Pakistan's return to Democracy: Reality or Euphoria?

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Barkha Shah
30 Aug 2020

The recent Supreme Court decision allowing the return of the exiled politician and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and more importantly the restoration of the suspended Chief Justice has sparked much excitement in Pakistan over the last few weeks. These events have given birth to a euphoric atmosphere, presaging the return of democracy in Pakistan. Political parties like Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) are capitalising on this euphoria, calling for the military to return to the barracks. Various opinion polls suggest that this sentiment is also being echoed by the Pakistani nation.

The moment provides a useful inflection point to analyse the extent to which the return of democracy and the prospect of an apolitical military in Pakistan are realistic possibilities. That Pakistan has been under direct military rule for most of its history is evidence of the institutionalisation of the army in the political process.

Traditionally, the military employed the threat of a powerful and hostile neighbor to justify the retention of a significant political role within a civilian state structure. This justification found a new host after the September 11 attacks and the subsequent war on terror. However, the army's institutionalisation cannot be seen in isolation from its stake in the economy of Pakistan.

This economic presence can be evaluated in terms of participation in business and enterprise, control over natural resources especially land, and influence over employment decisions for key strategic posts in public utility enterprises and government offices. The recent work done by Dr Ayesha Siddiqa on the political economy of the military's stronghold in Pakistan reveals the immense importance of military’s business interests in Pakistan's economy - where political power implies monopolistic control of the state's resources, which is in turn is used for personal gain through cronyistic mechanisms.

Her research reveals that the military's financial empire of more than 3 billion dollars consists of military businesses in every sector of the Pakistani economy. These businesses operate on three levels, that is, through institutions, subsidiaries and individuals, and have been consolidated since 1999. She quotes examples of state-run enterprises such as the National Logistics Cell and Frontier Works Organisation, and military-run foundations such as Fauji Foundation to demonstrate the economic strength of the Pakistani military.

Apart from consistently acquiring prime state land over the past 60 years, she also highlights the economic presence of the military through their control over strategic civilian posts; 1000 of such civilian posts are currently filled by military officers. Army officials occupy key positions, not only in public utility enterprises and government offices in Pakistan, but also as ambassadors to foreign countries, especially the United States. Examples include Retired General Mahmud Ali Durrani (current Pakistani ambassador to the US), Retired General Jehangir Keramat (former Pakistani ambassador to the US) and Retired Lt. General Asad Durrani (former Pakistani ambassador to Riyadh and Bonn). These appointments are indicative of the level of politico-economic power that the Pakistani military has consolidated over the last 60 years.

On the euphoria over a possible military rollback in the short term, attention has to be paid to the nature of constitutional change being pursued by political parties in the name of restoration of democracy. Firstly, both PPP and PML-N have been demanding that General Musharraf give up his position as the Chief of Army Staff and curtail his presidential powers to dissolve the assemblies under Article 58 (2-B) of the Constitution. These political parties have been calling for former Prime Ministers to be given the chance to serve additional terms in office. Neither party has been addressing the issue of the National Security Council (NSC), which was setup by General Musharraf in 2004 to look into Pakistan's security issues and monitor the process of democracy and governance. The NSC is a supra-parliamentary body that provides an institutional role to Pakistan’s senior military generals, thus allowing them to play a formal role in the country’s political process. As a result of the politicians’ parochial focus on obtaining constitutional amendments that benefit them in the short-run, the NSC, and consequently, the military will continue to play an undiluted role in Pakistani politics.

Given the military’s political and economic clout, apoliticisation of the army and its complete return to the barracks will not be a process that can be achieved simply by means of a political change through free and fair elections. The notorious power-sharing “deal” between ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and General Musharraf undermines the very idea of a democratic set up. While the exact terms of the grand reconciliation have not been finalised, it is likely that both parties will ensure that this deal comes through in the next few weeks, especially given the prospect of Nawaz Sharif’s return to Pakistan.

Finally, the dynamics of the international environment also have to be taken into account when analysing the military’s role in Pakistani politics in the future. The Pakistani military has been playing a key role in the global war on terror and the recent incident pertaining to the Red Mosque has strengthened the army's position as the sole hope in containing radical Islamic elements. Thus, the US will prefer a hybrid political set up for Pakistan, which allows the Pakistani military to play a significant political role. Given the historical importance of the US as a major source of development aid, it is likely that now, as in the past, the course of Pakistani politics will be shaped, at least to some extent, according to the preferences and agenda of the US government.


Barkha Shah is a UAE-based commentator on Pakistani affairs. She has an MPhil (Development Studies) from the University of Cambridge.

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