Democracy and civil-military relations are intertwined in Pakistan but their interplay can be very hard to make sense of. Consider the Zardari regime for a second.
As far as civil-military ties are concerned, former president Zardari was largely an appeaser with the sole agenda of survival. The politicians had to cut a sorry figure on Kerry-Lugar, Memogate, foreign policy and a range of other issues vis-a-vis the army. But they survived and that is where the key to understanding the greatest fault line on the path of democratic consolidation lies. Despite everything, the government muddled through and eventually supervised the first ever democratic transfer of power.
Ergo Zardari paved the way for transitions by the book. Within a span of a few months, the country saw three transitions: the executive, military and judiciary. The country, in some form, moved from people to institutions.
Now fast forward to the time of Raheel Sharif‘s popularity. Raheel’s initiative against militancy, complemented by the smooth manipulation of the media, propelled him to the status of saviour-in-chief. Raheel’s forays in foreign policy were exceptional even by Pakistani standards. For example, he would routinely tour different countries and meet their political leaders without any ambassadorial representation. The tally of Raheel’s foreign visit stands at 33, excluding the 77 in-country meetings with foreign dignitaries, during the three years of his tenure.
When ISPR announced that Raheel took the issue of RAW’s involvement with Iranian President Rouhani – which the latter denied days later – all of us wondered if we had a Foreign Office. Finally, with the passage of the 21st Amendment, we moved backwards in time on our path to democratic consolidation. It was not just parliament or civilian institutions which took it lying down but the judicial branch as well. While, it can be argued that the military courts and the Karachi Operation were ratified by the political government through ‘legal’ edicts, there is little doubt these are contrary to the spirit of civilian supremacy. In short, democracy had arrived in form but not in substance.
But then Raheel moved on and the heavens did not fall. To the surprise of some people, and dismay of others, we saw ‘politics’ cool down after Raheel. It is premature to talk about what Qamar Bajwa’s legacy will be but the early signs seem promising
However, if you want an exact diagnosis of the civil-military ties, the barometer is neither the government nor the military. It is Imran Khan. The simple fact that Imran is pleading his case at a constitutional court as opposed to waiting for the proverbial umpire’s finger indicates that the legal process is the only game in town. For now, there is zero appetite for his shenanigans. In other words, the journey from the container to the court has strengthened our democracy. This reprieve may have remained a wide-eyed fantasy had Raheel stayed on. It is the transition mandated by the law which has allowed this normalisation. And this transition itself is, in a subtle manner, predicated on the mega transition of elections. Politicians are holding up their end of the democratic bargain by refusing to conspire against each other and that has allowed for change of command elsewhere.
But there is also something else happening here. The minimum adherence to systemic checks and balances (the natural expiry of term for COAS in this case) has somewhat helped restore civilian authority. This means that the quality of our constitutional democracy can improve only if it is allowed to run its course. Form can affect substance at times and as we enter the 10th year of continuous civilian rule, our democracy may be more resilient than it has ever been.
Yet, the increase in militancy may put pressure on the political forces and create an environment for military ascendancy in the public sphere. Military courts may also make a comeback.
Look a little closer and you will see that politicians are holding protracted debates over the issue. Whereas the road to reform is bumpy and it will look like one step forward, two steps back most of the time; the civilians have managed to draw a line in the sand. Through awkward submission, they have ensured the system’s survival which in turn gives them continuous opportunities to make a difference. There is some method in their madness after all.
The writer is a freelance contributor.