Same page, same difference

Updated 12 Oct 2019


The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

TWENTY years ago today, the military overthrew the elected government of the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and the army chief Gen Pervez Musharraf took over the country as ‘chief executive’ rather than the chief martial law administrator.

For all practical purposes, the country was under military rule but the army chief possibly wanted an aura of credibility, and international acceptability, so he hid behind the new title. Nobody was fooled in Pakistan or abroad as the sermon by Bill Clinton, during his few hours’ visit to Islamabad in 2000, demonstrated.

Less than 23 months into his rule, 9/11 happened and suddenly Gen Musharraf became the most sought-after leader in the region, an absolute darling of the West, as he appeared to unconditionally plunge headlong into the US-led ‘war on terror’.

When Nawaz Sharif won the 2013 election, he appeared to be a different person to the compliant politician who’d been nurtured by Zia.

In any case, ahead of the dramatic change in the regional environment post-9/11, the Supreme Court of Pakistan had not only endorsed the extra-constitutional actions of the general but gave him three years to hold the elections and en route amend the constitution as he liked.

History from the 2002 elections onwards is too recent to be recounted in detail. Gen Musharraf created a hybrid system where a parliament controlled by compliant politicians and a handpicked prime minister would do his bidding.

Musharraf’s key lieutenants in the military intelligence services have since detailed how the electoral exercise of 2002 was manipulated both before and after polling day to keep the legitimate public representatives away from power and provide the military ruler with a civilian façade.

At least in his initial seven years in power, there was no ambiguity in what Gen Ziaul Haq was: he was the chief martial law administrator and this continued till such time he tried to create a hybrid system, with parliament to rubber-stamp his decisions.

Major political parties including the PPP, ANP and JUI-F, to name just a few, which were part of the MRD or Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, boycotted the 1985 elections (and later regretted the decision) when Zia announced that these would be held on a non-party basis.

Even then, the parliament that came into existence as a result, despite approving a somewhat watered-down version of the Eighth Amendment that conferred extraordinary powers on the president’s office, slowly started to assert itself.

The dictator’s handpicked prime minister Muhammad Khan Junejo ran a tight ship and soon became the bane of his patron’s existence as he is believed to have unilaterally announced the date for lifting of martial law, pushed for the Geneva Accords and threatened to ‘shove’ generals into small Suzuki cars.

When the ISI’s ammunitions depot in Ojhri camp in Rawalpindi exploded in April 1988, raining its surrounding areas with missiles and flying debris that killed nearly 100 people, Junejo ordered an inquiry into the incident.

A civilian head of government ordering an inquiry into the military’s conduct got a bit too much for Zia. In May, Zia sacked Junejo, dissolved parliament and called for fresh elections. Before these could be held, the military ruler perished in an air crash on Aug 17.

What followed was a Benazir Bhutto-led government, despite all machinations to deny her a majority in the November elections that year. The military/ civilian successors of Zia in the Army House as well as Aiwan-i-Sadr used Article 58(2)(b), the most controversial part of the Eighth Amendment, to subvert the will of the people by dissolving parliament and dismissing an elected government before she could complete two years in office.

This axing of prime ministers and parliaments continued through the first tenure of Nawaz Sharif and the second term in office of Benazir Bhutto. In the 1996 elections, Nawaz Sharif’s party emerged victorious with a two-thirds majority and did away with the dreaded Article 58(2)(b).

Emboldened by this majority in parliament, Sharif started to assert civilian authority and, in an ill-advised move, called for army chief Jahangir Karamat’s resignation when the latter suggested at a public forum the need to set up a National Security Council. Talking to me during a BBC interview on the day of his resignation, Gen Karamat insisted he had jumped and not been pushed. In response to a question whether his NSC proposal was his own or represented his institution’s collective view, he ominously said that the army chief always articulated the collective opinion.

A week and a year after Karamat’s resignation, the prime minister sacked his successor Pervez Musharraf after the latter launched the ill-fated Kargil operation without reportedly seeking the government’s approval. The coup followed.

One of the major consequences of the coup was the restitution of presidential powers to sack elected governments and parliaments. Since the 1977 coup, the first assertion of civilian supremacy was post-1996 elections once Article 58(2)(b) had been done away with. The second came as a result of president Asif Zardari’s order to his party to initiate a constitutional amendment, with the opposition’s support, to empower parliament and its elected leader and take away the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads. In the process, he surrendered his immense authority.

In its 2008-2013 tenure, following the tragic assassination of Ms Bhutto in December 2007, the PPP’s relations with the army often appeared strained but things always receded from reaching boiling point and leading to disastrous consequences.

When Nawaz Sharif won the 2013 election with a thumping majority, he appeared to be a different person to the compliant politician who’d been nurtured by Zia and his regime. Rather than be chastened by his imprisonment and exile after 1999, circumstances appeared to have cemented his will to assert his constitutional authority.

Who does not know what followed. Today, we may not have the controversial clause but do have a government in place that seems to concede more and more ground to the military. Perhaps, it is an expression of gratitude for being ushered into office.

What used to be a civilian façade or a ‘hybrid system’ has been rechristened as a ‘same page’ arrangement. The more things change …

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, October 12th, 2019