Keeping Pakistan's Military Out of Politics

In addition to uprooting President Pervez Mursharraf’s Muslim League-Q Party by opposition parties in Pakistan’s February national elections, the election has not only created a new alliance between opposition parties and but raises the possibility of reorienting the country’s political future.

Asif Zardari, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), surprised everyone by joining together to form the new government in Islamabad and, it is hoped, will empower elected officials to follow Turkey's example on the road to democracy. And while many political analysts are concerned that the coalition will come unstuck within a year to 18 months, others are hopeful.

Both parties’ leaders have committed publicly to adhere to the charter of democracy that was signed by former prime ministers Sharif and the late Benazir Bhutto in London in 2006. The document calls for the restoration of the 1973 Constitution – in place until the 1999 military coup, ensures the supremacy of parliament, limits the role of the military in politics and imposes restrictions on intelligence agencies.

These key issues remain part of both parties’ electoral manifestoes. Apart from Musharraf supporters, no other political groups have any objection to implementing these political parameters. A broader consensus among political parties is emerging to stop Pakistan’s armed forces from intruding into the country’s political affairs, hopefully guaranteeing that the parliament retains political control. Currently, the president enjoys enormous powers – he can dissolve the National Assembly and appoint military chiefs.

Pakistan’s civil society, led mainly by lawyers, is up in arms against Musharraf and wants judges that the president deposed to be reinstated although Musharraf appears neither willing to restore the judges to their positions nor to quit the presidency. This stance is likely to continue until Washington and Pakistan’s military withdraw their support for him.

Pakistan’s army has become a key power broker in maintaining corporate interests and has its own benchmarks for measuring Pakistan-India relations, the Kashmir conflict and Pakistan-US relations. It does not allow elected officials to have a say in its internal affairs.

Unfortunately, the army’s influence is deep-rooted and widespread not only amongst the lower classes, but also amongst certain political officials, making it difficult for it to change its ways. In order to counter the military’s influence and power, the opposition needs to work gradually but diligently.

Turkey’s example is instructive. Incumbent Turkish leaders made sure they never gave the army an excuse to intervene in government affairs by safeguarding traditional Turkish priorities both domestically and internationally, apparent in the cases of Kurdish militancy and EU accession. Secondly, they made the public’s wellbeing the government’s top priority and introduced economic reforms to revitalise the fragile economy.

As was the case in Turkey, Pakistan’s ruling party has remained close to public aspirations and kept its contact with the masses. If Pakistan’s elected leadership can prevent spiralling inflation, it will win people’s trust. Similarly, by combining negotiation tactics with military might instead of just the latter, the new leadership may be able to isolate insurgents in border areas of the country.

The US strategic alliance with Musharraf has created the impression among Pakistanis that it does not genuinely favour a democratic Pakistan. Over the years, the US has strengthened the army’s rule over Pakistan by investing heavily in the military and by backing the country’s successive military coups. These kinds of policies, combined with the country’s own actions, have led to a marginalisation of moderate forces in public life.

If this marginalization is to be reversed, it will have to be with the support of the west and the United States in particular of Pakistan’s newly elected representatives. The west’s encouragement to the army to respect the public mandate and serve the country within Pakistan’s constitutional framework is also crucial. Without it, it will be difficult at best for Pakistan to become truly democratic, allowing the US and the west to forge a meaningful relationship with Pakistan’s people.

Ershad Mahmud is an Islamabad-based researcher focusing on South Asia. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.