All posts by Shuja Nawaz

Pakistan’s Army and the Upcoming Elections

Just days short of the Pakistani elections in an electoral season that has been marked by turmoil and violence and a rising trajectory of terrorist violence against the civilian population as well as the Pakistan army, uncertainty prevails. There are fears that the elections will be marred by violence. That the electorate will stay away and the turnout could be even lower than the traditionally low turnouts in previous national elections. And that the pre-rigging that has been charged may lead to troubles that will bring in the army again. Is this a relasitic scenario? May be not.

Two broad outcomes could emerge from rigging the elections:

  • A win for the Pakistan Muslim League Q, the so-called King’s Party that favors President Pervez Musharraf; and
  • A hung parliament in which no single party has a large enough bloc of seats to be able to form a viable government, giving the President free rein for political engineering.

Where does the army fit into this election scenario? The Pakistan army is not helping conduct these elections. The new army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has announced unequivocally that the army will not be undertaking any of the election day functions that are properly the role of the civil administration and the judiciary. At the request of the provincial authorities, the army will help ensure law and order during the election process. The key element here will be whether the army’s presence is seen or presented by some as affecting the voters to go one way or the other. Again, the new army chief has clarified that the army will not involve itself in politics and has even imposed a ban on army officers meeting politicians, including the president, now a retired army officer and therefore technically a civilian.

But there are always underlying fears that the army’s influence will be felt at the ballot box. Frequently, in the past, governments have used the military or the Inter Services Intelligence to help monitor or affect elections or even to set up opposition parties to governments or impending governments of persons whom they considered less than desirable. This was done either directly or through surrogates. Most recently, in the 2002 polls, according to a member of the inner circle of the ruling establishment, there was a hands-on involvement via the army’s nine Corps Commanders first in the preceding 2001 Local Bodies polls that selected District Nazims or administrators and later through the intelligence services in 2002. It is alleged that the army’s intelligence played a role in the selection of candidates and then post-poll in changing some results of the polls overnight, between the ending of the polling and the announcement of the results.

What then should we expect after these elections? Pakistan still remains a country in deep crisis, with a huge cloud of terror ever present. Its politics is bitterly divided and filled with threats of retribution. The unsolved assassination of Benazir Bhutto looms large over the political landscape. Distrust of the government pervades public and political discourse. And whatever the results, there will be suspicions that the Presidency and the so-called establishment will try to affect the outcomes. Therefore, the possibility of greater tumult remains.

Politically, here are some brief election scenarios and their effects:

  • The King’s Party, the PML Q, uses its local ties and links to the caretaker government to win big in the Punjab and garners enough support in other provinces to form a majority government with its allies, such as the Muttahida Qaumi Mahaz and even the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam of Maulana Fazlur Rehman at the center and perhaps in the provinces. Given no other options, the only course of action for the PML N of Nawaz Sharif and the PPP would then be to come out into the streets. A compliant judiciary under Musharraf’s chosen justices and extraordinary controls over the mass media would offer little choice of non-disruptive challenge or public protest to the aggrieved parties.
  • The PPP wins big in Sindh and carries a sizable number of seats in the Punjab, allowing it to form a government at the center and in Sindh and possibly Punjab (with a provincial coalition, involving, among others, the PML-N). In this scenario, it is highly unlikely that the PML Q will resort to street protests. But it would then use its current hold over the Senate to block the ability of the new government to legislate changes effectively.
  • The PML N manages to carry a large enough segment of the Punjab, through its own base or massive last-minute defections from the Q to form a government in the Punjab. It could then play a key role in blocking any legislative actions by a central government that it does not agree with.
  • No party wins a big enough share in the center, creating a hung parliament. This would allow President Musharraf a grand opportunity to engineer a government to his liking. Parties that failed to benefit from the President’s largesse would then have the option to either go along or to come out into the streets.
  • The PML N and PPP win large blocs in the provinces and the center and form a coalition of convenience in Islamabad, and then carry others with them to have a two-thirds majority in the parliament. This would be enough to reverse many of President Musharraf’s recent arbitrary changes to the constitution. But party rivalries may not allow such an arrangement to last too long.

Where would the army come into these scenarios? None of the current parties can be seen by the army as being extremist enough to warrant any direct or indirect intervention. Despite their rhetoric, all parties will want to settle their differences with the army in order to craft a stable base for themselves in power. Even the PML N may want to take a breather before it contemplates making any attempt to bring the army under civilian control or to bring the President back into the orbit of the 1973 constitution where Parliament has the upper hand.

However, the use of large and violent street demonstrations to protest blatant rigging may force the government to bring out the army in aid of civil power. When that happens, and especially if it involves use of military power in the streets of the Punjab, the outcomes are unpredictable. In 1977, three Brigadiers refused to bring troops out to quell demonstrations against the elder Bhutto. That in effect was a prelude to Martial Law and the coup of Zia ul Haq. If things get out of hand again, the army may well be forced to push for a change.

But the new army chief is constrained, because Musharraf appointed all the senior commanders before leaving his post as Chief of Army Staff, especially those in Military Intelligence (a Musharraf relative) and the ISI (Musharraf’s former Military Secretary). He has yet to appoint his own corps commanders, especially in Lahore, where the corps is headed by another former Military Secretary to Musharraf. Kayani has not yet been able to make major high-level personnel changes in army headquarters or in regional commands and corps.

Another possibility exists: the terror networks will intensify their attacks on the army as a surrogate for hitting President Musharraf. If the army rank and file feels that it is being targeted because of Musharraf, their unhappiness with the current president may bubble up through the ranks and force the senior commanders to consider cutting their ties to Musharraf. The army sees itself as a corporate entity that protects its own interests. If it sees any group or individual becoming a threat or a liability, it will cut its losses and distance itself from that entity or individual. Musharraf knows this and will do his best to forestall such a situation. He also knows that he does not have direct command over the army any longer. It is conceivable that he would depart if the corps commanders through the army chief said it was time for him to go.

What after that? I do not think the mood in the army today, especially among the rank and file, is for direct rule. At best it would want to revert to re-elections or a care taker government to give a respite to the political system to recover and restore stability. But, history tells us that circumstances change and if the threats are seen to be big and entrenched, even General Kayani may feel he has to take direct control. Given the stunting of democratic institutions in the country as a result of prolonged military and quasi-military rule, the army may feel it is the only institution that has the wherewithal to stop the rot.

The army is trying to keep regain its professional balance. The recent announcements from army headquarters augur well for a return to professional pursuits. Much remains for the army to reform itself and its relationship with the polity and economy of Pakistan. If General Kayani can keep the army out of politics, he may well be able to effect or facilitate the other changes that would restore balance to the civil-military relationship.

But the battles against internal foes will sap the Pakistan army’s energies and weaken its ability to resolve issues that are at heart political, social, and economic. Only the noise of democracy and the consent of the people to be governed in a particular fashion can help Pakistan retain its unity and solidarity as a federation.