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Untitled Document
Power and Political Government: The Lessons Of Recent History
Dr. Akmal Hussain
Newspaper: The Daily Times
Dated: Thursday, July 31, 2003

The current conflict between elements of the parliamentary opposition and the government (on issues such as the LFO, and the National Security Council) is essentially about the institutionalization of the role of the military in the formal political structures of the State. In this sense the contention is about the formal features of Pakistan’s democracy rather than its actual functioning. Historically there has been a gulf between the formal and the actual, in successive democratic dispensations in Pakistan. The military has been a protagonist in the informal power structure (called the Troika) that has characterized democratic governments in the past. At the same time politicians within democratic governments have sought the political influence of the military in their internecine power struggles. The current political conflict is focused on the formal aspects of the practice of power as opposed to its legitimacy. Yet Pakistan’s history has demonstrated that the legitimacy of a democratic government is drawn not so much from the formal or legalistic structures of power, but by its ability to improve the material conditions of the people, to provide security of life and property and the establishment of institutions through which our pluralistic society could find a voice in national decision making. To cast light on this phenomenon we will in this article briefly trace the actual practice of power within a formally democratic regime that became a prelude to the present political conjuncture.

The government headed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in its second term came with a two third majority in the National Assembly. This parliamentary strength could have been used to deepen democracy by reviving the economy, establishing transparent governance, bringing extremist militant groups within the law, and ensuring the independence of the judiciary. Instead an attempt was made to enhance the relative power position of the Prime Minister within the structure of state institutions.

A systematic attempt was made to undermine and control institutions such as the Presidency, the Parliament, the Judiciary, the Press and (in the end) the Army, in order to lay the basis of authoritarian power within the democratic structure.

An attempt was made not only to weaken the office of the President and relegate it to a purely ceremonial role but also to control members of the ruling party in parliament. This was done by passing the constitutional amendments thirteen and fourteen. Under the thirteenth Amendment the dreaded Article 58-2 (b) was withdrawn. (This article of the constitution gave the President powers to dismiss the government and hold fresh elections in case of extreme misgovernance). Under the fourteenth amendment the ability of elected members of the majority party to vote or even speak against the official position of the majority party in Parliament, on any legislative issue, was also withdrawn.

Conflict between the government and the Judiciary soon followed. Tensions between these two institutions began when the government asserted its claim to judicial appointments, a claim that was resisted by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court on grounds of the independence of the judiciary. A political campaign against the Judiciary was launched during which disparaging remarks were made against it, both inside and outside the parliament. Subsequently, the Supreme Court decided to hear a writ petition for contempt of court against the Prime Minister and some of his associates, which if it had been decided against the Prime Minister, could have resulted in his disqualification. According to independent observers, an attempt was then made to “engineer a division within the apex court”.

Inspite of the consequent division and conflict amongst judges of the Supreme Court, the Chief Justice resolutely went ahead with the trial of the Prime Minister. On the day fixed by the Supreme Court for the hearing, the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML) transported thousands of its supporters to stage a protest against the Chief Justice. The charged mob broke the gate of the Supreme Court building and ransacked it, forcing the Supreme Court Judges to abandon the trial and retire to their chambers.

The unprecedented mob attack on the Supreme Court by a ruling political party brought in its wake a major constitutional crisis. President Leghari accused the Prime Minister of inciting the attack and warning that “he would not allow the law of the jungle to prevail”. The Prime Minister retaliated by moving an impeachment notice against the President in Parliament and also sending him a summary advising him to sack the Chief Justice. The President was now faced with the choice of getting impeached or signing what he regarded as an illegal order against the Chief Justice. In a situation where the Army appeared unwilling to step in to resolve the crisis, the President decided to resign. Thus the powers that were earlier distributed between the Chief Justice, the President and the Prime Minister, were now concentrated in the hands of the Prime Minister.

After the Judiciary the next target became the Press. The Government began to harass journalists who had exposed a series of corruption scandals. This harassment reached a dramatic stage when the Jang Group of newspapers (one of the largest in the country) which had been critical of the Prime Minister, was targeted by his regime. The publisher of the Newspaper was specifically pressurized to dismiss nine journalists from its staff, whom the government found “unacceptable”.

The Press in Pakistan received another shock when the regime abducted the editor of an influential weekly newspaper, the Friday Times in a midnight raid on his home.

After enhancing the power of the Prime Minister relative to some of the other institutions, focus now shifted to the Army. The Chief of Army Staff, General Jehangir Karamet, voiced the Army’s concern at the deteriorating economic, political and law and order situation in a letter to the Prime Minister. As the contention for power within the State structure continued, the underlying crisis worsened. On October 5, 1998 in his annual address at the Pakistan Navy War College in Lahore, General Karamet expressed his worries publicly as a prelude to stepping down rather than initiating military intervention. He argued that Pakistan could not afford “the destabilizing effects of polarization, vendettas and insecurity driven expedient policies”. The Prime Minister responded by indicating his intent to order premature retirement of the Army Chief. General Karamet chose to leave gracefully and tendered his resignation.

Not long after the appointment of the new COAS General Musharraf, tensions between the Prime Minister and the Army intensified. In August 1999, matters came to a head when an attempt was made to appoint a new Army Chief without consulting with the existing one. Having given appointment orders to a new Army Chief (General Zia ur Rehman) while the existing one was in Colombo on an official trip, action was initiated (unsuccessfully as it turned out) to prevent the landing in Karachi of the PIA aircraft on which General Musharraf was returning. This brought to a dramatic head, the confrontation between the Prime Minister and the Army. The Army swiftly launched a coup d’etat that brought the military government of General Pervez Musharraf into power.

It is perhaps indicative of the level of gravity the national crisis had reached, that there was no significant public protest at the overthrow of the popularly elected government.

The Supreme Court in its validation of the military take-over referred to the crisis explicitly: “On 12th October 1999 a situation arose for which the constitution provided no solution and the intervention of the Armed Forces through an extra constitutional measure became inevitable which is hereby validated…”. In establishing the grounds of its verdict, there were three key elements in the Supreme Court judgment:

  1. “……all the institutions of the state were being systematically destroyed and the economy was in a state of collapse due to the self serving policies of the previous government…..”.

  2. “….. a situation had arisen where the democratic institutions were not functioning in accordance with the provisions of the constitution……” and “……there was no real democracy because the country was by and large under one man rule”.

  3. “……. An attempt was made to politicize the Army, destabilize it and create dissension within its ranks, and where the judiciary was ridiculed……..”.

Governance during the late 1990s intensified to a critical level the three key elements of the crisis that threatened the state: (i) A collapsing economy. (ii) The threat to the life and property of citizens resulting from rampant crime, and the emergence of armed militant groups of religious extremists. (iii) The erosion of many of the institutions of democratic and effective governance.

Given the dynamics of Pakistan’s power structure and the greater strength of the military relative to other institutions within it, when a democratic regime fails to deliver on these issues, power would be expected to flow to the military. Inspite of the adverse international environment for a coup d’etat, in October 1999, power did flow to the military when the crisis of the state had reached a critical level and the democratic government was seen to be exacerbating rather than resolving the crisis. Thus the institutionalization of the role of the military in the current political dispensation signifies the space that was lost by civilian politicians within Pakistan’s power structure. They cannot now expect to win on the negotiating table what they had lost on the political battlefield. To quote from Shakespeare: “The fault dear Brutus lies not in our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings.”

The issue of the relative power enjoyed by civilian politicians in Pakistan’s political structure may be resolved by overcoming poverty, providing security to citizens and through the development of institutions and democratic culture in Pakistan’s political system. It cannot be resolved by undermining the political system (however unsatisfactory it may be) and creating another crisis of the State.

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