South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

The writer is the author of No-Win War — The Paradox of US-Pakistan Relations in Afghanistan’s Shadow.
The writer is the author of No-Win War — The Paradox of US-Pakistan Relations in Afghanistan’s Shadow.

HYBRID rule may have delivered a semblance of political stability to the country but the system also has an inherent source of tension. The imbalance of power between the security establishment and the civilian side could lead to a breakdown of the political structure. Most previous civilian governments in Pakistan can be described as amalgams with certain policy areas remaining strictly under the establishment’s domain. Civilian control is a misnomer given the heavy shadow cast by security agencies over the country’s political landscape.

But the present political set-up has been the first experiment in what can be described as truly hybrid rule, with the establishment providing the plank on which it is pivoted. Notwithstanding some minor glitches, the arrangement has worked well over the past three years propping up a shaky coalition government.

Some cracks, however, seem to have emerged in the alignment in recent weeks. The reported clash between the prime minister and the security leadership over the appointment of the ISI chief is symptomatic of the widening gap between the two. The fault lines are hard to fix.

It’s obvious that the prime minister chose the wrong issue for asserting his authority. His reported insistence on retaining the outgoing spymaster raised questions about possible political motives. The military leadership reacted by notifying the appointment of the new chief apparently without the prime minister’s approval and in violation of the rules, leading to a stand-off.

Regardless of the outcome, a growing gap between the civil and military leadership has been revealed. There are some other issues too making things more complicated. According to political observers, the two sides are not seen to be on the same page in the handling of critical foreign and security matters. How to deal with the TTP has become a contentious issue too with the prime minister appearing too eager to reconcile with the outlawed militant group that is responsible for the death of thousands of Pakistanis.

Curiously, the strains within the hybrid structure have appeared as politics in the country is getting into election mode. Some PTI insiders maintain that it is imperative for the party to shed the tag of ‘selected’ before going to polls. But it will not be so easy for the party leadership to delink itself completely from the security establishment whose support is seen as critical to its rise to power.

An unstable coalition administration with a very thin majority cannot afford to take on the establishment, and it is especially difficult for a government with a weak democratic credentials to do so. Over the last three years, the prime minister’s policy of confrontation has weakened democratic institutions.

His contempt for elected institutions is evident. His refusal to engage with the opposition even on important constitutional matters and to develop a national consensus on crucial foreign and security policies has given greater space to the security establishment that has reinforced its position as an arbiter of power.

A divided opposition may not present any significant challenge to the government but the latter’s undemocratic moves could further erode its political position. Over the last few months, the government has brought several laws through presidential ordinances bypassing parliament.

The most controversial move has been the amendment in NAB rules extending the term in office of the incumbent chairman whose credibility and impartiality have been questioned. One-sided accountability of the opposition leaders has made the anti-corruption body controversial and an extension for an individual heading a tainted process simply reinforces allegations of a witch-hunt.

There is some truth to the accusation that the PTI government is destroying civilian state institutions in a systematic manner. The government has been running a concerted campaign against the chief election commissioner making the constitutional body (ECP) controversial. Instead of sitting with the opposition for reforming election rules to make the polls free and fair, the PTI government is trying to impose unilateral changes in the electoral process. Ignoring the ECP’s objections, the prime minister is adamant on using electronic voting machines in the next polls.

This system has not been tried before in the country. The opposition has already rejected the proposal for electronic voting. Any one-sided decision to change the voting process will make the coming elections controversial and deal a serious blow to the already messed-up democratic process. Lacking in governance the government is increasingly resorting to authoritarian practices.

Instead of focusing on more pressing problems eg economic downturn and skyrocketing inflation, the government is continuing on a divisive path. Meanwhile, the country is facing serious external policy and national security challenges with the fast-changing regional geopolitics. But there seems to be no realisation in the government about the seriousness of the situation. Populist rhetoric has been taken as a substitute for clear policy direction.

Most worrying is the prime minister’s recent statement on talks with elements of the proscribed TTP. He said the negotiations were part of the reconciliation process and that those who are willing to lay down arms would be pardoned. The offer of amnesty raises questions about the government’s counterterrorism policy. The reconciliation move would wipe out the gains made by the security forces in the battle against terrorism.

Interestingly, in the face of such daunting challenges, the prime minister’s lectures on morality and Islamic history have become more frequent and persistent. He seems to be more concerned about what he describes as “rising obscenity” in society. He recently set up a new Islamic authority that would monitor the country’s education system and media. Such moves won’t take the country forward.

Even if the current tension between the civilian and military leadership is resolved soon, it may not address the inherent problems in the hybrid structure. The weakening of the democratic process and worsening governance will further increase the imbalance.

The writer is the author of No-Win War — The Paradox of US-Pakistan Relations in Afghanistan’s Shadow.

Published in Dawn, October 13th, 2021