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Civil-military power matrix

September 19, 2018

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SECURITY briefings for a newly elected prime minister may not be unprecedented, but the excitement over Imran Khan’s intensive parleys at GHQ and the ISI headquarters certainly are. Our hyper-animated information minister described how proud the prime minister and the cabinet ministers were at the rare honour of meeting “the command of the world’s best army”.

He claimed that it was the first time in the country’s history that the civil and military leadership were on ‘one page’. True, it is critical for the civilian incumbent to build good relations with all stakeholders. But such hyperbole over an event that should have been treated as routine accentuates the existing imbalance between the two institutions of state. And optics do matter.

Undoubtedly, there is much goodwill among the top brass for the government that had been missing in the past. There was a grudging acceptance of the two previous administrations led by the PPP and subsequently the PML-N. But constant friction over various policy issues made cohabitation extremely difficult. The clash with the military had contributed to the fall of Nawaz Sharif that ultimately boosted Imran Khan’s rise to power.

It is evident that the generals feel much more comfortable working with the new civilian dispensation that does not come with any past baggage. The grand reception for the prime minister and his team at GHQ proves the point. All that sounds good for the smooth working of the government. The euphoria in PTI ranks over the goodwill gesture is understandable. But, at the same time, it also demonstrates the party’s sense of insecurity and lack of self-confidence.

The government is focusing on the economic & political situation. Security & external matters are not its priority.

A fledgling administration certainly needs the establishment’s support that could provide it some breathing space. It is imperative for the military leadership to help stabilise the political and economic situation that also threatens its institutional interests. The fact is that the security establishment has gained greater space and there is no apparent reason for it to feel that it should rein in the current civilian administration.

There is no real challenge to the establishment’s predominance in the spheres of national security and foreign policy. Imran Khan government is more focused on firefighting on the economic and political fronts, and security and external matters are not a priority. With no vision and clear policy direction of its own, the government appears happy to accept the lead. Yet, it is too early to celebrate given the inherent problems in the power structure.

Any failure in improving governance, or the inability of the administration to prevent an economic slide, could widen the existing imbalance, allowing the military more space. It is a lesson to be learnt from the past. Such situations increase the security establishment’s assertiveness.

Contrary to perception, it was not the clash over foreign and national security policies that intensified the confrontation between Nawaz Sharif’s government and the military. It was essentially past baggage, discord on internal political matters, Sharif’s style of governance and the deteriorating economy that brought the situation to a head. Gen Musharraf’s treason trial and the media ‘leak’ besides other issues seemed to be the main reasons for moving against the former prime minister.

Sharif lost the game with the emergence of an assertive judiciary as an informal part of the power troika. Seen to be backed by the security establishment, the judiciary in the past year has become, perhaps, the most powerful player in the emerging power matrix. Many have observed that it has gone beyond judicial activism, and has extended its role to areas that come under executive domain. The elections and a democratic transition have not altered that power template. The PTI government may not yet feel pressure from the superior judiciary. But it is not a very comfortable situation for the new dispensation either.

In fact, it has not been a very promising beginning for the PTI-led coalition government composed of disparate political groups. It has yet to find direction with an inexperienced team at the helm. The situation is much more complex as the country faces multiple challenges, both internal and external. That surely demands greater cohesion and cooperation among the stakeholders.

It is true that the security apparatus is keen to prop up this government. Yet there is a limit to what this can deliver if the civilian government does not get its act together, leave behind its populist ways and focus on governance. It appears obvious that a weak civilian dispensation could give greater space to the other two institutions of state, thus widening the imbalance in the power structure. That could lead to conflict among these institutions hampering the democratic process as we have witnessed in the past. Power struggles are inherent in the system, but these must not be allowed to disrupt the political process.

Undoubtedly, civil-military relations have remained a major source of political and economic instability hampering the democratic process in the country. There is no denying that civilian supremacy is essential to a democratic dispensation. Indeed, there is a need to change the balance of power in favour of the elected dispensation.

But this cannot be accomplished without carrying out some fundamental reforms in the political system itself in order to make the executive and legislature more effective.

For civilian supremacy, it is essential that the government not only improve governance but also strengthen civilian and democratic institutions. True, the government has launched an ambitious reform agenda to strengthen the local government system and restructure the bureaucracy. They are certainly important steps, but the real issue is of the prime minister’s ability to implement those plans from a weak political base.

Unfortunately, both elected leaders and the security agencies have been responsible for undermining civilian institutions. Imran Khan must learn a lesson from the mistakes of past governments and focus more seriously on institution building. In order to strengthen democracy, he needs to develop a broader consensus among all political forces and with other institutions of state.

The writer is an author and journalist.

zhussain100@yahoo.com

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, September 19th, 2018