SMOKERS’ CORNER: ESCAPING THE HYBRID CYCLE

Published February 11, 2024
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Pakistan has been stuck in a ‘vicious cycle’ in which the military establishment (ME) constantly intervenes to aid the election of a prime minister, only to facilitate their removal and engineer another PM who was previously dislodged.

This idea of a vicious cycle is often bemoaned by those who see themselves as true democrats. Yet, none of these well-meaning folk provide any solutions to breaking this cycle beyond certain obvious resolutions. In a nutshell, after constantly pointing out the existence of the cycle, they express the desire that the ME should stop meddling in politics and the politicians should stop becoming playthings in the hands of the ME. This is too convenient and obvious a view. 

Some people in this regard are of the view that this cycle is as old as the country itself. To the late Pakistani sociologist Hamza Alvi, the military was the only organised institution when Pakistan came into being in 1947. Therefore, it was natural for this institution to dominate other institutions that were nascent and weak. 

But it was a decade after the country’s creation that the military moved in to impose the country’s first martial law, even though Pakistan was still not a proper democracy. Ayub Khan’s 1958 military dictatorship lasted till March 1969 — even though, in 1962, he did introduce a rather complex and lopsided ‘democratic system.’ In 1969, Ayub was compelled to leave office, only to hand over the reins of power to another general. 

The long-standing intervention of Pakistan’s military establishment in politics can only be broken if the country’s politicians learn to play their cards right and take a leaf out of Erdogan’s playbook

General Yahya Khan promptly imposed the country’s second martial law. But this was also the first time that the ME began to think about holding the strings of power indirectly. For this, Yahya needed a certain combination of results in the country’s first proper general elections in 1970. ‘Reports’ shared with him were encouraging. The 1970 polls were predicted to produce a hung parliament, which could be easily manoeuvred by the ME. 

But Bengali nationalists swept the polls in the erstwhile East Pakistan and the left-leaning Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) won big in the former West Pakistan. The inability of the ME and West Pakistani elites to accept a regime headed by Bengalis triggered a civil war in the eastern wing.

When PPP Chairman ZA Bhutto came to power, he found himself heading a country whose eastern wing had broken away but also whose once powerful ME had been greatly weakened. Bhutto remains one of the most powerful elected leaders of the country. Even when he decided to use the military in Balochistan during a Baloch insurgency, the military largely remained politically docile.

During the violence of the 1977 anti-Bhutto movement, it was a member of an anti-PPP alliance who wrote to the then military chief Gen Ziaul Haq to intervene. Initially, Zia hesitated. But Zia’s close contemporaries encouraged him to impose martial law. Zia ruled as dictator from July 1977 till August 1988, even though, like Ayub, he too facilitated the formation of a political party to be his civilian vessel. 

The immediate roots of the vicious cycle that many decry today really lie during the post-Zia ‘decade of democracy.’ During the Zia dictatorship, the ME became a larger-than-life institution. Yet, from 1988 till 1999, it decided to pull the strings from the shadows and make sure it always got the kind of parliament that it required and avoided the problem that Yahya ended up facing after the 1970 polls. 

Gen Pervez Musharraf’s 1999 coup broke the cycle and revived a cycle that Ayub and Zia had set in motion — that of military rule after every other decade. Musharraf’s fall in 2008, however, saw the cycle that was shaped in the 1990s by the ME return and consolidate itself as ‘hybrid rule.’

There have been no military regimes in the country for the past 16 years. The ME is as strong as ever and as politically active as it has been since the 1980s, but the country has also witnessed four general elections, even though three PMs lost their jobs due to tensions between them and the ME. 

A friend recently explained the vicious cycle as the ME facilitating the coming to power of a PM who, after two or three years, begins to detach themselves from the ME and is thus dislodged and replaced by another PM, and round and round it goes. The fact is that ME is a prominent political reality, stronger than any political party. It is an equally prominent stakeholder in the politics of the country.

So why, after being in power for a couple of years, do PMs suddenly collapse into an existential crisis and believe that their ‘popularity’ will be enough for them to dump the ME?

The truth is, it will take several cycles of hybrid set-ups for this to happen. But it is possible. Take the example of Turkey. Turkey has witnessed three military coups (1960, 1971, 1980). A PM toppled in 1960 was executed. Till 2002, the Turkish ME was a permanent intervening force in the country’s politics. 

Recep Tayyip Erdogan was elected PM in 2003. Conscious of the reality in which the Turkish ME was an overwhelming force, Erdogan decided to shape an entirely pragmatic approach. He went out of his way to avoid any confrontation with the ME. He focused on building the country’s economy. The more he succeeded in doing this, the larger became his constituency and the more he was able to widen the reach of his economic policies and then attach these with certain gradual reforms that weakened the ME’s influence in Turkish politics. 

By the time he was elected for the third time in 2011, he had already managed to ‘civilianise’ Turkey’s politics. The success of his economic policies greatly enlarged his support base, so much so that when, in 2016, a faction of the military tried to topple him, the coup attempt was thwarted by thousands of common Turks. Indeed, after this, his demeanour became increasingly authoritarian, but the ME factor in Turkish politics seems to have eroded. 

The coming PMs in Pakistan will have to play this game the same way. Come in, focus on the economy, treat the ME as an important stakeholder, build support on the basis of economic success, and only then start to wonder how best to reform a hybrid system.

In fact, economic success and certain vital social reforms that do not irritate the ME can compel the ME to concede space for a lasting civilianisation of Pakistani politics.

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 11th, 2024

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