Politics 101: Why military coups happen in PakistanBlogs
Ten years ago, Dr Charles H. Kennedy, renowned expert on Pakistani politics, wrote the essay A User’s Guide to Guided Democracy, in which he sarcastically outlined ten ‘steps’ that could help any new ruler of Pakistan's to consolidate their rule – common tactics that have been employed by all military dictators in Pakistan.
The essay took Pakistan’s political history and identified patterns from within: The General Ayub Khan coup in 1958, General Zia-ul-Haq’s overthrow of Z.A. Bhutto in 1978, and General Musharraf’s ouster of Nawaz Sharif in 1999 – all contained similarities in terms of tactics employed by the military rulers after taking office.
Using legal acrobatics to avoid being implicated, persecuting political opponents, manipulating local government systems, and tinkering with the constitution are just some of the strands common to all three. But beyond what happens after a coup, there is another important question:
It's important because clearly, our nation is not yet in agreement upon the kind of political system we would like to live under. 'Democracy' is trumpeted a lot. But when an elected government takes office, public resolve wanes in the face of dismal service delivery. People become impatient. They feel alienated. Many start to frequent the altar of the messiah for deliverance, and more often than not, the messiah comes donning khakhi.
Recently, tensions between political and security forces in Sindh rose to an alarming extent. While the rhetoric has cooled down from previous days (there was talk of Governor’s Rule at one point), some surmise that another coup might be in the offing, or as one observer put it, ‘messiah season’ may just be upon us once again.
The truth, however, is that organisational strategies that work in the barracks seldom work in the administrative corridors of power. And the results are never good for the country, or even for the army.
So can we identify (and protect ourselves from) an actual pattern to ‘coupmaking’ in Pakistan?
To that end, here are some factors that were common to all the interregnums between coups – periods of democracy, essentially – that have resulted in the military's direct involvement in running the affairs of the country.
Explore: Uprisings and Downfalls: Attempts at ousting Pakistani governments
Soon after a military dictatorship ends, the awaam is wary of the khakhis and questions are asked about the future. In the past, Uncertainty was rampant after General Ayub’s stint in the '60s, which became beneficial to the democratic setup post-1971. After General Zia-ul-Haq’s death in the late '80s, people rushed to the polling stations to usher in the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) back to power. In 2007-08, the popular uprising against Musharraf turned the tide on the military’s image, and the PPP came to power once again in the wake of Benazir’s untimely death.
Damaging images, however, do not last forever. As evidence suggests, us Pakistanis are an incredibly forgiving and forgetful lot. When the infamous spectre of national security is portrayed as indispensable, the masses waste no time in buying it.
That is traditionally achieved through (a) blaming everything on hostile neighbours, and/or (b) threats to internal security. A combination of the two keeps elected governments on teeters while providing much-needed room to the dictators.
‘Western’ intellectuals have cried themselves hoarse over the need to limit the expansionist state’s influence in administration at the grassroots. But in a country like Pakistan, you need not worry about that.
Indeed, some experts maintain that in developing countries, authority first has to be created in order to be limited later on, since the sheer volume of what is expected of the state practically dictates ad-hoc decision-making. Calls for long-term, structural reform, are paid no heed. And the voters respond solely to the valiant, selfless kings who descend from their thrones to provide instant gratification once in a while, only to speedily return to their abodes.
Thus, vast administrative vacuums continue to exist in Pakistan, where everyone is left at the mercy of the nefarious forces. Disasters, both natural and man-made, highlight the inadequacies within our civilian setups quite frequently, and we keep depending on the good work done by the military in times of emergencies.
Administrative woes are compounded further by even more dreadful instability in the political arena. Hapless politicians scurry about in vain, trying to bring some order and method to a madness that they partly created themselves. Understandably, they are concerned about re-election, but we seem to be stuck with a particularly worst lot that has completely forsaken the very electorate which brings them to power.
Perhaps, building on our spirit of forgiveness, politicians prey on opportunities that stand to enhance solely their personal gains. After all, there is a reason why the richest people in Pakistan are either directly involved with politics or are aligned with one political party or another.
Instability has also been engineered through covert means, so that a state of perpetual chaos – and with it the need for an antidote to this chaos – can be maintained. Thanks to the sorry performance of our elected leaders, there is always ample ammo available for this exercise.
Read on: Army’s questionable decisions
While the army is accused of using political parties in setting their own agendas, our politicians are more than willing to align themselves with anti-democratic forces at the first hint of lucrative benefits. Sham rebellions have been a regular occurrence in the years before coups, as was the case with the anti-Bhutto movement in the '70s, and the anti-Nawaz/Benazir movements throughout the '90s. The method is simple: manufacture instability, then step in to remove it.
With the above measures, the public perception of the army can be successfully rescued at any time. Even after populist movements oust dictators, after some time, people start to see the army as a national asset once again, and swear by its performance in keeping Pakistan safe from domestic and foreign 'threats'.
But factors one, two, and three are not enough to push the public into supporting a military takeover. So how do we go from a democratic here to an authoritarian there? Read on.
Also see: Prime Minister 2.0: Harder, faster, stronger
As Hannibal muses in Silence of the Lambs, it is in the nature of humans to covet. And how do we start to covet? We begin by coveting what we see every day, seeking out the things we want.
The army’s unmatched performance in one area gets people wondering what the entire Pakistan run by the military would look like.
More often than not, the shoddy performance of our politicians and political parties paves way for the security establishment to quietly slip a few measures here and there to suggest what could be done to take care of the situation. Since mending the situation would mean taking tough decisions (which Pakistani politicians loathe with a vengeance), the public automatically assumes that only the military could really clean the country up. In turbulent times, the politicians and the administrators stutter and stumble, and the dominoes fall where they shall.
As pointed out by Dr. Kennedy himself, though, the real test of how successful a potential overthrow campaign is running is how readily the public is able to accept a changeover at the top.
Take the quiz: How well do you know Pakistan's military coups?
I'm not claiming that we will necessarily see another military takeover. We have come to the brink of coups in the past without going over the edge, when saner minds prevailed and democracy was allowed to trudge along for a little while longer. And even today, while there's certainly an imbalance in the civil-military relations, both parties do seem to have found ways to safely coexist for the time being, especially since the imperatives of a militant threat have readjusted priorities.
However, the point being made is that if conditions are conducive, and some or all of the factors outlined above are present, the opportunity to go about an actual coup soon presents itself.
This last step is understandably the trickiest of all, and requires a lot of value judgment and assessment. Has the public been plied enough? Will the civilians go quietly? Can the administrative mess be handled?
Also read: OK, goodbye
Additionally, not only the timing but also the actual method of the takeover has to be deliberated. Interestingly, this last step, while being stressful to no ends, also allows for the most amount of personal flair in how one goes about their ‘coupmaking’.
In this way then, impatience with stuttering democracies run by greedy elites has led – and will lead – to hostile takeovers by the willing. There are always deficiencies within our governance systems that prompt debugging exercises from the more powerful institutions in the country. A little bit of transparency, accountability, and responsibility in democratic governance can go a long way in stabilising the country and protecting against the possibility of total loss of democratic control followed by military takeovers.