the military is doing no one any favour by formally disengaging from governance. It is in a calculated tactical retreat to the barracks designed to stem the rapid decline in its public image and prestige triggered by the events of March 9, 2007 when the generals under Musharraf tried to force the chief justice out of office. In fact, the widespread public questioning of the army’s political role induced the fear in the officer corps that a direct association with an authoritarian political order could lead to irreversible damage to its reputation. Besides, why govern directly in the face of popular discontent when its embedded structural power can ensure that the army gets what it wants.

The incoming PPP-PML-N coalition government will gain formal state power in a post-military context marked by the perversion of democratic norms and practices and weakened state institutions which will make it increasingly difficult for it to square the circle of governance. Not to mention the high expectation-capacity gap which is likely to determine its perceived success or failure over time.

But before it comes to that, the coalition faces a dangerous threat in the shape of Musharraf, an antagonistic figure conspiring to retain his anti-democratic presidential powers, such as the notorious 58-2(b) designed to arbitrarily sack civilian governments. It is plain for everyone except the military (and perhaps the Bush administration) that Musharraf and his constitutional distortions have no place in the new order and the longer he stays in office, the more likely it is that the civil-military fault-lines will deepen.

Musharraf or no Musharraf, the deep-rooted nature of praetorianism in Pakistan means that establishing lasting civilian supremacy over the military is no easy task. The sheer complexity of the economic, political and security problems facing the country means that civilian politicians, once in office, might be tempted to focus on day-to-day governance and leave the military to its own devices. Hoping that the new army chief will reverse military praetorianism of his own volition is obviously not a strategy. His recent statement conveyed a rather menacing message: the army is willing to put up with democracy for now. But what is given might be taken away if civilians don’t behave themselves.

From a democratic standpoint, the PPP and PML-N have made all the right noises and taken all the right steps so far. The apparently historic ‘Murree agreement’ on the restoration of the pre-Nov 3 judiciary indicates that the two parties are strategically inclined to peg their political fortunes to fulfilling the popular demand for the rule of law. Their continuing emphasis on implementing the Charter of Democracy is possibly a reflection of their genuine desire to restructure civil-military relations. The Charter contains concrete proposals to this effect, such as making the military and its intelligence agencies accountable to the elected government, rationalisation of military structures and parliamentary oversight of the military budget.

Despite heavy odds, they do have the rare opportunity to reshape politics in a democratic direction. The real test will obviously come when they are in power.


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