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Four reasons why a military coup is unlikely

Updated August 20, 2014

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So, even with unrestricted power and technocrats occupying the highest offices, the coup maker could not pull up any trick yesterday and it will be even more difficult to do it today. -File Photo
So, even with unrestricted power and technocrats occupying the highest offices, the coup maker could not pull up any trick yesterday and it will be even more difficult to do it today. -File Photo

It doesn't take much for the Pakistan Army to stage a coup.

All four military coups in our 67 year history were bloodless. A small contingent of lightly armed troops jumps over the closed gates of a few buildings to take the fazed civil establishment - waiting for the inevitable - into protective custody.

Then, with a picture of the Quaid and a national flag in the background, the military protagonist delivers a ‘meray aziz humwatno’ (my dear countrymen) address.

The run up to this breathtaking live telecast also follows a familiar and predictable pattern – inept politicians engage in internecine fights over petty issues, in front of a dejected audience and, just as the crisis reaches its climax, the saviour enters. The audience heaves a sigh of relief, with some sections breaking into frenzied applause.

Explore: The coup-lovers’ brigade

Besides this foreplay, however, there is also an aftermath to the deceptively simple act of coup making and that’s where careful calculations have to be made well in advance.

Based on a comparative study of the three major coups of our history, staged by Ayub Khan, Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf, here is why these calculations, in my opinion, may not add up to a coup, this time.


1. Constitutional cover-up may not be available


After the coup, the army has to undertake a multi-layered exercise to legitimise its act.

The customary first step is promulgation of a Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO) that suspends the Constitution and the Parliament. This can be drafted at any time by cutting and pasting from earlier drafts.

But one of the ominous consequences of the PCO had been that higher judiciary was asked to renew their oath under it and thus the bench was purged of all defiant and potential trouble makers. Barring some individuals, most of the judges have been taking the bait in the past.

Can it be repeated in 2014?

The next step in the past has been a court decision justifying the takeover under the doctrine of necessity, clubbed with the philosophies of revolutions that define their own legitimacy.

What’s equally important is that the same decisions have been allowing dictators to amend the Constitution. The power to amend the Constitution is a must as it sets the stage for the power play that follows.

For Zia, the right to amend the Constitution was literally ‘as it may please you’. Musharraf too, was given a free hand but was also bound by the court in 2000 to hold general elections within three years of the date of his takeover.

The higher judiciary’s reaction to Musharraf’s declaration of emergency in 2007 was, however, a new chapter in our history.

Over the past seven years, the judiciary has earned unprecedented independence and a new stature. Will it let it end without a whimper?


2. International acceptance may be hard to come by


An even more complicated front for a coup maker to deal with is the international community.

When Musharraf took over in October 1999, he was unwelcome, disliked and looked upon with suspicion. Pakistan was suspended from the Commonwealth Organisation - a symbolic rebuke though because in diplomatic terms, it meant little. Musharraf, however, was under immense pressure to guarantee that the country will soon return to democracy.

Just weeks after the coup, he flew to Kathmandu to attend a SAARC summit, where, after delivering his speech, he walked over to the Indian Prime Minister to offer him a handshake. The extended hand of the general considered responsible for Kargil war was a ‘bold’ step. It was an attempt to break his growing isolation and the pariah image.

Find out more: Oct 12, 1999, coup and after…

In March 2000, US President Bill Clinton came to India on a five day visit. The White House took weeks in deciding whether or not Clinton would visit Pakistan.

The US decision makers were divided in two camps, one emphasised that the President shall not visit Pakistan as it will be seen as legitimising the military rule and thus will hinder the development of democracy there.

The other group though, partly agreed with this assertion but insisted that lines of communication between the two countries shall remain open as Pakistan was an important country with respect to nuclear non-proliferation, regional peace, and the fight against terrorism.

Clinton finally decided to touch down at Pakistan for a brief five-hour stay. He held all his meetings at the Islamabad airport and made sure his meetings with Musharraf in particular were not photographed. He did not want to be seen shaking hands with a military dictator!

The situation took a sharp U-turn after 9/11, however.

President Bush met Musharraf in November 2001 when he went to the US to attend a UN meeting. The meeting was not only photographed but was also televised. World leaders then came in droves showering billions of dollars to win Pakistan’s support. The rest is history.

When Ayub and Zia had taken over, the international ‘political ethics’ were not averse to military interventions but the two generals too, survived for a decade each by serving as pawns in geopolitical games.

Ayub’s high point in imperial services was the US spy base in Peshawar and Zia, as we all know, made the country a jump pad for CIA operations against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

The geopolitical ‘games’ have not vanished in present times.

Recently in Egypt, General El Sisi overthrew an elected government and then got himself elected under a constitution made by himself. In Bangladesh, the Awami League installed itself through elections that were boycotted by almost all other parties. The international community is hesitant in accepting both as legitimate rulers but on the other hand, no one has taken any substantial counter measures against them.

In fact, these takeovers have been largely seen as a blessing in disguise as both these rulers are avowed enemies of religious extremism in their respective countries.

So, the going rule in global political expediency is that if you are effective in thwarting religious extremism, you can be allowed to bend rules and democracy can be considered as the unavoidable ‘collateral damage’.

The military in Pakistan, however, does not enjoy a repute similar to that of El Sisi or Hasina Wajid in the international community and may not be allowed to draw this wild card.


3. A crony parliament may not be possible


Musharraf held the general elections on 10 October 2002, two days before the time limit handed by the court. But before testing their political skills in the general elections, all three coup makers of our history had preferred to hold controlled trials in the form local government elections.

That makes available to them a whole new class of yes-men, who are then groomed into a new battalion of politicians that happily serve as the military dictators’ civilian arms. A select group of more experienced turncoats, groomed by previous dictators is also allowed to join the ranks. The local government elections are coupled with a referendum that installs the general, winning with over 90 per cent ‘yes’ votes, as the legitimate, elected head of the state.

Musharraf diligently performed these two important chores before embarking on the general elections in 2002; he was at his zenith at that time.

He was elected as President through a referendum while still donning his chief of army staff uniform. He had recruited a battalion of loyal politicians by harvesting a good number from the PML-N’s fallen army and through his new local government system.

He lowered the age limit of voters and listed them afresh. He increased the number of constituencies and redrew them at his convenience. Above all, he was able to send both the country’s top leaders, Nawaz and Benazir into exile. The two main parties were in disarray, their cadres dejected, depressed and scattered.

There could be no better opportunity for a coup maker to stage a land slide victory.

But, what were the results of the 2002 elections?

The king’s party fell short of numbers to form a government.

Musharraf then amended rules to allow independent candidates to join one or the other political party after the initial announcement of results. He also relaxed laws barring floor crossing and managed defections in the PPP ranks. The defectors formed the PPP-patriots that supported Musharraf.

With all this massive power play, Musharraf’s party could elect a prime minister with the slightest possible majority of one vote! That exposed the limits of the military’s strategic depth in the political arena – and this happened a good 12 years ago.

What numbers can a coup maker expect now?


4. Military-technocrats may not perform better on economic front


Democratic governments have always been blamed for messing with the country’s economy, while most indicators show that the military governments performed relatively better. The ‘bettering’ of the economy is vital for a regime to secure popular legitimacy in medium terms.

There is, however, a catch in the generals’ seemingly better performance.

All three of them, Ayub, Zia and Musharraf thrived on the largesse of the Western powers in return for the strategic roles that each of them played in the geopolitics of their times. The money came in the form of grants and soft loans and the World Bank and the IMF took care of the fiscal side.

The superficial prosperity, however, disappeared as soon the Western supply lines dried up.

Military rulers failed to better utilise such opportunities, especially when compared with other countries, like South Korea and Malaysia, which succeeded in converting their strategic positions into sustained economic gains.

Musharraf’s period is within recent memory. The country’s energy crisis worsened to the present stage during his rule. After trying a civilian prime minister, Zafarullah Jamali, for 20 months he replaced him with a technocrat of the highest ranks, Shaukat Aziz.

The latter was serving as the executive vice-president at Citi Bank when he was flown in from the US by Musharraf to be appointed as his Finance Minister. Shaukat Aziz served in the same position from October 1999 till November 2007 and for the last three years, he was the prime minister as well. The technocrat, however, failed miserably in spinning the country’s economy out of the morass that it has always been in. In fact, his policies can be rightly blamed for causing the energy crisis as we know it now.

His government also failed in making headway on problematic fronts, like the expansion in tax base.

So, even with unrestricted power and technocrats occupying the highest offices, the coup maker could not pull up any trick yesterday and it will be even more difficult to do it today.

The economic recovery has to take the long and arduous democratic road.

So forget about shortcuts.