Learning the hard way

January 22, 2023

The establishment has for long pitted political parties against one another. Have they learnt their lesson?

Learning the hard way


It has become a commonplace that the practices of political parties cannot be understood without taking into account the role of the military establishment. As Pakistan has endured more than half of its existence since independence under military rule, the deep state has formulated and honed strategies and tactics to manipulate and influence politics through leaning on political parties. Some background history may shed light on the situation.

Pakistan suffered military-bureaucratic domination soon after independence. Aligning the country with the US-led West’s campaign against communism, this military-bureaucratic oligarchy benefitted from Western aid, particularly military aid, by joining the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO) and the South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO), thus earning the accolade of the ‘most allied ally’ of the West’s anti-communist project. The contradiction at the heart of this arrangement was the different expectations of the two sides. Whereas the West focused on defeating communism worldwide through such alliances, Pakistan seemed to think it could use the West’s military aid to safeguard the country and advance its ambition to wrest Indian-Occupied Jammu and Kashmir from New Delhi’s grasp. The full implications of these differing aims were revealed during the 1965 war with India, when the US-led West banned weapons supplies, even fuel, to Pakistan for breaching its undertaking that the weapons supplied by the West would not be used against India.

The 1965 stalemate paved the path for the overthrow by a popular uprising throughout the country against the seemingly immovable Ayub regime. The 1968-69 uprising did not succeed in ushering in civilian democratic rule immediately as Ayub Khan handed over power to another martial law dictator, Gen Yahya. The latter combined repression against the mobilised masses with concessions such as a ceasefire with Baloch nationalist insurgents, breaking up One Unit and announcing the country’s first free and fair democratic elections in 1970. The refusal of the Yahya regime to hand over power to the victorious Awami League of Shaikh Mujibur Rehman (commanding a majority of seats exclusively from East Pakistan) and the military crackdown against it eventually led to the breaking away of East Pakistan to re-emerge as Bangladesh with the help of an Indian military intervention in 1971.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, accused widely of collaborating with Yahya to deny the outcome of the 1970 elections, was installed, first as the only civilian martial law administrator, later as president and finally, as prime minister. Bhutto’s radical Islamic socialism platform soon revealed itself as anti-people, accompanied as it was by severe repression and another military crackdown in Balochistan. When the opposition Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) launched a countrywide protest movement against rigging in the 1977 general elections, negotiations between the two sides of the political divide having arrived at a last-minute consensus, the military under Gen Zia-ul Haq overthrew Bhutto in a coup. It soon became apparent to Zia that his actions had pitted his neck against Bhutto’s, who still retained widespread political support, reinforced by his new status as a victim of the military establishment. In the aftermath of Bhutto’s hanging in 1979, the political parties resisted Zia’s regime until his death in 1988, but without being able to dislodge him.

The blow hot, blow cold criticisms against and appeals to the establishment by Imran Khan after losing power indicate that the culture of collaboration with the establishment as the road to power remains alive and kicking.

From the post-Zia 1988 elections can be discerned the not new but reinforced trend of opportunism and collaboration with the military establishment by political parties across the board, a recognition that such collaboration was unavoidable for gaining access to power. The establishment, wary of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) under Benazir Bhutto, activated its plan in gestation since the early 1980s to cut the PPP down to size, central to which was its promotion of Nawaz Sharif as the force to deprive the PPP of its formidable Punjab base. Given the size, population and domination of the Punjab in the country’s affairs, the 1990s witnessed the see-saw conflict between the PPP and Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), resulting in no government being able to complete its tenure because of the establishment’s manoeuvrings and the draconian presidential power bequeathed by the 8th Amendment to the constitution to dismiss elected governments. It was not until Musharraf’s 1999 coup that overthrew Nawaz Sharif, imprisoned him and then allowed him to go into exile, that the wisdom dawned on both the PPP and the PML-N that they had each been ‘played’ against the other by the establishment. That realisation led to the signing in exile in London in 2007 of the Charter of Democracy between Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. Its main thrust was not to allow themselves to be used against each other in this manner.

This reconciliation between the two major political parties, which resulted in the first transfer of power through the ballot box in 2013, now engaged the attention of the deep state, since its leverage over these parties had weakened. Thus, with the support of the deep state in 2011, appeared Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) as a serious player. Till then, the party had struggled to be heard. Central to the new strategy was wresting the Punjab from the PML-N, just as earlier it had been wrested from the PPP. This was achieved through the rigged general elections of 2018, after Nawaz Sharif was disqualified by the Supreme Court in the Panama Papers case. Imran Khan’s government, clueless about how to run the country, substituted a vision with a blitz of borrowing to keep the country afloat. This, however, ended up sinking the country economically for any government to follow, as has been proved by the Pakistan Democratic Movement’s (PDM’s) troubles since coming to power through a no-confidence motion against Imran Khan in 2022 (another democratic first).

The blow hot, blow cold criticisms against and appeals to the establishment by Imran Khan after losing power indicate that the culture of collaboration with the establishment as the road to power remains alive and kicking. The ostensible ‘neutrality’ declared by outgoing COAS, Gen Bajwa, has played out in tacit support to the PML-N-led federal government, while staying aloof apparently from taking any action against Imran Khan. This implies that they may want to keep Imran Khan in ‘reserve’, despite reservations about his behaviour in and out of power (the attacks on Bajwa not going down well in the military institutionally).

The dissolution of the Punjab Assembly (and now the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly) by the PTI and its ally, the Parvez Elahi faction of the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q), did not, on the surface at least, show signs of the establishment’s imprimatur. But that fact leads to even more intriguing chains of thought as to what the establishment is thinking or planning. The manner in which the PTI-PML-Q combine has conducted itself smacks more of political manipulation than adherence to democratic norms. The provincial assemblies’ dissolutions may be intended to increase pressure on the federal government to hold early general elections, but the latter has dug its heels in recognition of its weaker political position in the wake of unremitting PTI-PML-Q attacks. The PDM government is hoping it can improve the economic essentials before returning to face the electorate in October-November 2023. This still looks difficult, given the foot dragging and the shifting of goal posts by the IMF and other international lenders, without whose cooperation even friends like Saudi Arabia and the UAE are reluctant to commit aid or more loans.

Could the establishment game plan today be to sit quiet while the two sides of the political class tear each other apart, creating a congenial atmosphere for another unconstitutional intervention? Given the history of such interventions, it cannot simply be wished away. If only the civilian political protagonists could recognise the looming danger before it is too late. A pious wish, but unlikely.

The writer is a veteran journalist who has held senior editorial positions in several newspapers

Learning the hard way