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Democracy at Gunpoint? Pakistan Army and Politicians’ Misfires Are Far Too Many

Since Ayub Khan’s Martial Law in the 1950s, Pakistan has never had a Westminster-style democracy.

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In spite of the Pakistani Army losing the support and respect of the masses, there are still many who believe that it is the military establishment that can keep the country united and the economy vibrant. The puppet politicians, they say, have failed democracy, filled their own pockets, and bankrupted the country.

"Which world do these people live in?” question the detractors.

With Afghanistan permanently closing off its borders with Pakistan by building a wall, Iran launching strategic attacks within Pakistan, India using every opportunity to degrade Pakistan in every international fora, with China quiet and the 'brotherly’ Islamic countries not willing to help, with inflation at 44% and utilities cost at an all-time high and credibility with foreign donors at an all-time low, and with people migrating en masse – the government and its backers still want people to believe that all is well!

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The Army, the Critic and the Establishment

“Ah!” say the supporters of the Army establishment. “There is a silver lining which should not be missed."

"For 75 years, we didn’t have much progress. Now we are finally waking up to the challenges of national development. We hit a low point in June 2023, when we suffered Imran Khan’s reckless growth programme which created USD 20 billion current account deficit – resulting in the meltdown of the Rupee to 300 per Dollar and the erosion of foreign exchange reserves to USD 3 billion. Since then, responsible decisions have been made and the economy has turned around. The Rupee is stabilising and strengthening; foreign exchange reserves have increased to USD 9 billion; exports have increased by 22%; current account deficit and imports are well managed; foreign investment is up by 40%. The stock market is zooming. Good things are in store. Let us be patient and hopeful."

"We are going nowhere,” says the Critic. “How the hell does it matter how the stock market is doing? Less than 5% of the people invest in it. Ninety-five percent cannot understand the statistics. This country is f***** –except for the retired armchair analysts, military, and corrupt politicians. The majority has no chance. I am one of the lucky few – and that is the most positive I can be – unless I own stock in Hallmark! Wake up and smell the coffee!”

The Establishment responds: “The track record indicates that under martial law only Rs 4-5 trillion of debt was added – while under the third-rate politicians, Rs 45 trillion of debt was added and there is nothing to show. Under Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s martial law, the nation developed. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto reversed the progress under a democracy. Martial law has served Pakistan’s economic interests better than the third-rate democracy we have had.”

The Critic responds: "Looks like your only yardstick is debt and figures. You may be able to live with martial law, but can the nation? The damn debt –low or high – has not fed this country nor given employment to 60% of jobless youth. Stock markets performing give zero jobs. And of course, the curse of religiosity that Zia gave us we may never recover from. Not to say anything about brain-dead fundos (fundamentalists) roaming about. Please get over the figures from newsletters. We have a country at stake.”

“The success of the country is determined by the performance of GDP, per capita income, jobs, etc. The track record proves that the country has performed better under martial law than democracy. The fundos you are referring to were not created by martial law – but by the Russian invasion of Afghanistan which brought war and jihadis to our doorsteps,” retorts the Establishment.

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“Wow. I don't know of any laws written by Russians and or Jihadis - nor changes to the constitution by them. A case in point is blasphemy laws (one of hundreds instituted by Zia). Maybe Zia's real name was Moskowitz,” scorns the Opponent.

“There is a constitution in place which was prepared by ZA Bhutto’s government in 1973 and has been amended by successive elected governments. The democracy has failed to amend the blasphemy law. If the democracy is so great for Pakistan, then why it has not amended the blasphemy law?” questions the Establishment.

“Because my wise friend, you cannot change religious laws once in place because the fundos Zia created will burn you alive. ZAB (Zulfikar Ali Bhutto), the biggest boozer, once he banned alcohol that was the end. This was done for votes. If you allowed booze in cricket matches, the stadia would be twice the size and a lot more fun!!” responds the liberal-minded Detractor.

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A Crippled Democracy in Pakistan and if 'Hybrid' Is the Answer

Since Ayub Khan’s Martial Law in the 1950s, Pakistan never had a Westminster-style democracy. In 1973, ZA Bhutto ushered in a constitution to bring a semblance of democracy. A demagogue, he had a run-in with the Army and ended up hanging from a noose.

Zia amended the Constitution to bring in section 58 (2)B which put the politicians on a string – booting them out on charges of corruption – as Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were in the 1990s. Asif Ali Zardari, as president, had 58 (2)B amended – but the Establishment continued to wield power.

Imran Khan came to power with the Establishment’s assistance in 2018. He managed Covid well but messed up the economy and was thrown out in a no-confidence vote sponsored by the Establishment. Khan went after the Establishment and the USA, blaming them for his ouster. The result: 200 cases against Khan, jail time, denial of symbol, and defections from PTI.
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“Sure, Pakistan is facing tough times and there is a growing realisation that the establishment and the government must work together to save Pakistan from default. For the first time, the Strategic Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC) has been formed with membership from the Establishment and the government which has taken sound decisions. The joint venture has resulted in increasing the foreign exchange reserves from USD 3 billion to USD 8.3 billion. Exports have grown 22%. The Rupee has stabilised. After the election on 8 February, Nawaz Sharif or someone with his blessings will head the government. Nawaz has a history of fighting the Army establishment. But his brother, Shehbaz Sharif, will be the bridge between the Establishment and the government to iron out the wrinkles if they emerge.”

The detractor, resigned to the result of the rigged election, advises thus: “In my opinion, the boots (meaning the Army) must allow specialists in the fields to make decisions for what they are trained to do. Economists and financial experts are to determine and execute financial matters. Boots are not educated to understand financial matters and neither it is their affair to intervene in financial decisions. It is not their job to run the economy of the country and neither to govern the country. The Establishment should and must stop meddling in governance.”

A fellow Detractor butts in: “Why are we even resigning to the fact that "hybrid" is ok? Shame on us to consider Boots to be ok. I am not talking as one whose tummy is full. This is the thinking which has left us behind by decades and five years is not going to do any better. Dream on. Not till Boots are off the ground.”

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Will the Elections Be Delayed?

“The past has been sordid – full of screw-ups. Some decisions have been made by GHQ (Army’s General Headquarters) and others made by the so-called elected governments. The result has been pathetic. Now, Army Chief Asim Munir, Shehbaz Sharif, and Kakar, our caretaker prime minister, have worked out a hybrid model of joint governance. Luckily it has produced results. And I foresee the hybrid model continuing,” says the Establishment supporter.

“Ameen,” say the resigned detractors – adding: “unless the elections get postponed.”

(Akhil Bakshi a Fellow of Royal Geographical Society, Fellow of Explorers Club USA, and Editor of Indian Mountaineer, has authored 27 books including Between Heaven and Hell: Travels Through South Asia. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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