Uniquely, Pakistan’s Army Not Involved in Political Transition

For the first time in Pakistani history, the army is not involved in picking the next government.

The border crossing into Pakistan at Wagah, June 1, 2011
The border crossing into Pakistan at Wagah, June 1, 2011 (Luke X. Martin)

Defying predictions about its continuity in office and amid all sorts of political troubles, Pakistan’s ruling People’s Party led by President Asif Ali Zardari successfully completed its fixed term in office this week.

In the beginning and middle of its term, the administration faced resistance from various quarters. That made many political pundits wonder about the future of Pakistani democracy. But things did not become worse and visceral situations for democracy were politically managed by the parties. The Muslim country has found a new form of democratic competition: ideologically different political groups joined hands against their common enemy, the army. The leading parties acted in unison to protect Pakistan’s democracy against the possibility of another military coup.

General elections are now expected to be called in May. A caretaker government under the prime ministership of retired judge Mir Hazar Khan Khoso has taken over.

After elections were announced, even former president Pervez Musharraf, who himself came to power through an army coup in 1999, arrived back in Pakistan from self exile in London and Dubai. He intends to compete in the election with a new party, the All Pakistan Muslim League.

The army, meanwhile, still the most powerful institution in the country, appears to have no role in the upcoming vote. This is a novelty in Pakistani politics. Not because there will likely be a democratic transition. For the first time in Pakistani history, the military is not engaged in the process altogether.

Free elections have taken place in Pakistan before. The 1969 vote was more or less fair otherwise it would have been impossible for Bengali nationalist Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to win so many seats in what was then the eastern part of Pakistan. The election foreshadowed the secession of Bangladesh after the 1971 war with India.

The 1988 election brought Benazir Bhutto to power. She had campaigned against General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s military administration. And the most recent, 2008 election was free as well. Asif Ali Zardari’s led the Pakistan People’s Party to victory without the army’s involvement.

Yet nearly all governments in the past, even if they came to power through free elections, depended on the military in one way or another. Sometimes the army created the circumstances to make space, through democratic means, for their civilian protégé to be at helm of government affairs.

The army’s political role is decades old. After the death of Pakistan’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah in 1948 and the assassination of Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan three years later, the newly independent country was rudderless. The army and civilian bureaucracy exploited the opportunity to take political power. They mostly relied on the support of Pakistan’s elites and religious groups during their stints into power. When out of office, they ruled from behind the curtains. Zardari’s is the first administration that has managed to keep the generals, by and large, out of the decisionmaking process.

It is true that the incumbent government has failed on many scores. The office bearers, including the head of state, have been facing corruption charges. But it has also tried to put a stop to the “Punjabization” of Pakistan through the eighteenth amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits the president from dissolving the legislature unilaterally and renamed the North West Frontier Province Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in accordance with the wishes of the Pashtun majority there. It also pushed for greater investment in Balochistan, the southernmost region of Pakistan that has economically been neglected by the Punjab center.

Whether or not the ruling party’s accomplishments have been enough to outweigh its shortcomings; the simple fact that Pakistanis themselves will decide in less than two months’ time is groundbreaking.