Pakistan’s civil-military stand-off could bring down a shaky coalition government

Pakistan’s civil-military stand-off could bring down a shaky coalition government

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The standoff between the military leadership and Prime Minister Imran khan over the appointment of the country chief spy master is likely to change the existing power dynamics in Pakistan. It has been over three weeks now but there no sign yet of the crisis being resolved.

For the past three years, support from the military establishment helped the shaky coalition government to survive. But the strains in civil military relationship could have serious ramifications for the current political set up. 

There are already some signs of a split in the government over what some coalition partners see as Imran Khan’s unnecessary confrontation with the all powerful military establishment. The rift has also provided the opposition parties with some material to step up attacks on the government. 

It all started when Imran Khan insisted on retaining the ISI chief Lt. General Faiz Hameed who was due to take his new position as corps commander in Peshawar. Khan’s insistence on retaining the outgoing spymaster raised questions about possible political motives. The military leadership reacted by notifying the appointment of the new chief apparently without the prime minister’s approval and in violation of the rules, leading to a stand-off. The deadlock lingers on with both sides refusing to back down. 

It’s obvious that the prime minister chose the wrong issue for asserting his authority. In the past such highly sensitive security appointments were made with mutual consultation. The crisis seems to have worsened with the issue turning into a political controversy.

The current stand-off has exposed the growing gap between the civil and military leadership. The clash between the prime minister and the security leadership over the appointment of the ISI chief is symptomatic of the widening gap between the two. The fault lines are hard to fix.

There are some other issues too making things more complicated. The two sides are not seen to be on the same page in the handling of critical foreign and security matters. How to deal with the TTP has become a contentious issue too with the prime minister appearing too eager to reconcile with the outlawed militant group that is responsible for the deaths of thousands of Pakistanis.

It’s obvious that the prime minister chose the wrong issue for asserting his authority. 

Zahid Hussain

The imbalance of power between the security establishment has remained a major issue in the development of democratic process in the country. There has never been full civilian control over state apparatuses. Most previous civilian governments in Pakistan worked under the shadow of the military with certain policy areas remaining strictly under the establishment’s domain. But the present political set-up has been the first experiment in what can be described as truly hybrid rule, with the establishment providing the plank on which it is pivoted. 

Curiously, the strains within the hybrid structure have appeared as politics in the country is getting into election mode. Some PTI leaders maintain that it is imperative for the party to shed the tag of ‘selected’ before going to polls. But it will not be so easy for the party leadership to delink itself completely from the security establishment whose support is seen as critical to its rise to power.

An unstable coalition administration with a very thin majority cannot afford to take on the establishment, and it is especially difficult for a government with weak democratic credentials to do so. Over the last three years, the prime minister’s policy of confrontation has weakened democratic institutions. 

The prime minister’s refusal to engage with the opposition even on important constitutional matters and to develop a national consensus on crucial foreign and security policies has given greater space to the security establishment and reinforced its position as an arbiter of power.

A divided opposition may not present any significant challenge to the government but the latter’s undemocratic moves could further erode its political position. Over the last few months, the government has brought several laws through presidential ordinances bypassing parliament.

Instead of focusing on more pressing problems eg. economic downturn and skyrocketing inflation, the government is continuing down a divisive path. Meanwhile, the country is facing serious external policy and national security challenges with fast-changing regional geopolitics. But there seems to be no realization in the government about the seriousness of the situation. Populist rhetoric has been taken as a substitute for clear policy direction.

Even if the current tension between the civilian and military leadership is resolved soon, it may not address the inherent problems in the hybrid structure. The weakening of the democratic process and worsening governance will further increase the imbalance.

*Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson Centre and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with Militant Islam and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan. Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ. His latest book ‘No-Win War’ was published this year.

Twitter: @hidhussain

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