Civilian supremacy?

Published June 27, 2022
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

AN interesting consequence of the change of government in April is public displays of anger against the military leadership from PTI supporters. While most of this anger remains online, placards and slogans were also raised in a number of public demonstrations held in the preceding three months. This anger has found further encouragement through fairly pointed remarks on the (feigned) neutrality of the establishment by former PM Imran Khan.

For observers of Pakistani politics, this reaction poses a couple of interesting questions. Does the bitter complaint of being ‘left stranded’ by the establishment suggest a turn in the PTI’s political platform? In other words, will it now rethink its strategy to become more self-sufficient as a political actor, rather than relying on the military’s political influence as a useful crutch in and outside of office?

Read more: The importance of being neutral

A second related question is that since every mainstream party has experienced a very public falling out with the military (at some point); will we see a correction in the civil-military imbalance? This is based on the fact that there are no easily trustworthy options available to play their role as a ‘junior partner’ for an extended period of time.

Less charitable observers say that PTI’s current resentment and the anger of its supporters amount to a tantrum that is probably limited to the current military leadership. Such sceptics argue that there is no ideological opposition to the establishment’s extra-constitutional role in politics, and that if given the option, they would be more than happy to cede governing space to the military in exchange for being back in power — as was the case prior to this current phadda (fight).

The establishment is an entrenched political actor and is unlikely to lose influence in key matters of the state overnight.

On the face of it, this sounds very similar to what other parties have done at various points in the past. So while the critique that says PTI’s anger is a post break-up tantrum may be valid, it applies to nearly every other party’s approach towards civil-military issues as well. Either everyone has ‘anti-establishment potential’ or no one passes a stringent purity test given how bargains are struck so frequently.

Another oversight that we often make while thinking about the civil-military imbalance is assuming it to be a switch that can flip from one end to another. That there will be a day when suddenly — and I seek forgiveness in advance for this pun — the boot will be on the other foot. That a single moment in time will mark the rectification of this long-standing hurdle in Pakistan becoming a constitutional state.

This is unlikely to be the case. The establishment is an entrenched political actor, which has institutional experience of operating in the political domain. It is unlikely to lose influence in key matters of the state overnight. A more accurate analogy for the imbalance would be that of a sliding scale that can move in either direction. Progress towards greater civilian control can be made, but it can also be undone to some extent. A quarrel today may be patched over tomorrow, while resentment may linger on for a while longer.

The audacious Twitter trends and acidic remarks by the ex-PM should be seen in light of this sliding scale. In the current moment, the military leadership is experiencing a downturn in its public image and its options have narrowed because of some vocal opposition to its role in politics, regardless of how personalised the opposition may be to the current leadership.

More importantly, all three mainstream parties and segments of their core support now know that the issue is not about their performance in office that puts them on a collision course with the establishment, but rather about the degree to which they can exercise constitutionally granted power.

This realisation may be voiced as a personalised tantrum, or as fancy ideological rhetoric, but it is a substantial one and its widespread presence among politicians and supporters from all parties raises the cost of external meddling and interference. The fact that there is some resentment among upper middle-class urbanites who have historically been aligned with the military’s vision of the country and far more accepting of its political interference in the past also opens up new possibilities for political evolution.

Read more: 'Why did country's defenders not stop conspiracy?' asks Imran

Regardless though, it is probably inaccurate to treat this as a moment of great constitutional awakening, this time being spearheaded by a new party. While being clear on who should call the shots in power is a major component of it, constitutionalism also involves a commitment to parliamentary supremacy, acceptance of the role of the opposition, and adherence to what’s actually written in the Constitution. All parties fail to uphold these to varying degrees, and the PTI proved itself to be no different.

The party’s populist approach undermines the principles set out under which a multiparty parliamentary democracy is supposed to function. This is reflected in the zero-sum attitude of its members and supporters. Either you are with Khan unreservedly or you deserve to be politically vanquished. Such brinkmanship ends up being counterproductive, and opens up space for other actors — namely the judiciary and the military — to intervene and decide political conflicts. We have seen this happen multiple times in the past decade already.

Being clear about the civil-military question is of utmost importance given Pakistan’s political history, but it needs to be supplemented with a recognition and acceptance of other constitutional norms among both politicians and the electorate. The tragedy is that while we occasionally get great clarity on the first aspect, the second bit is often left unaddressed. This leads to destabilising conflict among politicians and partisan supporters, which opens the door for murky deals and interventions, bringing us back to square one.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, June 27th, 2022

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