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Army remains the final arbiter in Pakistan politics

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali  Posted by Abdus Sattar Ghazali (about the submitter)     Permalink
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Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has reaffirmed that the army would stay out of politics. He told the Corps Commanders’ Conference that the Army fully stands behind the democratic process and is committed to play its constitutional role in support of the elected government.


The February 18 elections produced fractured results and an emerging alliance of the three winning parties – Pakistan Peoples Party, Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz and Awami National Party. The alliance is determined to repeal autocratic power of President Pervez Musharraf through article 58(2)(b) of the constitution under which he can dissolve parliament, and then to restore Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry (who still remains under house arrest) along with 60 other judges who were sacked by President Musharraf on November 3. 


At the same time, pressure is mounting to remove President Musharraf.


While the tripartite alliance will endeavor to attain these goals at the earliest, the presidential camp is seen determined not to give up. President Musharraf’s strategy is to cause divisions in the tripartite alliance and to pitch various political parties against each other.


Musharraf was elected president by the previous assemblies under a constitutional cover ratified by a compliant Supreme Court. He holds the dreaded power to dismiss the assemblies and to appoint or dismiss the chiefs of the armed forces. He is apparently supported by the corps commanders whom he appointed and has the open backing of U.S. President George Bush.


General Kayani, therefore, clearly sees an increasing confrontation between the President and the newly elected Parliament in the coming weeks. In this light, General Kayani felt it necessary to clarify Army’s position. According to him, the “army will stay out of the political process," and he expressed his hope that the "Army is not dragged into any unnecessary controversy.”


General Kayani affirmed his intentions by ordering the immediate withdrawal of 152 military officers posted in various civil departments in early February. These officers included six generals, 18 brigadiers, seven colonels, 50 lieutenant colonels and 71 major/captains.


However, the fractured results of the February 18 elections should not be seen as an end to military hegemony, though it may be considered as a temporary step back for the army, similar to what happened in 1971 and 1988.  The army took this step back because of its unpopular  operations in FATA and Swat, which presents a huge image problem . Among the public, the army's favorability rating during 2007 slipped to 55 percent from 80 percent, according to a November poll by the Washington-based International Republican Institute.

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Deeper examinatino reveals that General Keyani’s promise to stay out of the political process belies realities.  The army remains very much entrenched in the national politics as Retired General Musharraf, though unpopular, is at the helm of affairs as an all powerful President. He enjoys constitutional powers to dissolve the recently elected parliament, as happened in 1990, 1993 and1996. Musharraf was elected President in October 2007 while he was still Chief of Army Staff, from which he resigned after his controversial election.


In the present circumstances when the US prefers a civilian face for the government in Islamabad, if President Musharraf leaves, then Pakistan will return to a triumvirate rule or military tutelage in which the key holder of power will be the armed forces with the president and the prime minister as junior partners, similar to the 1988-1999 ‘democratic’ rule. And if the prime minister ties to assert his powers, he may be overthrown, and the army may take over directly.

This happened in October 1999 when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who had an absolute majority in parliament, tried to remove General Musharraf and replace him with his confident, the ISI chief, Lt. General Ziauddin Butt. 


Even if President Musharraf is forced to step down amid mounting opposition inside and outside parliament, the 650,000-strong armed forces will have the final say in the government policy decisions through National Security Council.


Pakistan army chiefs have a permanent and legal political role through the National Security Council, established in 2004 under a legislation passed by the rubber stamp parliament amid opposition protests. The NSC is part of the military commanders' efforts to legitimize their role not only in Pakistan's security and defense affairs, but also in the major sectors of governance, the economy and the society. The NSC virtually made the prime minister and the federal cabinet subordinate to its policies.

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 NSC was set up in consonance with the military's expanded role in different sectors of the state, the economy and civil society in the form of business, commercial, and industrial activities undertaken by the military's charitable trusts, some special organizations or directly by the military. This is coupled with the induction of retired and serving military personnel to civilian jobs in the government, semi-government and the private sectors. To borrow Ayesha Siddiqa, author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy (2007), irrespective of whether it is a civilian or a general at the helm, so deep has the military sunk roots in the national economy, and so vast are its business dealings, that in order to protect this empire and its associated vested interests, the army, especially, will continue to have an important say in how Pakistan is run. The Pakistani military's private business empire is estimated at worth as much as $20 billion. Retired and serving officers run secretive industrial conglomerates, manufacture everything from cement to cornflakes, and own 12m acres (4.8m hectares) of public land. Five giant conglomerates, known as "welfare foundations", run thousands of businesses, ranging from street corner petrol pumps to sprawling industrial plants and business corporations listed on the stock market. The main street of any Pakistani town bears testament to their economic power, with military-owned bakeries, banks, insurance companies and universities. Ms Siddiqa estimates that the military controls one-third of all heavy manufacturing and up to 7% of private assets.  

In short, more than just a well-oiled war machine, the Pakistan army is a flourishing business corporation. Consequently, it has a corporate interest in the running of the country.


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