In an interview to a foreign news channel in Davos on January 26, PM Gilani rejected the notion that “democracy was under threat and a creeping coup was taking place in Pakistan.” A day earlier, he had retracted his statement that declared that the submission of the responses of the army chief and the DG ISI to the Supreme Court on the memo issue were unconstitutional.
The military top brass have declared their support on more than one occasion for the democratic process. The SC has also stated that it would not provide any legal cover to unconstitutional changes. This statement is important because of the track record of the SC that legitimised military takeovers in 1958, 1977 and 1999. The SC had declared General Yahya as usurper for the 1969 takeover after he lost power. Similarly, the declaration of emergency by President Musharraf in November 2007 (virtual takeover for the second time) was declared illegal after he left office.
It may also be pointed out that the 18th Amendment has also restricted the power of the judiciary to legitimise military takeover or any unconstitutional change of government. A new clause has been added to Article 6 of the constitution that stipulates that any “act of high treason” as defined in Section 1 and 2 of Article 6 “shall not be validated by any court including the Supreme Court and a High Court.” This clearly covers the question of validation of any military takeover.
All political parties have also taken a clear position in opposing unconstitutional changes. The major opposition party at the federal level which is in power in the Punjab, the PML(N), has also done so. However, when one examines the realities of politics it is not clear if all political parties will be unanimous in opposing the removal of a government by “unconstitutional means”. Some political parties will adopt a position taking in view their partisan interests and how far they despise the knocked-out government.
In the present day context, the opposition parties would not mind if the SC or the military force the federal government to announce new elections immediately which would bring an end to the PPP-led federal government. In this way, these leaders still look towards non-elected state institutions to facilitate their political agenda while maintaining the semblance of constitutionalism.
The federal government is under pressure from the SC and the military for two different sets of reasons. The SC is endeavouring to articulate its role in a new democratic setup by stretching the limits of judicial activism. Traditionally, the judges do not make many comments in the course of the court proceedings. They speak through their judgments. But when we pick up newspapers or watch TV, we learn that the judges do make comments that have political implications and the federal government often finds itself in an embarrassing situation.
The military in Pakistan is now used to exercising disproportionate power in certain policy areas because of four military takeovers and weaknesses of civilian institutional processes. They resent when civilian leaders question the military’s expanded domain or try to restrain them. They apply pressure on the civilian government directly by issuing statements or give subtle signals to the Far-Right to do so.
The strained civil-military relations have wider implications for the civilian government. Its political adversaries view such a development as a good opportunity to adopt strident disposition towards the government for pursuing their partisan agendas that may include the pulling down the civilian government. The opposition parties do not increase pressure on the civilian government to help the military but they try to take political advantage of the situation.
There is another dimension to civil-military relations. If Pakistan is to continue with a tough posture towards India and wants to exercise strong influence in Afghanistan, the military is bound to be important. This security discourse is by now shared widely in civilian circles. The military’s position is also strengthened by the growing internal insecurity, religious extremism and militancy. Any civilian government depends on the military to cope with these societal and security pressures.
The military publicly differed with the civilian government on the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Bill (Sep-Oct 2009) and the memo issue (Oct-Dec 2011). In both cases, the civilian government was shaken from its foundation not only because the military was building pressure but also because the opposition parties, especially the PML(N), decided to challenge the government to advance their political agendas. In both cases, the civilian government had to make conciliatory moves to appease the military.
An interesting situation is likely to develop as the SC takes up the cases involving the military and the ISI in the near future. Traditionally, the military has resented the interference of civilian government in its internal organisational affairs. It would be interesting to see the military’s reaction when the SC pulls up the top brass in the forthcoming cases.
Periodic strains in civil-military relations will surface from time to time but a total break is not likely to occur. The military top brass recognise that they need civilian leadership to own the war on terrorism being conducted by them and they also need some semblance of civilian order to take the discredit of failures. They would prefer to protect their professional and corporate interests from the sidelines and keep the civilians under pressure.
The civilian government can improve its bargaining power and expand its domain by creating a credible civilian alternative. This requires a considerable improvement in governance. As the ultimate sanction of the military is the gun, for political leaders their strength is rooted in popular support gained through performance. If the civilian leaders continue to be at war with each other and the civilian government cannot evoke voluntary popular support, they cannot assert their primacy.
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.