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A fragile experiment

December 18, 2011

MANSOOR Ijaz has done it again. His revelation last week that DG ISI Lt-Gen Shuja Pasha reached out to Arab countries to discuss the possibility of a coup has thrown yet another spanner in the civil-military works.

As rumours fly across the country, it is becoming increasingly important to determine just how vulnerable the civilian set-up is to an ouster.

Ijaz’s latest charge deserves to be thoroughly investigated for several reasons: the public deserves to know the military’s intentions vis-à-vis civilian governance in Pakistan. The revelation also draws a neat parallel with the accusations against former ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani — seeking an outsider’s help to topple a domestic institution — and therefore deserves an equally proactive response from the guarantors of national security and sovereignty.

Above all, Ijaz’s statements demand scrutiny because he has been pitted as a reliable source by the very authorities that he has now implicated in a potential coup plot. In his reply to the Supreme Court, Gen Pasha claimed satisfaction with the evidence provided by Ijaz in the context of the memogate scandal. It stands to reason, then, that his comments about the security establishment are credible too. In the broader context of a democratic transition, ascertaining how liable the civilian government is to an overthrow is crucial.

As long as military coups threaten, politicians and the public at large have no reason to invest in the democratic system.

Allowing a truly decentralised and representative set-up to take hold requires patience and tenacity, which are difficult to exercise knowing that the process is likely to be interrupted.

The looming shadow of the army also prevents the public from holding the civilian government accountable for its actions — whether in the realm of policymaking or service delivery — because there is little point in taking an institution to task that is not the master of its own fate.

Recent developments have exposed the poor resilience of the democratic system. In the immediate wake of memogate revelations, many commentators scoffed at the document’s claim that the civilian government had ever been threatened by a military coup and instead pointed out that the Pakistan Army has recently been operating on the back foot. Just a few months later, however, President Asif Zardari’s sudden departure for Dubai prompted much discussion in the mainstream media that he had been dismissed as the result of a soft coup.

This was not the only time that Pakistanis have revealed their belief that democratic rule in Pakistan is transient. In order to reassure the public that a coup did not instigate Zardari’s evacuation to Dubai, a presidential aide explained that the only coup the president feared was a judicial coup. The statement recalled many speculations in the past four years that Pakistan was on track to adopting the Bangladesh ruling model.

Talk of rule by army-approved technocrats or an army-appointed civilian puppet also abounds. Widespread scepticism about Pakistan’s democratic prospects does not sit well with the immense progress that has been made in this regard since 2008.

Devolution to the provinces under the 18th Amendment, the extension of the Political Parties Act to Fata, calls for the creation of new provinces to ensure a more representative system — these are just a few examples of recent developments that have helped entrench democratic systems in this country.

Decentralisation, in particular, significantly reduces the likelihood of military coups in future. The fact that these measures have reinvigorated democratic practices is evident in the political appeal of maverick candidate Imran Khan and the fierce issue-based campaigning currently under way as mainstream parties try to consolidate their position in the run-up to general elections.

Despite these gains, there is little conviction in the stability of democratic rule. This is fuelled in part by the knowledge that Pakistani history has a bad habit of repeating itself. The country has witnessed a number of coups d’état and failed coup attempts, and 33 years of direct military rule since Independence. Time has shown that coups are more likely when the army finds its institutional interests threatened, when it perceives an external threat to national security, when economic performance is poor, and when the civilian government is perceived as illegitimate.

Between deteriorating US-Pakistan relations and the Afghanistan endgame, soaring inflation and rampant government corruption, all the factors that make a coup imminent are in place, thereby spurring scepticism.

What is notable, however, is that despite the conditions being ripe for a coup, one has not yet occurred. Many argue that this is because the military has been able to subjugate political stakeholders without taking overt action. Since May 2, political parties have repeatedly fallen in line to bolster the military’s standpoint on various issues, whether regarding relations with the US or the memogate fiasco. What remains to be seen is whether this compliance heralds the end of Pakistan’s latest democratic experiment, or the beginnings of genuinely representative rule.

Consider the Turkish model for a moment: in order to phase the army out of the political sphere, Turkish leaders tried not to give the military an excuse to intervene in governance by protecting Turkish domestic and international interests. Turkish politicians also prioritised economic reform in order to stabilise the country. By so doing, they made the army’s involvement in civilian politics redundant.

If this is the strategy that Pakistan’s civilian rulers are hoping to adopt, they can start by ordering an investigation into Ijaz’s new claims in order to indicate that the threat of a coup will not be taken lightly in a Pakistan committed to democracy.

The writer is a freelance journalist.