What Elections Mean for Pakistan’s Civil–Military Imbalance

Campaigning is officially over—and Pakistan will hold its third consecutive general elections tomorrow, on July 25. These elections have raised concerns about the state of civil–military relations within Pakistan amongst Pakistan-watchers. The Financial Times has labeled tomorrow’s elections as the “dirtiest elections in years” while the Economist explains that “The true winner may be the army; the losers will be Pakistanis.”

Pakistan’s military establishment is known for being involved in the state’s political affairs. In its 70 years of independence, Pakistan has spent more than half of its life under military rule: it has experienced four military coups, and each has turned into a 7–10 year military dictatorship. Even when civilian governments have been in power, the military has been known to interfere, calling the shots in foreign policy and national security. Oftentimes, the civilian leadership has called on the military in times of domestic security crisis, and the public has usually favored the military.  

But what makes the military’s interference in this election worse than past interferences? Politicians, analysts, human rights groups, and media personnel in Pakistan have accused the military of doing three things that are considered troublesome.

The first is targeting the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz party, who was elected in 2013. Historically, the army and recently ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif have had a tumultuous relationship. Two years ago, it was the army along with Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf’s Imran Khan that brought the lawsuit that led to Sharif’s court-ruled dismissal, disqualification from running for office, and corruption trial that has sentenced him and his daughter to 10 and 7 years in prison respectively. However, Imran Khan and the military deny any links to each other.

The second problematic activity is the army’s pressure on the media. Pakistan is considered to be one of the most dangerous countries for journalists regardless of the kind of government in power. Hameed Haroon, chief executive of the Dawn Media Group (the largest English media company in Pakistan) and the president of the All Pakistan Newspapers Society wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post about how this time the level and kind of media censorship is different. The recent media censorship is all about ensuring that the media does not provide independent coverage of Pakistan’s central political issue, which is the “deepening power struggle between the military and civilian authorities.” In April, a widely watched cable news channel, Geo News, was forced to go off air after appearing too sympathetic toward Sharif. Only direct negotiations with army officials allowed Geo News to go back online. Dawn newspaper has also experienced pressure, where newspapers have been confiscated in army-controlled areas and distributors have been harassed by army officials.

The third, and perhaps most concerning, is how the military has been using the judiciary as a cover. The military’s encroachment into judicial space began after the December 2014 Army Public School attack by the Pakistani Taliban that killed over 130 children and teachers. The Sharif government and then-Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif came together and developed the National Action Plan, a 20-point plan designed to counter domestic terrorism. The plan reinstated the death penalty and established military courts, where those charged with terrorism would now be tried, avoiding the overburdened civilian special courts called the Anti-Terrorism Courts. In the past, any time a civilian government or military dictatorship created military courts to try civilians, the Supreme Court of Pakistan struck the courts down as being unconstitutional. But in 2015, the parliament passed a constitutional amendment, called the 21st amendment, which discarded the separation of powers between the branches of government for those charged with terrorism, granting jurisdiction to the military and applying court martial rules to those charged with terrorism. The media eventually uncovered that the civilian government had been pressured by the military to pass the constitutional amendment. Later in 2015, the Supreme Court ruled to uphold the 21st amendment. Military courts remain active today.

The Pakistan Army, therefore, views itself as the manager of the government rather than a subordinate. But for a democratic system to work, the military needs to be beholden to the civilian leadership. If a military controls foreign policy then it will create a military-centric foreign policy where a solution to every national security problem will be seen as something that can, and should, be solved by the military. As they say, when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But as a developing country with a host of other issues, such as a looming financial crisis and a youth bulge where 64% of the population is under the age of 29, Pakistan can’t afford to have a military-centric foreign policy.

Ultimately, the military’s current involvement and interference in the political system undermines its own credibility—and that of the system that it so desperately wants to lead.