National security and democracy
National security is integral to any state system. Internal and external dimensions of national security are assigned an important place in resource allocation and policy making. However, if the considerations of national security dominate all other concerns and responsibilities of the state, the latter becomes a lopsided entity. Human and societal needs are neglected and the political process becomes distorted. This is more so for states that are in the process of installing and consolidating the democratic political process. Democracy and societal development are stifled if for one reason or another national security becomes the dominant consideration. This benefits non-elected institutions and gives an undue advantage to the security establishment.
The memo is the latest example how the issue of national security is being used to strengthen non-elected state institutions and challenge whatever effort has been made to rehabilitate the political and societal processes.
The main argument is that the contents of the memo have threatened not only national security but also undermined national interest and national honour and that the Supreme Court must identify the culprit who has committed such “crimes” against the state. The Supreme Court has entertained several petitions on this matter. Though the petition by the PML(N) leadership has not mentioned any name, others have not been so discreet. Some person based in Canada has sent a letter to the Chief Justice on the memo which has also been turned into a petition. This letter is clear as to who is the target. He has also offered to bear the cost of his petition. It is known to all that these petitions are part of the on-going efforts to somehow dislodge the elected government, and if possible, get President Zardari removed for being part of some plan to undermine national security and honour.
The opposition parties do not have sufficient votes in the National Assembly to dislodge the PPP-led federal government through a vote-of-no-confidence. This means that the opposition cannot remove the president by impeachment that requires two-thirds votes in both houses of the parliament. The non-availability of these options has led the opposition, especially the PML(N), to talk of irrelevance of the parliament and seek their objectives through other means – street agitation to paralyse the government and recourse to the superior judiciary to seek disqualification of the president or some key officials of the federal government, if not the removal of the whole government. The opposition parties and anti-PPP activists are viewing the superior judiciary as forum to pursue their partisan agenda against the PPP-led federal government and the president.
This is not the first time that national security and national interest have been employed to build pressures on elected civilian institutions and processes. Right after the attainment of independence, the initial security and survival pressures turned Pakistan into a security state that assigned the highest priority to external defence against India and linked the survival of the state with a strong and assertive military.
Pakistan’s foreign policy was geared to serve the security needs that led Pakistan to join the US sponsored alliance system in order to obtain new weapons and economic assistance from the United States. The immediate security needs were met adequately but this entangled Pakistan in the Cold War that had a long term negative impact on Pakistan.
The overemphasis on external security adversely affected the prospects of democracy and weakened the civilian institutions and processes. Democracy and participatory governance was never a priority except in rhetoric. This led to the ascendancy of the military in Pakistan which began to dominate many policy areas long before it directly assumed power in October 1958.
The security-oriented mindset became the dominant worldview of the Pakistani state and a major part of the society. This mindset looked at the participatory demands with a lot of suspicion. The demands for provincial rights and autonomy were described as anti-national. The political, economic and cultural demands from East Pakistan were often viewed by the dominant power elite and the military as divisive and a challenge to Pakistan’s solidarity and unity.
Four periods of military rule ingrained the security dominated thought process in the society that any talk of reconciliation with India or a demand for reducing defence spending was viewed as unpatriotic and dangerous.
Traditional national security paradigm was invoked by the Pakistan military for dealing with the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Bill in September-October 2009. The Pakistan military top brass denounced the bill because they felt that some of provisions were anti-military. The civilian government came under pressure not only from the military but also from the civilian opposition that got encouraged by the military’s disposition and supported the military’s position.
Now, in 2011-12, the army/ISI is using the memo issue to build pressure on the civilian government by describing the memo as a national security concern. Such a public posture by the military establishment is another attempt to discredit the civilian institutions and processes without staging a coup.
This position is being supported by the major opposition groups that see the memo issue as yet another opportunity to get rid of the federal government and President Zardari. Islamic and militant groups have also put their weight in favour of the military by holding the Defence of Pakistan conferences, targeting the federal government and the US. In other words, the military/intelligence establishment, right-wing Islamist political groups and militants are working concurrently to discredit democratic institutions and processes. They have chosen the Supreme Court, known for unprecedented judicial activism, to be the arena to tackle the elected parliament and elected executive. In a polarised political environment, there will be political fallout of whatever position the Supreme Court adopts on the memo.
Pakistan’s security is not so precarious that it can be threatened by a non-official document. However, the political forces are using this document to get some extra political mileage and pressure the federal government. The military is using it to neutralise whatever role the civilian government still has in security and military affairs without directly taking over the government. The civilian opposition and Islamic and the political far-right are aligning with the military to pursue their own agendas against the federal government.
The memo episode may not dislodge the federal government but the non-elected institutions like the military and the judiciary have caused enough tension in the political system that will hinder the consolidation of elected institutions and processes.
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.