Pakistan Elections: Rawalpindi Wins Yet Once Again – OpEd


The Kingmakers

While Rawalpindi will outrightly reject the popular quip that while it has never won a war, the Pakistan army has never ever lost an election, but Pakistan’s recent election results has univocally endorsed this unflattering observation yet once again. So, instead of dwelling on the Pakistan army’s poor war record, it’s time to celebrate Rawalpindi’s innate ability to continuously ‘select’ prime ministers through the ballot-a feat that no other army in any democracy has been able to achieve.

The fact that none of the 22 Pakistani prime ministers in 75 years of the country’s existence have ever completed his/her stipulated five year tenure clearly indicates rampant manipulation of the legislature by Pakistan’s powerful army. And the Pakistan army chief’s unparalleled control over national affairs can be gauged by an unnamed “former top US diplomat in Islamabad” who recently told Time magazine that When we had a [crisis], we didn’t call the prime minister—we called the Chief of Army Staff.”

Reinventing Democracy

Former army officer Maj Gen Iskander Mirza who replaced Ghulam Muhammad as Pakistan’s fourth Governor General in 1956 and later became the country’s first President, ushered-in the concept of ‘controlled democracy’. This was nothing but a hybrid system based on the perverse premise that governance is too important a matter to be left to politicians and as such they were required to work under the army’s supervision.

Gen [later Field Marshal] Ayub Khan who ousted Mirza through a coup went on to legitimise his dictatorship, by introducing ‘Basic Democracies’. This entailed 80,000 elected ‘Basic Democrats’ participating in a referendum that [expectedly] allowed the dictator to “continue in office as President and to have the authority to frame the future constitution of Pakistan.”

And the Pakistan army has never looked back since then!

Disrupting Democracy

That Rawalpindi is responsible for frequently disrupting democratic process in Pakistan is no secret. Besides direct intervention through coups, the Pakistan army has also been actively involved in behind-the-scenes manipulations. In fact, since Rawalpindi practically runs the country, the two century old aphorism “Prussia is not a country with an army but an army with a country” accurately describes the state of affairs in Pakistan.

Besides coups by Gens Ayub Khan, Zia ul Haq and Pervez Musharraf that overthrew elected governments, Pakistan army’s notorious spy agency Inter Services Intelligence [ISI] has also been actively involved in covert operations to sabotage democracy. Readers may recall that in 1990, the then Pakistan army chief Gen Aslam Beg and ISI chief Lt Gen Asad Durrani surreptitiously withdrew a princely sum of at least USD 1 million from state owned Mehran Bank to overthrow the Benazir Bhutto government.

Lt Gen Durrani later testified that Gen Beg had asked him to distribute cash to politicians belonging to an anti-Bhutto alliance created by the military establishment. Senior Mehran Bank manager Yunus Habib also testified that he had doled out an equivalent of USD 1.5 million on orders of the army chief and President Ghulam Ishaq Khan. The fact that neither Gen Beg nor his ISI chief have been taken to task for this serious criminal act indicates the power and authority that Rawalpindi wields!

Current Elections

The day PTI chief Imran Khan crossed swords with the Pakistan army, had himself signed the death warrant of his own political career and it became absolutely clear that come what may, he would somehow be prevented from participating in the 2024 electoral process. Khan had probably thought that his immense popularity amongst the masses would provide him complete immunity against any rash move by the military was a humongous error of judgment, because Rawalpindi is law unto itself.

In a repeat performance that had precipitated the contentious dismissal of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 2018, orchestrated by Rawalpindi through court conviction, the cricketer turned politician too suffered a similar fate. As per Times magazine, more than 180 charges have been slapped on Khan, which indicates Rawalpindi’s heightened state of paranoia.

Not wanting to take any chances, the wily Pakistan army chief Gen Syed Asim Munir has politically emasculated Khan with military precision. On the one hand, while thousands of PTI workers were arrested in the run up to elections, several of its leaders were either coerced or cajoled into quitting PTI. Khan’s own nomination papers were rejected and PTI’s signature bat logo has been frozen.

Simultaneously, by prodding the courts to quash the conviction of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in corruption cases and withdrawing his life time ban from politics, Gen Munir facilitated the three-time prime minister’s return to Pakistan and by making him eligible to contest elections, provided the electorate an alternative to Khan.

The Winner

In its recently released 2023 Democracy Index, the Economic Intelligence Unit has downgraded Pakistan from ‘hybrid regime’ to ‘authoritarian regime’, which is the lowest category grading on its scale. However, despite being largely responsible for this sorry state of affairs, Rawalpindi remains unfazed as it knows that such negative assessments don’t have any material impact on foreign relations. 

While international organisations, foreign observers, political parties and civil society members have all accused the establishment of using unfair means used during the February 8 elections in Pakistan, there’s no cause for concern as the results suit the military, and that’s what matters. While the hectic post poll political alignments may impress a novice but Pakistan watchers know that it’s just a charade for public consumption- the die has already been cast!

With Khan out of the way, it matters little whether it’s the Sharifs, Bhuttos, or for that matter anyone else who’s able to successfully cobble together the next government, because at the end of the day it’s Gen Munir who has won hands down. The nagging fear however is whether the next prime minister will be able to break the jinx of a truncated tenure and serve out his full term? The answer is simple- if the incumbent toes Rawalpindi’s line, it’s ‘Yes’ and if not then it’s definitely a big ‘No-no’!

Nilesh Kunwar

Nilesh Kunwar is a retired Indian Army Officer who has served in Jammu & Kashmir, Assam, Nagaland and Manipur. He is a ‘Kashmir-Watcher,’ and now after retirement is pursuing his favorite hobby of writing for newspapers, journals and think tanks.

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