Under Pakistan’s viceregal system, the purpose of elections is merely to identify intermediaries between the people and a permanent state establishment.
The corruption trial of Pakistan’s ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is unlikely to usher in an era of genuine accountability or rule of law. It simply reinforces Pakistan’s viceregal tradition. Elected politicians are subject to the whims and ‘superior judgment’ of appointed generals, judges, and civil servants, just as they were during the British colonial era.
One need not be convinced of Sharif’s innocence to note that in the last 70 years, all elected Pakistani Prime Ministers have either been assassinated, dismissed or forced to resign by heads of state with military backing, or deposed in coups d’état.
Corruption in Pakistan is endemic but selective, politicised accountability is not its solution. Given Sharif is the second Prime Minister, after Yousuf Raza Gilani, to be sent home by an activist Supreme Court amidst an orchestrated media furore, clearly something else is going on here.
No wonder then, Sharif retains his support base in Pakistan’s most populous province, Punjab, notwithstanding his ouster by the Supreme Court. Pakistan’s politics are maturing somewhat and there is widespread resentment against ‘the Establishment’ — as the unique and permanent power structure of Pakistan is described. It consists of the Army, ISI, foreign office bureaucracy, and lately also the judiciary.
Corruption in Pakistan is endemic but selective, politicised accountability is not its solution.
Traditionally, it was the smaller provinces that nurtured such resentment. Punjab was identified with ‘the Establishment’ because most generals, bureaucrats and judges are ethnic Punjabis. But an aspiring Punjabi middle class has also grown resentful over the Establishment’s role.
Punjab is today divided between Sharif’s anti-establishment followers, who think fighting the establishment is more important than fighting corruption, and Imran Khan’s pro-establishment supporters who repeat what has been the mantra of every Pakistani coup-maker: ‘Pakistan’s politicians are a threat to the country; Corruption must be eliminated before democracy can function; and Generals and Judges know better what is in the country’s interest than the illiterate peasants, workers, and the unemployed.’
In a functioning democracy, elections are held periodically to determine whom the people want to wield executive office and legislative power. However, under Pakistan’s viceregal system the purpose of elections is merely to identify intermediaries between the people and a permanent state establishment.
The permanent state establishment monopolises executive power and retains a veto over legislation. The few occasions when elected governments have been allowed to take office, the state establishment has tried its best to circumscribe the power of elected officials.
Between 1972 and 1977, an elected government managed to wield full authority simply because the permanent state structure simply could not stay in power after the loss of East Pakistan/ Bangladesh under military rule.
Change was necessary if revolution was to be averted. Once the elected civilians had made sufficient mistakes to discredit them, the military-led establishment was ready to reassert itself through the coup d’état of 1977.
The permanent state establishment monopolises executive power and retains a veto over legislation.
The viceregal system harks back to the introduction of representative institutions in the subcontinent under British rule. Then, the Viceroy and his appointees held the veto over local councils and legislatures elected under limited franchise.
The people’s representatives could not be trusted to make all decisions. They needed a guiding hand. Pakistan’s chequered history shows that Pakistan’s Military-Judicial-Bureaucratic Elite has inherited that fear of democracy.
In August 1958, almost two months before Pakistan’s first direct military coup, the British High Commissioner at Karachi reported to his superiors in London the possibility of the military’s direct assumption of power.
Then president, Major General Iskander Mirza, had shared with the High Commissioner the view that democracy was unsuited to a country such as Pakistan even as plans were publicly laid out for general elections that were scheduled for early 1959.
According to declassified British papers, the British High Commissioner, Sir Alexander Symon, reported that the Pakistani president had told him of his intention to intervene “if the election returns showed that a post-electoral government was likely to be dominated by undesirable elements.”
Sir Alexander noted parenthetically that the term “undesirable” was not defined “and no doubt the term may include any persons who are unlikely to vote for Iskander Mirza as President”.
Pakistan’s chequered history shows that Pakistan’s Military-Judicial-Bureaucratic Elite has inherited a fear of democracy.
Students of Pakistan’s political history know that soon after the 1958 coup d’état, Pakistan’s military leadership started searching for “forms of democracy” that would allow the generals to retain control of policy, while allowing civilians an illusion of political power and some control over patronage.
Field Marshal Ayub Khan (1958-1969) brought in ‘Basic Democracy’, limiting the right of franchise for electing the President and the legislatures to 80,000 ‘basic democrats’ elected to local councils. General Yahya Khan (1969-1971) held free elections, but refused to cede power to the party that won and risked genocide and Pakistan’s break-up rather than accepting the people’s will.
General Zia-ul-Haq’s (1977-1988) ‘Shura,’ system made military and civil officers the arbiters of who deserved to serve in assemblies. When his death opened the way for general elections, his successor as military chief, General Aslam Beg (1988-1991), insisted on creating a political platform to ‘maintain political balance’ and funded it through illicit means. Over the next decade, elected governments were dismissed for corruption by presidents backed by the military until General Musharraf took power again in a military coup in 1999.
Musharraf (1999-2007) also created an establishment party and laid the foundations for establishment control of politics through means other than a military coup.
Pakistan’s political class is undoubtedly short-sighted, often incompetent, and unable to rise above petty interests. But the Pakistani establishment, which forbids genuine debate on options for the country and maintains viceregal control, is the banyan tree under which it is difficult for enlightened civilian leadership to grow.
Husain Haqqani, director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C., was Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States from 2008-11. His forthcoming book is ‘Reimagining Pakistan.’