Pakistan’s opposition politicians are confronting the country’s army generals head on, in a sign that civilian politicians are taking off their gloves to directly criticize the powerful military establishment.
On Sunday, major Pakistani political parties, excluding Premier Imran Khan’s ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), held a conference in Islamabad and openly slammed the military for interfering in civilian matters.
Former Premier Nawaz Sharif, who is currently in London for medical treatment, chose not to hold Khan responsible for multiple crises wracking Pakistan. Instead he blamed those who “brought him to power” – a veiled reference to the military.
“Today, our struggle is against those who installed Imran Khan and who manipulated elections to bring an incapable man like him into power and thus, destroyed the country,” Sharif said in his address to the opposition conference via a video link.
It was not the first time that Sharif and other opposition politicians accused the army of rigging the 2018 general election. It was also not the first time that politicians accused the generals of undermining civilian supremacy.
However, the tone of the conference was predominantly anti-military, with almost all opposition parties agreeing that the country’s military has exceeded its constitutional role. In Sharif’s word, the Pakistani military is now “above the state.”
“It is saddening that the situation has escalated to a state above the state. This parallel government illness is the root-cause of our problems,” Sharif said.
The increasing hostility between the army and the political class doesn’t augur well for Pakistan. The economy right now is in shambles, and the human rights situation is dire. Climate change and coronavirus only add to these problems.
Trust between lawmakers and military generals could help the state function better. But it is an open question on how to get a new social agreement to work between Pakistan’s military and civilian ruling classes.
Lack of trust
Pakistan’s civil society wants a subservient role for the military, as is laid down in the country’s 1973 constitution. Rights groups accuse the military agencies of unlawfully detaining activists, journalists and political workers, and censoring the media.
They want the civilian administration to be in charge of all government affairs – domestic matters, the economy and foreign policy. Constitutionally, their argument is valid, but the reality on ground is different.
Security issues have dominated Pakistan since it got independence from British rule in 1947. The civilian space shrank further after the start of the Afghan War in the 1980s. The US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 gave the army an even bigger role in the country’s affairs.
This geopolitical situation makes it difficult for Pakistan to function as a “normal state.” It is reality that the military is ubiquitous in Pakistan and won’t relinquish its power anytime soon.
Ghulam Mustafa, a retired army general and defense analyst, is in favor of a dialogue between the military and the opposition parties but believes that Sharif is not ready for it.
“Nawaz Sharif works in an authoritarian way. He does not want to pay heed to the advice of national security institutions,” Mustafa told DW.
“Similarly, the Pakistan Peoples Party [headed by former president Asif Ali Zardari and his son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari] needs to take security matters seriously. Only these steps could lead to reconciliation. The military is in favor of a friendly environment,” the general added.
Qamar Cheema, an Islamabad-based political analyst, said it is Khan’s job to bring the military and political class closer together.
“Khan is the leader of the House (parliament). He needs to create space for democratic groups, start a dialogue with the opposition. He does not even want to talk to them,” Cheema told DW.
“Actually, the prime minister has given more space to unelected offices,” Cheema said, referring to the military establishment. “It is not democratic behavior,” he added.
Cheema believes that the army also wants to strengthen the democratic setup in the country, but it doesn’t trust politicians.
“Sharif, for instance, tried to cut down the army’s powers. That created mistrust,” he said, adding that the military doesn’t want the civilian leadership to take “hasty decisions” to normalize ties with India, something which Sharif attempted during his third stint as premier between 2013 and 2017.
Habib Akram, a Lahore-based analyst, said the army also enjoys public support; therefore it would be incorrect to say that the conflict is between the people and the military.
“The army controls the mainstream political narrative. Many Pakistanis support the army and consider politicians corrupt,” Akram told DW.
A new system for Pakistan?
Genera Mustafa believes the political crisis could be resolved if the country opts for a new constitution.
“We need new constitutional arrangements. The parliamentary form of government is not suitable for Pakistan and we should rather have a presidential system,” Mustafa said, adding that a council should be formed under new arrangements to debate all issues of national importance.
But the country’s democratic forces say the demand for a new political system is undemocratic.
Imran Zafar Laghari, a PPP leader and former lawmaker, said there is no need for any constitutional role for the army.
“The 1973 constitution clearly defines the military’s role, which is to defend the country. It must stay within its constitutional domain. It would be catastrophic for Pakistan if some forces try to meddle with the constitution,” Laghari told DW.
With compromise looking impossible, a middle road could be a new social contract between all stakeholders of the ruling class.
“I don’t think that Pakistan needs a new social contract. What the country needs is the supremacy of parliament as per the constitution,” Harris Khalique, secretary-general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), told DW.
“All stakeholders need to respect the existing social contract that citizens have with the state. If citizens or human rights defenders have some issues with the constitution, it is the prerogative and mandate of the lawmakers to amend the constitution as representatives of the people of Pakistan,” Khalique said, adding that the constitution delineates the role of every institution.
Analyst Cheema prefers a novel way to deal with the situation. “The gulf between elected offices and non-elected institutions of the state is growing. Pakistan needs to start a national dialogue,” he said.
“It is not just about the constitution. The military believes that politicians don’t deliver when they come to power and that they don’t devolve powers. The political class says that the military is not letting them work.”
Additional reporting by S. Khan, DW’s correspondent in Islamabad.
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