Ejecting the Military from Pakistan’s Politics

    GovernanceAccountabilityEjecting the Military from Pakistan’s Politics
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    Ejecting the Military from Pakistan’s Politics

    Given Pakistan’s ripe economic instability — characterised by high inflation, structural imbalances, and weak growth — the future remains uncertain, with doubts lingering over the military’s acceptance of its political setback and the ongoing challenge of reform of an unsustainable economic and political status quo.

    In the wake of Prabowo Subianto’s landslide victory in Indonesia’s presidential election on 14 February, many are waiting with trepidation to see whether Prabowo’s background as a hardline army general in Suharto’s New Order dictatorship means he can be trusted to leave Indonesia’s democratic institutions undisturbed.

    They are right to worry. But it is noteworthy that Prabowo’s long-awaited victory came only after he moderated the tough-guy persona and embrace of militarist symbolism that marked his earlier political career. One of the great achievements of Indonesia’s democratisation was pushing its massive army ‘back to the barracks’, and the anathematisation of a hands-on political role for it among a new political establishment based in political parties. 

    On 14 February, the Indonesians who voted for Prabowo out of nostalgia for an army-dominated law-and-order politics were vastly outnumbered by those who were drawn in by Prabowo’s recent makeover as an anodyne developmentalist in the mould of outgoing President Joko Widodo. 

    The political domestication of the military in Indonesia, famously the largest Muslim-majority democracy, only serves to emphasise what is missing in the second-largest. In Pakistan, less than a week before Indonesians went to the polls, a stunning parliamentary election result threw up a challenge to the military’s latest reassertion of its political role.  

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    Pakistan’s military has always supervised governments, rather than the other way around: either directly, under military rule, or indirectly, by supporting one of the major political parties. It has arrogated to itself wide latitude of action in several policy domains, particularly in defence and foreign affairs, and has influence over the main ministries.

    Political scientists call these kinds of arrangements tutelary regimes. Nominal authority rests in the hands of a government, elected or otherwise, but considerable influence is held by other actors, typically the military (such as in Myanmar under its 2008 constitution, or contemporary Thailand), but also religious authorities (in Iran) or monarchies (in Thailand, too, and, in the assessment of some, increasingly in Malaysia). 

    It might be assumed that the mix of democratic and authoritarian elements is inherently volatile, but often such arrangements manage to survive for decades, as they have in Pakistan. 

    Sometimes, however, tensions within these regimes become umanageable. In Pakistan, it seems possible that such a point has been reached, as voters no longer seem content to allow the military to designate its own preferred electoral outcome unchallenged. Independent candidates aligned with former prime minister Imran Khan’s banned Tehreek-e-Insaf party collectively won a resounding victory in the 8 February parliamentary elections, crushing both of the traditional parties of government, the Muslim League and the People’s Party. 

    Humiliation for military

    It was an utter humiliation for the military, which has traditionally put its heavy thumb on the scale in elections to secure its preferred outcome — as it did in 2018 for Khan.

    As Imtiaz Gul pointedly observes in this week’s lead article, ‘[t]here appears no end to instability in Pakistan’. As Gul argues, it is still not clear whether the military establishment will be able to accept the scale of its rejection and withdraw, even partially, from the dominant role it has played in Pakistan’s politics. It is also possible that the two traditional parties of government will find a way to cobble together a coalition to block Khan’s return to the prime ministership, and in that event the military could probably be assured of preserving its influence.

    Now is not a good time for a political crisis. Pakistan’s economy is in an abysmal state. 2023 was marked by high inflation, structural problems in the balance of payments, and a recession, all of which contributed to the need for substantial financial assistance from the IMF. As Sajjad Ashraf argued recently, Pakistan has become, economically speaking, the ‘sick man’ of South Asia.

    Around 15 years ago India overtook Pakistan in per capita GDP terms, as did Bangladesh around 2018. The gap has only widened since then and weak growth in Pakistan has exacerbated its macroeconomic difficulties. Structurally, the economy remains weighed down by overregulation and impediments to Pakistan pursuing its comparative advantage in labour-intensive manufactured exports.

    No developmental vision

    Pakistan’s political and economic frailties reinforce each other. Weak rule of law and patchy democratic accountability have meant impunity for elite rent-seeking. The military has for many decades been a significant economic actor as well as a political one, with extensive involvement in business. Both sides of politics have tried to buy support from the military by offering economic rewards. 

    With no developmental vision for Pakistan, the military’s role in the economy is a predatory one. It still absorbs a relatively large fraction of national income — around 2 to 3 per cent of GDP. Though well down from the figures of the 1980s, this is more than double what Bangladesh spends on its army as a fraction of its income. This is money that could better be spent on productive investments in education and infrastructure. 

    Historically, Pakistan’s elite has resisted reforms to an unsustainable economic and political status quo out of confidence that the country — nuclear armed, with a huge population — was ‘too big to fail’ as far as its diplomatic and financial patrons, especially the United States, were concerned.

    With the Afghanistan war over and Washington deepening ties with India, such complacency (or hubris) is probably past its use-by date. Nevertheless, as Gul notes, at least for now there are ‘no visible signs’ that the military will give in to international demands for an investigation into allegations of vote-rigging, a dismaying sign that it does not accept the verdict of voters that they want a change from the old way of doing politics in Pakistan.

    This piece has been sourced from the East Asia Forum of the Australian National University.

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