Shift in the balance of power

Source: Published in Current Affairs on Wednesday, May 07, 2014

THE season of commentary on civil-military relations is once again upon us. There has been much discourse on the subject in the wake of the latest political tension gripping the country. Can anyone dispute the imperative of civilian supremacy in a democratic system? Of course not. But what it really means is a point of contention.

of governance and on strengthening democratic institutions. An assertive superior judiciary also transformed the power matrix, further shrinking the room for any extra-constitutional intervention.

But surely it did not mean that the military was rendered completely powerless. Neither were civil-military relations during the PPP government free from friction. Yet this never really threatened to derail the democratic process. Despite the problems, the military remained in the barracks maintaining a low political profile.

The generals, however, did assert themselves forcefully when it came to issues directly affecting their wider institutional interests. There were at least two issues — the Kerry Lugar bill and ‘Memogate’ — which triggered a clash between the civilian government and the military.

But the stand-off did not turn into a full-blown confrontation. The PPP-led government could have done better to assert its civilian authority had it concentrated more on governance and the economy. With the country in the midst of a war and thousands of troops engaged in fighting the Taliban insurgency, the military’s widening role in internal security matters is inevitable.

It was, indeed, a huge stride forward for democracy when in 2013, for the first time in Pakistan’s history, power was transferred from one elected government to another. That indicated the strengthening of the democratic process in the country. This historical transition, however, could not have been possible without the military’s backing for the democratic process.

But the situation seems to have changed over the past few weeks and the military is forced once again to come out of the barracks, raising its political profile. The generals may still not be interested in derailing the democratic process, but they are not likely to watch the political power game from the sidelines either if the present stand-off persists.

For sure, military and civilian supremacy remains a major issue that has to be resolved for sustainable democracy. But it is increasing militancy and religious extremism that are the principal impediments. The country cannot move forward without combating these retrogressive forces. It is more important at this point to unite the forces fighting the insurgents.

Unfortunately, the political forces are divided on this critical issue threatening the pluralistic democratic system. The situation has become much more serious particularly with the ambivalence of the Sharif government. Any confrontation between the civil and military authorities would further strengthen the insurgents and non-democratic forces. It is crucially important for the two institutions to be on the same page when Pakistan is fighting for its survival. Any confrontation between the civilian government and the military will be disastrous.

Surely it is going to be a tough summer for the Sharif government with the emerging political realignment tilting the balance of power back to the military. It remains to be seen whether or not the prime minister is able to regain the initiative.

Author Information

Written by Zahid Hussain

Author Information: The writer is an author and journalist.

More by Zahid Hussain
Read all from Zahid Hussain»