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Permanent coup d’état?

January 04, 2012

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FORMER French president François Mitterrand used to deride Charles de Gaulle's Fifth Republic as a “permanent coup d'état”.

He might as well have been talking about Pakistan, the only country in the world that seems almost permanently trapped between military coups. The spectre of the next putsch continuously haunts elected governments. The question is not if there will be a coup, but when. The most recent 'near' coup over the memo scandal is only the latest example of how deeply entrenched coup politics is in our political process.

From the ISI chief's autonomous investigation into the mysterious memo to the army chief's politically insubordinate affidavit in the Supreme Court, the generals have clearly revealed their utter disregard for democratic norms.

Still many analysts in Pakistan (and outside) view the 'military in politics' from a 'voluntarist' perspective. Democracy in Pakistan survives, we are told, mainly because of the present army chief's professional restraint. Had an Ayub or a Musharraf been in Kayani's place, the PPP-led government would not have survived as long as it has.

Personalities are not inconsequential to the military's involvement in politics. But in any bureaucratic organisation, where you stand, depends primarily on where you sit. When the organisation at hand is a disciplined army, focusing on individual idiosyncrasies impoverishes our understanding of the organisational drivers of military behaviour.

The coup is not so much a power grab by an ambitious chief of staff, as it is a calculated military institutional response to exceptional crises (always) caused by civilian governments.

Military intervention in politics is not reducible to the 'authoritarian-feudal' nature of society or the characteristic of a particular civilian government or party either. It is shaped primarily by internal military attributes — the officer corps' shared ideology and interests, which create the self-serving biases vis-à-vis civilians that legitimate military political action.

Let history speak for itself. The institutional base and power of each of Pakistan's four military regimes was the military as an institution, not some personality cult or even a fabricated political party.

Generals Ayub, Zia, Yahya and Musharraf were as different in their personalities and social backgrounds, as one can imagine. But when they subverted constitutions, stole elections, silenced dissidents, and in Yahya's case, oversaw atrocities in East Pakistan, they were all acting in their capacity as chiefs of the army.

The stain of politics is institutional, which cannot simply be washed away by one army chief being seen as more democratic than others. Of course, military political meddling is not simply the result of military factors either. In fact, it is sustained by the perceived acquiescence of elements in political and civil societies, as well as the state. Consider the Supreme Court's dogged pursuit of the memo case on behalf of what the chief justice calls the “man who protects our borders”.

It is important not to muddle the causal sequence. Militaries rely on, and benefit from, the cooperation of civilians in preserving or advancing their institutional interests. But military coups, and the authoritarian regimes that tend to follow them, are not simply products of civilian consent and compliance.

In fact, civilian weaknesses are never enough to mobilise an army for a coup. Successful coups happen when those who carry guns and wear uniforms want to make them happen.

Admittedly, the coup is not the only potent weapon in the military's political arsenal. The generals are equally adept at smothering democracy slowly, with each tightening of the noose suffocating elected governments just enough to sap their capacity to challenge the military's vast 'reserve' domains in the national security arena.

And by making itself available as an alternative political formula, or by sponsoring right-wing political proxies, the military can create compelling incentives for politicians to take their opposition to the government outside the limits of constitutional propriety.

The military's media machine has also mastered the art of manipulating the imagery and content of the 24/7 news cycle to enhance 'national security', both by badgering partisan politics as an enterprise and by polishing or tarnishing the reputations of specific leaders or parties.

Compare the aggressively negative coverage of President Zardari with the obsequious attention showered on Imran Khan, the new messiah of 'clean' politics, national honour and what not.

Besides, the security agencies have become the easiest sport in town, so is it any wonder that many politicians' loyalties are fickle and their interests only short term? Consider the 'tsunami' of political turncoats flocking to the pro-military hodgepodge aka Tehrik-i-Insaf.

Of course, the generals' classic refrain, since the time of Ayub Khan, has been that they intrude in politics because politicians knock on the army's doors for political salvation.

But this line of reasoning conceals more than it reveals the truth about military intervention. It is not clear why the generals so generously open the door almost every time civilians come knocking. And most of the times, the military does not really need solicitation by 'bloody' civilians to intervene.

For example, as leaked American diplomatic cables indicated, ousting President Zardari in March 2009 during the deadlock over the sacked judiciary was an option for Kayani. Who begged him to intervene then? It could not have been Nawaz Sharif, whom Kayani distrusted (at the time) even more than Zardari. The point is that the generals made their own determination to remove the president. Nobody had put a gun to their heads.

If Pakistan is to ever have a chance at democratising its civil-military relations, the military's hegemonic narrative must be challenged. A necessary first step in that direction will be to focus our analysis and interpretations of military intervention as much on its institutional 'causes' as we do on its individual military or civilian 'causers'.

The writer is a research fellow, Society of Fellows, Harvard University.