Military and Politics in Pakistan

Military and Politics in Pakistan

Military is a formidable political actor in Pakistan, capable of influencing the nature and direction of political change. Pakistan’s reins have effectively been in the hands of the army for more than thirty-eight years since the country’s independence in 1947. Besides, it dominated the political system behind the scenes for more than two decades. Hence, there were only few intermittent periods of real democratic rule in Pakistan. The previous government of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the incumbent government of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) could come to power only after Musharraf’s national reconciliation mechanism. 


Military has always assumed a prominent role in Pakistan’s political affairs. Since the imposition of first martial law of 1958, the role of military has been expanding and, over the years, it has established its primacy over the political process that is manifested in different forms e.g. role in policymaking from behind the curtain, direct rule under martial law, installing of regimes that remained reliant on the generals and penetration into the civilian institutions and processes. This praetorianism has led to confrontation between different institutions and it has put a big question mark on the future of democracy in Pakistan.

Factors behind military interventions

i. Reactive Militarism

The first factor which is held responsible for the military interventions in Third World countries like Pakistan is reactive militarism. This factor is mainly due to the following two reasons:

(a) Deterioration of political situation or crisis of law and order

In Pakistan’s case, the military has intervened in politics under the pretext of political decay and collapse of the country’s economy. The coup d’état of 1958 was the most striking example of how an apolitical military could slowly be drawn into the political field due to the failure of the political leaders to run liberal democratic institutions.

(b) Crisis of legitimacy

Since military regimes play havoc with institutions and the spirit of constitution, they lack any kind of legitimacy in a democratic setup. In Pakistan, military regimes resorted to experimentation with the constitution. For example, General Ayub Khan took over in 1958 and put the Constitution of Pakistan, 1956, in abeyance and imposed the martial law. Even the political governments, who come to power through votes, face the crisis of legitimacy to some extent as hardly any party has been able to get more than fifty percent of votes.

ii. Overambitious or Bonapartist elements in army

This point is highlighted by various Western scholars and political scientists, such as Finer on “Man in Horseback” highlighted this point. The element of over-ambition encourages interventions. In the case of Pakistan, these Bonapartist tendencies may be traced far back; such as the Rawalpindi Conspiracy case in 1951. Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf were very ambitious generals as they exceeded their authority and resorted to unconstitutional measures.

iii. Role of defeated and displaced leaders

In Pakistan, defeated and displaced leadership also plays a legitimizing role for military. It invites military to stage coup and overthrow the government. Reasons behind this tendency include tense government-opposition relations, as ruling party/coalition fails to accord opposition its rightful status. They push the opposition to the wall. In a reactive mood, opposition gravitates towards military. Moreover, on account of absence of vibrant political institutions, the politics has remained faction-ridden. Thus, military always finds allies among these factions who are always ready to give a legitimizing role to the military, in return. For example, in 1971, Ashgar Khan wrote a letter to Ziaul Haq inviting him to dethrone Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. During the 1990s, opposition wrote letters to the GHQ asking for a military intervention.

iv. Overdeveloped state structure

This is basically a theory which highlights the historical structural reasons of dominance of non-political forces. This theory, which was propounded by Hamza Alvi, simply means the dominance of non-political actors in a political system. This over-developed structure is a qualitative concept rather than quantitative. It refers to the powers regarding ‘military-bureaucratic oligarchy’ in state system, through building of rules and regulations. It has been a colonial legacy and, according to Hamza Alvi, these factors are responsible for this phenomenon.

v. Political de-institutionalization/institutional poverty

Another factor which is responsible for the military interventions has been political de-institutionalization that ranges from weak political institutions to weak political parties, rigged elections and hung parliaments. This has been mainly due to the absence of an environment in which democracy could take firm roots and flourish. It is because of two reasons: (1) political elites could not be provided space in the political system; (2) on account of enormous initial problems priority was accorded to state-building over-nation building. K.B. Sayeed in his article “The Collapse of Parliamentary Democracy in Pakistan” argues that: “Pakistan was very much like Hobbes state of nature where every political or provincial group fought against every other group. It was ceaseless and ruthless struggle for power. Most of the leaders thought of themselves, their families, or at best their provincial groups and did not give second thought to Pakistan. Pakistan needed desperate remedy for this malady, which was sought in military designs.”

Through this state, bureaucracy and military got strengthened. Moreover, frequent interruptions in the democratic process and prolonged dictatorial rules further impeded the growth of political institutions.

vi. Low level of political socialization

Political culture means collective psyche of people towards a political system and this morally takes place through socialization. Agents of socialization include family; educational institutions; religious groups; contemporary groups; media; political parties and NGOs. On account of long dictatorial rules, this political socialization couldn’t take place. It remained at lower level; such as, students in universities and colleges are depoliticized, student unions have been banned for a long time. Moreover, it is a matter of great concern that our political system is circling around dynasties. Ruling elite have virtually blocked a common man’s entry in the political arena. Due to these traditions, people fail to differentiate between dictatorial rule and democratic rule. When political system gets mired in crises, people perceive this in negative terms. There exists, no cogent public opinion about non-political forces.

vii. Civilian dependence on military

Another factor which is responsible for military’s intervention in politics may be described as civilian dependence on military. We can find substantial evidence from the history of Pakistan to suggest that dependence. Here are two examples:

During the 1970’s Bhutto’s government had to rely on military during Balochistan insurgency that proved to be a crucial factor behind military intervention of 1977. Similarly, the second Nawaz government increasingly relied on military by inducting military personnel in WAPDA, for the detection of ghost schools, for the of roads, for the establishment of antiterrorism courts, to name some areas. All these steps provided enough pretext to the military to intervene in politics.

viii. Punctuated democracy

Frequent interruptions in the democratic process further contribute to the weakening of the civilian forces. For instance, the civilian forces or political parties seek their legitimacy through elections. But once this election process is interrupted – through military intervention – it is rendered ineffective as a result of manipulation of non-political forces. This whole electoral activity gets reduced only to a manipulated exercise. Political leaders lose their credibility before the masses. In such a situation, political system fails to deliver and people become increasingly disillusioned to democracy and political leaders.

ix. Executive arrogance

This theory is highlighted by Samuel P. Huntington. It explains the responsibility or role of civilian elites in the erosion of democratic values and this equally holds true for Pakistan. In Pakistan’s case, elected leaders often behaved arrogantly. And, instead of strengthening the institutions, they tried to personalize powers which led to the clash between state institutions, which further allowed the atmosphere of political instability, ergo intervention of military. Dr Hassan Askari in his book “Military, State and Society” quotes the following statement of Field Martial Ayub Khan:

“People should not worry about the defence of the country. That is my business. Attend your leaders who are wrecking the country with their own motives. Do not talk of external dangers. The real danger is within the country.”

x. Ethnic cohesion

This point is highlighted by almost all the perceptive observers of political situation in Pakistan. According to this view, Pakistan army demonstrates a very strong ethnic cohesion. For instance, out of twelve commanders, eight to ten comprised Punjab-Pukhtoon element. This ethnic cohesion makes them very effective at the top level of decision-making. Not a single military intervention in India has occurred, due to the lack of ethnic cohesion in its military. In Pakistan, this attributed to narrow recruitment base, which is due to British legacy. Bannu, Kohat, Rawalpindi, Jhelum and Chakwal are known to be the military districts. It has disastrous implications for Pakistan’s politics and civil-military relations.

xi. Strong image of military

Another factor which has been instrumental in military interventions is the pretext that military enjoyed better image. Particularly, during 50’s when bureaucracy had thoroughly discredited itself on account of its involvement in politics or dominance over state system, the army kept its image of a guardian and protector intact. Moreover, Pakistan’s precarious situation at Eastern and Western borders further made military integrated for Pakistan’s survival. During the 80s, military elites portrayed the image of being an Islamic army against the enemies of Islam. Furthermore, military enhances its image by claiming that it is the only organized and disciplined institution in Pakistan.

Critical Analysis

The elections of 2008 and 2013 in Pakistan heralded the much-needed democratic rule in Pakistan. Quite encouragingly, military has moved back to the barracks. This claim is substantiated with the assertion that given the nature of internal threat of terrorism, the military would not return at the helm and Pakistan would eventually emerge as a strong and strengthened democracy. Moreover, in civilian realm, the disqualification and ensuing trial of the former prime minister Mian Muhamad Nawaz Sharif has further reinforced the spirit of democracy. Furthermore, General Kayani, General Sharif and General Bajwa have all paid more attention to military concerns rather than interrupting democracy. So, from this norm, one can assess that the chances of military intervention would be bleak in future. However, military will continue to be a reality and a key player in power politics due to its growth as an autonomous entity. Today, Pakistan’s military is not accountable to any other institutions or government authority and follows its own organizational norms. On the other hand, the move by the incumbent COAS General Bajwa to present himself in front of Senate is a symbol that military respects the sovereignty of parliament.

How to counter the problem?

  • There is a need to dismantle overdeveloped state structure. Every institution including army, judiciary and executive should work within the confines of the country’s constitution.
  • Political elites should join hands to work for the betterment of country. They should ignore their personal issues to save constitutional framework in Pakistan. Role of opposition should be strengthened in this regard.
  • Political socialization is also very important.
  • There is a need to strengthen the civil society.
  • Strengthening of democracy needs an uninterrupted continuation.
  • There should be amendments to the constitution so as to block the way of military intervention.

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