It was bound to happen; Pakistan’s voting public expected it to happen; the politicians, national and local, waited for it to happen; the Army and intelligence service have been alert to the potential of its happening; in other words no one in Pakistan finds the current political crisis a surprise. Nor should they.
The civilian government of Asif Ali Zardari is fighting for its life. Supreme Court Chief Justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, has been returned to his old post after widespread violent demonstrations by lawyers, students and members of the political party of Zardari’s rival, Nawaz Sharif. President Zardari is faced with the possibility of a resumption of the charges of corruption that were dropped at the time of his late wife’s, Benazir Bhutto, return to run in the national elections and Chaudhry’s removal from the bench by former President Musharraf.
Each time in the past when the military turned governmental administration back to civilian politicians, the hope was that the civilians could control their seemingly inbred instinct to self-destruct. The root of this self-destruction of course is corruption, but it is not simply financial malfeasance. The corruption of Pakistan’s political process is broad in character and extent.
Favors based on family and tribal affiliation are the usual genesis. Power through government position has material benefit in itself and these are the rewards traditionally doled out by Pakistani politics and politicians. The extent and blatant character of this phenomenon is so embedded in the national psyche that it has become accepted as custom as much as the gratuities that accompany the status.
Unfortunately this custom doesn’t really work that well as a social discipline and the result is a bastardization of democracy. Organized mob action is what passes for democratic debate over contentious issues. When dissent reaches the point that normal civil life is endangered, the Army takes over the government.
In an odd way it is as if the civilian community counts on this military intervention periodically to reestablish political stability. The problem is that the periods of civilian central governance appear to be incapable of lasting very long. As a result democracy in Pakistan increasingly takes on the character of long periods of military rule interrupted by interludes of partisan civilian contest.
It is clear that the relatively brief tenure of Afif Ali Zardari as president is under serious attack by Nawaz Sharif, former prime minister and leader of the opposition party, PML-N. Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Kiyani, waits in the wings along with the ISI, the nation’s intelligence service that he previously headed, ready to have the military once again assume overall responsibility for Pakistan’s administration.
Pakistan’s military admittedly is more concerned with the security of the community of citizens than the traditionally self-involved civilian political parties. While individual rights are theoretically weakened under military law and order governments, the reality in Pakistan is that it is more the political parties and their professional practitioners that suffer the most in restriction of activity. The result is that for a period of time the civilian population usually breathes a sigh of relief when the military takes over and muzzles the political parties.
The internal security of Pakistan is riven with disparate groups, politically and tribally, that have their own agendas. There are several paramilitary organizations aimed at everything from redefining the border with Afghanistan, to attacking Indian positions in contested areas, to protecting the Taliban and jihadist groups operating cross border and internally.
No matter who is running the Pakistan government, it is the military and intelligence service that actually set the agenda and pursue procedures for dealing with security concerns. Dominant in priority issues remains the fear of encroachment /invasion by India on Pakistani-claimed territory. This will not change no matter the announced commitment to restraint of the Taliban, al Qaeda and other radical Islamic movements.
The mobs who came into the streets to demand the reinstatement of Chief Justice Chaudhry concerned the military only to the extent that their presence might escalate into broad scale violence. The police remained in control and there was no reason for Army intervention. If, however, a future occurrence is perceived to threaten internal security — whatever the reason — the Army will once again move to take charge.
If history is any guide, and another military coup already has not occurred before the publication of this column, one can expect the return of a military-led government in Pakistan sooner rather than later. How soon really depends on the military leaders’ decision-making as to what they believe endangers their nation. There doesn’t appear to be much, if any, civilian input to those deliberations.
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